This reading group guide for Secrets of the Lighthouse includes an introduction, 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.
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Stuck in a job she hates and engaged to a man she isn’t in love with, Ellen Trawton abruptly cuts ties with her posh life in London and journeys to the Connemara coast of Ireland. There, her aunt Peg welcomes her with open arms, introducing her to life in the village of Ballymaldoon and a merry band of aunts, uncles, and cousins that Ellen’s aristocratic mother, Lady Anthony Trawton, has never once mentioned. While struggling to write her first novel, Ellen finds herself inspired and entranced by the ruins of a lighthouse where a young mother, Caitlin Macausland, died in a fire five years earlier. Rumors abound about what truly happened the night of her death, and a chance encounter with Caitlin’s widower, Conor, leaves Ellen eager to learn more about the man and his history. As Ellen and Conor grow closer, it isn’t just the townspeople who observe their every move and gossip at the pub about their burgeoning relationship: Caitlin is also watching Conor and their children, mourning the life she left too soon and yearning to feel Conor’s everlasting love for her. Separated by time and space, Ellen and Caitlin both seek peace, love, and answers to questions about their pasts and presents, answers that can only be found in the lighthouse. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Why does Ellen choose to seek refuge in Ireland? What is she escaping from in London and what does she hope to gain by running away from her life? Does what she finds in Connemara match her wishes, or is she romanticizing a place that exists only in her imagination? Have you ever taken a journey to escape from something in your life, and if so, why?
2. What role does the pub play in the village of Ballymaldoon? What significant moments in the novel occur here, and how is Ellen’s willingness to embrace the pub culture crucial to the town’s acceptance of her? Why is it so significant that Peg is unable to bring herself to join her family for a pint like everyone else?
3. How are the spirit world and the world of the living related in this novel? Why and how are certain characters more able to sense the presence of spirits around them?
4. Why does Ellen decide that she will write a novel, and what makes it so hard for her to actually follow through? How is Ellen’s creativity hindered by her new setting and how is it enhanced?
5. What draws Ellen to Conor, and Conor to Ellen? What makes Caitlin so sure that Ellen will be just another fling for Conor, and why does this assumption turn out to be a misinterpretation?
6. How do Caitlin’s feelings toward Ellen shift as she watches her fall in love with Conor, and why? Were you surprised, first by Caitlin’s malicious behavior to Ellen and then later by Caitlin’s acts of kindness toward her?
7. Caitlin’s narration paints a very different portrait of her marriage than what Conor reveals to Ellen. How trustworthy a narrator is Caitlin? Did it come as a shock to you when Conor confesses to Ellen about Caitlin’s mental illness and the lack of love in their marriage?
8. Why doesn’t Ellen tell Conor about her fiancé, William, immediately or tell William about Conor? How did you feel about Ellen keeping such secrets from the men in her life? How would the story have changed if Ellen had been more honest?
9. How does learning that Dylan is her father affect Ellen and her creative impulses? Why is songwriting a better outlet for Ellen’s creativity than novel writing? Why is Ellen so set on revealing this secret to the man she has always known as her father?
10. Lady Anthony Trawton’s return to Ireland affects not just the Byrne family but also Dylan; in the end, however, she returns to London and life with her husband. Did you find yourself wishing that these two former lovers would come together again, or do you believe that their love could not have lasted over such time and distance? How would things have been different if she had stayed in Ireland and raised Ellen with Dylan?
11. Discuss Caitlin’s true story of what happened the night that she died at the lighthouse. Why does Caitlin channel her tale through Ellen, and why does Caitlin decide to tell it at the moment she does? How does finally revealing the secrets of the lighthouse free Caitlin and also Ellen and Conor?
12. Were you surprised by the wedding at the end of the novel? What do you think the future holds for Ellen, Conor, and Peg? Do you think Maddie will return to Ireland? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Bring your favorite Irish treats—whether it’s Guinness or soda bread—to your next book club meeting.
2. Bring an object with you to your next book club meeting that reminds you of someone you love who is no longer alive. Discuss how the object makes you feel connected to your loved one and if you have ever felt their presence or guidance in your life.
3. Read The Age of Innocence
by Edith Wharton or watch the 1993 film version starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Winona Ryder. Discuss the character Ellen Olenska and why Dylan nicknames Maddie that, and also why she chose to name their daughter Ellen.