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For fans of the high-stakes tension of the New York Times bestsellers Luckiest Girl Alive and The Lying Game, comes “a brilliantly paced thriller that gets under your skin in the best possible way” (Megan Collins, author of The Winter Sister) about female ambition and what happens when fake violence draws real blood.

After years of struggling in the Chicago theater scene, ambitious actress Kira Rascher finally lands the role of a lifetime. The catch? The mercurial Malcolm Mercer is the director and he’s known for pushing his performers past their limits—on stage and off.

Kira’s convinced she can handle Malcolm, but the theater’s cofounder, Joanna Cuyler, is another story. Joanna sees Kira as a threat—to her own thwarted artistic ambitions, her twisted relationship with Malcolm, and the shocking secret she’s keeping about the upcoming production. But as opening night draws near, Kira and Joanna both come to the realization that Malcolm’s dangerous extremes are nothing compared to what they’re capable of themselves.

An edgy, addictive, and fiendishly clever tale of ambition, deceit, and power suited for fans of the film Black Swan, Temper “revels in its mind games, delivering twist after twist as it races toward a Shakespearian climax. The final page will leave you gasping” (Amy Gentry, author of Last Woman Standing).

This reading group guide for Temper 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.


Two ambitious women are drawn into the mind games of a manipulative theater director in this feminist psychological suspense novel set against the backdrop of the Chicago indie theater scene.

When struggling actress Kira Rascher finally lands the role of a lifetime—starring in a new play called Temper—the gig comes with a catch: working with Malcolm Mercer, a mercurial director who’s known for pushing his performers past their limits, onstage and off. While Kira’s convinced that she can handle Malcolm, the theater’s cofounder Joanna Cuyler sees Kira as a threat—to her own thwarted artistic ambitions and to her twisted relationship with Malcolm. But as opening night draws near, Kira and Joanna both start to realize that Malcolm’s dangerous extremes are nothing compared to what they're capable of themselves.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. Reflect on your first impressions of both Kira and Joanna. How did your understanding of (and feelings about) these two main characters evolve over the course of the novel? Do you recall the key moments at which your impressions of either (or both) character(s) changed?

2. Kira is aware of how often she’s under the male gaze. How does she use this to her advantage, and in what ways does this make her vulnerable?

3. Kira and Joanna often feel mistrust, jealousy, and even hatred toward those whom they see as competition—including each other. Discuss the nature of female competition as it’s portrayed in this novel. In your mind, why do such intense feelings arise from competition among women? Have you experienced this in your own life?

4. When Kira is first warned about Malcolm’s intensity by Jason (whose backstory at this point in the novel is still unknown to the reader), what did you imagine awaited her? How did your initial theories align or conflict with Mal’s behavior throughout the novel?

5. The playwright behind Temper, L. S. Sedgwick, is first introduced as the play’s mysterious writer in Chapter 5, and the reveal of the play’s true authorship comes later, about halfway through the novel. Was there a moment when you suspected that Joanna might be the play’s author, and what was your reaction to this revelation?

6. How would you characterize Joanna and Mal’s relationship? Were you surprised to learn about Joanna’s unrequited feelings for Mal?

7. Which act of violence leading up to the novel’s shocking final scene did you find the most foreboding, and why? Discuss the ways in which acts of violence serve as foreshadowing through the novel.

8. Revisit Kira’s paragraph-long reflection on the Mara-Trent dynamic on pp. 135–136: “Mara could be played as a miserable woman trapped in a toxic relationship standing by silent and passive, capable of fighting back only in her fantasies. But when I read the script, that’s not what I thought of her at all. She’s full of fury, dangerous, a fuse nearly burned down to nothing. She’s been waiting, for years probably, for Trent to do something that will justify her attacking him—and whenever it finally happens, she intends to be ready. The reveries are mental rehearsals for future, inevitable violence. If anyone in Temper is a victim, it’s Trent.” In what ways does this relationship parallel elements of the Joanna-Mal dynamic, or the Kira-Mal dynamic? Do the gender pairings (i.e. Joanna/Kira as Mara, and Mal as Trent) align?

9. On p. 189, Jason warns that Malcolm aims to “dismantle” the actors whom he directs. Which characters are “dismantled” in this novel, and by whom?

10. Consider how sexuality is both presented and deployed in this novel. What is your response to the ways in which sex and sexuality are used by characters to assert power or dominance?

11. Do you consider Kira and Joanna to be feminist characters? In what ways do they combat sexism in their careers, as well as in their relationships?

12. Joanna reveals her imposter syndrome on p. 228, saying: “Maybe he only loves my words when he doesn’t know they’re mine.” Do you think these feelings of insecurity stem from Mal’s treatment of her, or from Jason’s dramatic act of self-harm, or from somewhere else entirely?

13. On pg. 333, Joanna describes Mal as a “hollow man.” Do you read Mal as a manipulative and unfeeling sociopath, or a boundary-pushing genius, or neither? Could Mal be considered a tragic character?

14. Discuss the role of the audience in this novel. How often are these characters performing (whether on or offstage)—even when the audience is just a single person?

15. Consider the story from Malcolm’s perspective; what if his point of view were introduced, or the entire story were told from his first-person perspective, in his own voice? What would you title the novel, and how do you think the female characters would be portrayed?

16. What do you think of the author’s choice to alternate between Kira and Joanna’s perspectives, keeping both in the first person? How would your impression of Kira change if we saw her only through Joanna’s eyes (rather than having access to her thoughts)? How about Joanna?

17. In the play, red lighting indicates that Mara is shifting from the real world into a “reverie.” Do you interpret the final scene of the play to be real, or a reverie? How about the final scene of the novel itself?

18. Author Layne Fargo has a background in theater and used to work as a dramaturg. Which behind-the-scenes revelations of a theatrical production did you find the most interesting, or the most surprising?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Serve a Shakespearean Cocktail: Mal’s performance in Hamlet is referenced throughout the novel as an example of his intensity on stage. Pay homage to the Bard at your book club discussion by serving a Shakespeare-inspired cocktail! Check out Shakespeare, Not Stirred: Cocktails for Your Everyday Dramas by Caroline Bicks and Michelle Ephraim for a wide range of recipes, or go with the Hamlet Cocktail itself: mix 2 parts vodka, 1 part Campari, and 4 parts orange juice.

2. Cast the Movie: Who do you envision taking on each of the main characters in a cinematic adaptation of the novel? Distribute slips of paper and ask each book club member to cast the main players (Mal, Kira, Joanna, and Spence). One everyone has chosen their four lead actors, share your selections and see if any overlap! Now, how about the supporting cast of David, Jason, and Bryn?

3. Explore Other Difficult Women: Author Layne Fargo cohosts a podcast about challenging heroines called Unlikeable Female Characters. Choose an episode (or go right to Episode 1: “Favorite Unlikeable Female Characters”) and circulate it among your book club members to deepen your discussion of Kira and Joanna in the context of a broader literary trend in female characterization.

4. Take an Improv Exercise for a Test Drive: Channel your inner Kira! Head over to and challenge your book group to one of their recommended improv games before diving into your discussion of Temper.
Photograph by Katharine Hannah

Layne Fargo is the author of the thrillers Temper and They Never Learn. She’s a Pitch Wars mentor, Vice President of the Chicagoland chapter of Sisters in Crime, and the cocreator of the podcast Unlikeable Female Characters. Layne lives in Chicago with her partner and their pets.

More books from this author: Layne Fargo