Skip to Main Content

Mating for Life

A Novel

With pitch-perfect honesty and heartwarming humor, this captivating debut explores marriage, motherhood, identity, and what it takes to love someone—family members, friends, or spouses—for life.

Former folk singer Helen Sear was a feminist wild child who proudly disdained monogamy, raising three daughters—each by a different father—largely on her own. Now in her sixties, Helen has fallen in love with a traditional man who desperately wants to marry her. And while she fears losing him, she’s equally afraid of abandoning everything she’s ever stood for if she goes through with it.

Meanwhile, Helen’s youngest daughter, Liane, is in the heady early days of a relationship with her soul mate. But he has an ex-wife and two kids, and her new role as a “step-something” doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Ilsa, an artist, has put her bohemian past behind her and is fervently hoping her second marriage will stick. Yet her world feels like it is slowly shrinking, and her painting is suffering as a result—and she realizes she may need to break free again, even if it means disrupting the lives of her two young children. And then there’s Fiona, the eldest sister, who has worked tirelessly to make her world pristine, yet who still doesn’t feel at peace. When she discovers her husband has been harboring a huge secret, Fiona loses her tenuous grip on happiness and is forced to face some truths about herself that she’d rather keep buried.

Interweaving the alternating perspectives of Helen, her daughters, and the women surrounding them, “each new chapter brings a wise and tender look at single life, dating rituals, and marital unease” (New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Close). In this “absolute feat of storytelling” (bestselling author Grace O'Connell), Marissa Stapley celebrates the many roles modern women play, and shows that even though happy endings aren’t one-size-fits-all, some loves really can last for life.

This reading group guide for Mating for Life includes discussion questions and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

 
Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. Consider the epigraphs of the novel. How do they work together? If you had to pick a character to match each with, who would you pick and why?
 
2. Discuss the chapter openers. How did they inform your experience of each chapter? Did the description of the animal mating patterns make you think differently about monogamy?
 
3. How are Fiona, Ilsa, and Liane each shaped by their fathers? In contrast, how do you see the influence of Helen illustrated in each of their personalities?
 
4. Is there a character you identify most with? Which characteristics do you most strongly identify with? Are these things you like about yourself or don’t like about yourself?
 
5. Turn to p. 119 and reread the scene in the faculty lounge, in which Grace and Tansy discuss marriage. Did any of the points raised here particularly resonate with you? Why do you think people get married? Stay married? Remarry, even if they had a disastrous first marriage?
 
6. How integral is motherhood to Helen’s overall identity, and does this change over the course of the novel? What is your perception of her as a maternal figure?
 
7. Aside from the sisters and Helen, who was your favorite narrator, and why?
 
8. Consider the examples of female friendship that we see in action in the novel, particularly the dynamic between Helen and Edie. How are the relationships between friends different from those between sisters— both in the novel and in your own experience?
 
9. What do you think the novel is saying about the ways that resentment and jealousy act on couples? What about between family members? Are the effects of each emotion different, depending on whether the relationship is romantic or platonic?
 
10. Beyond Helen, think of the other portrayals of mothering within the novel. In what way does seeing a character in a maternal role give us new insight into them?
 
11. Helen tells Ilsa, “I think love is a good thing, in any form. Even when it hurts. The pain often leaves behind a beautiful memory” (p. 175). Do you agree with this? Are there other statements about love within the novel that particularly resonated with you?
 
12. Discuss Liane and Laurence’s decision not to get married and their reasons for it. Is it possible that their vision of what a monogamous, committed relationship without marriage looks like is as idealistic as the institution of marriage itself? To push that idea further: In an era where divorce rates are higher than ever, what does marriage truly mean anymore?
 
13. Consider the evolution of the sisters’ relationships with each other, as well as with their mother. Discuss the two scenes in which we see them all together—during the “spa” weekend at Crystal Springs and at Ilsa’s art opening. Consider the significance of these two events, and compare and contrast the dynamics between the four of them in each setting. Can you chart any changes in them—as individuals, perhaps, but also as sisters, daughters, and mothers?
 
14. Discuss the types of secrets kept in the novel and the role that these secrets play in the lives of these characters. Throughout the novel, who is keeping knowledge from whom? Do good intentions justify keeping something hidden? If the truth will hurt someone, but discovering that a secret was kept will also hurt them, how can you determine which is the better alternative?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Pretend you are casting the film version of Mating for Life. Who would play each sister? What about Helen and Iain? Myra and Johnny? Lincoln and Laurence?
 
2. While there are many men depicted in the novel, the narrators are all women. Which of the male characters would you have wanted to hear from? Imagine the twists and turns a chapter from this particular point of view might take. Are there questions that you still have about the novel that this character might answer?
 
3. Typically, we are more likely to rebel against a stricter, more traditional upbringing—but in some ways, it seems Fiona, Ilsa, and Liane rebel against their less conventional upbringing. In order to move fully into adulthood, it is natural (and instinctual) for people to break away from their parents and seek to build their own lives, but it can be a painful experience. Have you lived through this yourself, or with your own children? Do you think there is a way to be an individual while still honoring and respecting the traditions and ideals of your parents? In cases where an upbringing may have been more painful than positive, do you think there is a way to leave behind old and potentially harmful patterns rather than allowing history to repeat itself?
 
4. In Mating for Life, Helen’s lake house serves as a tangible link for these characters, pulling them together across time and space. Is there a place in your life—either currently, or perhaps from your childhood—that holds that same power for you? Is it possible to differentiate how much of the pull of this place comes from the physical elements of it versus the feelings and relationships that you associate with it?
 
5. In particular, Fiona works hard to present a perfect image of herself and her family to the world—when in reality, things are not perfect. Do you agree that especially in a world where the strong presence of social media allows us to curate our life moments and present the selves we want to be rather than the selves we are to friends, family, and acquaintances, that we may be losing touch with who we really are—or putting ourselves under incredible pressure to live up to these false realities? How can we work to stop this cycle, with ourselves and the people we know?
(c) Eugene Choi

Marissa Stapley is the bestselling author of Mating for Life, Things to Do When It’s Raining, and The Last Resort, which was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Awards. Her journalism has appeared in newspapers and magazines across North America. She lives in Toronto with her family. Visit her at MarissaStapley.com or follow her on Twitter @MarissaStapley.

"Told from multiple points of view as the characters walk tightropes of tragedy, this intriguing and heartbreaking debut novel carefully illustrates the power that each of us has to define who we are and who we can become."

– Publishers Weekly

"An absorbing and entertaining meditation on romantic love, but, even more so, on the nature of motherhood and sisterhood."

– Maclean's

“Heartbreaking and strikingly honest. Stapley challenges entrenched ideas of what it means to be a wife and mother, explores how modern women often struggle to maintain their own identities in the face of societal expectations, [and] excels at bringing the reader into the lives of these women.”

– Quill & Quire

“No, this is not a happily-ever-after tale. Nevertheless, Stapley is gentle and nonjudgmental with her characters, and readers…will find themselves pulling for them all.”

– Kirkus

"This novel does a fine job of exploring the complexities of modern relationships.”

– Booklist

"A beautiful and honest story."

– Working Mother

“The women in Mating for Life are clever, honest, funny, and forever analytical as they stumble through the search for love. Each new chapter brings a wise and tender look at single life, dating rituals, and marital unease. This is one of the most charming novels I’ve read in years, and I loved every last page.”

– Jennifer Close, bestselling author of Girls in White Dresses

"Marissa Stapley makes a brilliant debut with Mating for Life. This intricate story of mothers and daughters, of family secrets and the devastation of infidelity, works an irresistible spell as it shatters apart three sisters' lives and then gathers the pieces together again, one by one. Acute and richly moving, Mating for Life triumphantly reaffirms the power of female relationships."

– Beatriz Williams, New York Times bestselling author of A Hundred Summers

"Heartwarming and insightful, Marissa Stapley's unmissable debut is a sensitive, timely and compassionate exploration of family, friendship, self-discovery and the issue perhaps more at the crux of modern womanhood than any other - the struggle to keep hold of who you are while letting love in."

– Abigail Tarttelin, author of Golden Boy

"An absolute feat of storytelling, Mating For Life not only features sisters, friends, mothers and confidants – it feels like one itself; a living, whispering, shouting, beauty of a book that bypasses easy answers and cracks open the deepest, most contradictory longings in all of us. Stapley is an heir to the likes of Wolitzer and Atwood, with an eye that misses nothing in the way we love, hurt, leave, support and sabotage each other and ourselves. This is vital and vibrant writing born of true insight into the human heart."

– Grace O'Connell, bestselling author of Magnified World

“Marissa Stapley searches through the layers women possess, how hard we work to hide the cracks, as we bury our secrets, pretend what’s bad is good—and paper over the glaring flaws in our lives. In Mating for Life a mythologized fiery mother—and the daughters she grew up alongside—all face the realization that it’s time to live with eyes wide open. Stapley renders their awakening with grace and honesty.”

– Randy Susan Meyers, bestselling author of The Comfort of Lies

"Honest and tender, heartbreaking and irresistible, Marissa Stapley’s Mating for Life is a gorgeous debut in which I saw myself, my sister, and every woman I adore. An absolute must read for every woman who has ever been swelled, or felled, by love."

– Tish Cohen, bestselling author of The Truth About Delilah Blue

"Mating for Life is an immensely readable novel, with smart, engaging characters who come to life on the page -- the sort of characters you miss long after you've put the book down. You will see yourself in these women."

– Taylor Jenkins Reid, author of Forever, Interrupted

"An addictive, enthralling read, full of authentic, hopeful characters, each on a quest for their own version of true love. They seek it in family, friendship, partners and, ultimately, in themselves. I fell in love with the entire cast of characters Stapley has created, whose stories weave together beautifully and whose voices are so genuine, flawed and unique. They made me laugh, curse out loud and cry! This is an impressive, ambitious debut novel about love, forgiveness and acceptance which will undoubtedly warm your heart."

– Hannah Tunnicliffe, author of The Colour of Tea

"I felt like I was sitting on the dock at a cottage, eavesdropping on the neighbours. Mating for Life is like overhearing all the juiciest family drama—without any fear of hearing your own name. I found myself slipping away at every spare moment to turn the next page. Marissa Stapley has created an interconnected story of unique, believable, relatable women. I absolutely loved this book."

– Chantel Guertin, bestselling author of Stuck in Downward Dog