This reading group guide for The Christmas Cookie Club 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.
Every year on the first Monday of December, a group of women gather to share cookies, food, wine, and stories. This year, Marnie, the “head cookie bitch” is preoccupied with caring for a bereaved friend, waiting for a life or death call from her pregnant daughter, and debating how far to fall in love with her boyfriend Jim. Meanwhile, the guests have problems of their own: a father’s infidelity with a friend, a move to another state, a husband’s desertion. But they come together, knowing that dark times and snowy nights call for the warmth that only friends can provide.
Questions for Discussion
How does the present action of the narrative, as well as the way details are revealed about characters, affect your reading of the novel? In what ways does the story draw the reader in as a new member of the group?
As Marnie says, “The people in our lives change as our understanding changes.” (pg. 193) How does each character in the novel change for you as you learn more about them? How does Aaron change for Marnie after hearing Sissy’s story?
How does the opening of The Christmas Cookie Club establish the themes of darkness and light that run through the novel? How do you feel about the choice of the hospice as the recipient of the group’s generosity? Why do you think Marnie is so especially attuned to the pain her friends suffer and brave in facing the starkness of events such as Luke’s death?
Marnie wonders, “Is Jim another chance for intimacy or another dodge from commitment?” (pg. 22) Why do you think Marnie is so conflicted about moving forward in her relationship with Jim? What gives her the courage to tell him that she loves him?
The book highlights the social histories of baking ingredients such as vanilla, sugar, and dates. Was there anything you learned that surprised you? Marnie also mentions her personal associations with these common items. What are your associations with these ingredients and others in your kitchen?
Thinking about Rosie’s quest for children, Marnie wonders, “When I see a friend heading down a difficult road, how much do I confront, and how much do I accept knowing I’ll be there to pick up the pieces?” (pg. 68) What do you think is the best approach to friendship: honest advice or unquestioning support? How do you think Marnie is able to stay so nonjudgmental when it comes to her friends’ tangled lives?
“The past gets carried with us. It’s always there,” according to Marnie. (pg. 217) How is the past evident in the current lives of the characters? For example, how does the past affect Marnie’s relationship with her daughters and with Jim? How does Juliet’s high school façade help to create a long-term double life?
Rosie confronts Jeannie by asking if Jeannie had told her mother about her father’s infidelity. Do you think the situations are comparable – a friend hiding another friend’s betrayal and a daughter hiding her father’s? How are the two friends able to come to a reconciliation over the course of the party?
While all of Charlene’s friends are supportive and healing in different ways, how is it that Sissy, the cookie virgin, is able to best advise her on a path forward? How can an outsider sometimes better see a person for who they are in the moment?
Marnie describes “the season’s thrill” (Pg. 72) of the holidays in terms of the warmth and excitement that her friends bring to the cookie club. What are the key elements that form the holidays for you?
Enhance Your Book Club
Turn your book club into a cookie club! Divide up the recipes in The Christmas Cookie Club and share them according to the rules of the group.
Compare the group of friends in the novel to your book club. Get closer by sharing stories about how everyone in your group first met.
Jeannie fills her fortune cookies with sayings drawn from her yoga practice and lifestyle. Come up with your own fortunes, or compare favorite fortunes you’ve received over the years.
Interested in learning more about the ingredients described in The Christmas Cookie Club? Check out one of the books Pearlman used, such as The Cambridge World History of Food and share your findings with the group.
A Conversation with Ann Pearlman
What inspired you to write this novel, your first work of fiction?
I’ve been working on fiction for some years and a few of my short stories have won literary awards. I imagined this novel in 2000, when I first attended a cookie exchange and realized it would be a fabulous setting for a story about a party and the importance of women’s friendships. I set it aside to write a non-fiction book. And when I got back to it, I wrote it with a complete sense of joy.
How different was the process of writing The Christmas Cookie Club from that of your nonfiction works? You invent the characters and story when you write a novel. With non-fiction, I do a lot of research either to make sure my memory is correct or to gather information for added texture. In biography, there’s an attempt to see the world from another person’s eyes. So nonfiction contains more circling back. I use fictive techniques (dialogue, scene setting, etc.) in both.
Which do you prefer?
I like both. I particularly enjoy writing (and reading) books in which actual people, events, or places are mixed in with the fictional. Thus, I used Ann Arbor and its stores, restaurants, parks, events as settings for scenes in the Christmas Cookie Club.
How did you choose the cookie recipes to include? Do they have a special meaning for you?
I chose my favorites. The pecan butter balls have special meaning because that is my grandmother’s recipe and I remember baking them with her. A girl friend mentioned that almost all of them contain nuts. I love nuts. I also picked cookies to carry the plot forward. The fortune cookies are an example of this, and Allie’s Chanukah cookies and Ramadan cookies.
You mention that some characters were based on real women from your cookie club. How close are your depictions to your friends and how much of the characterizations came from your imagination?
The acknowledgements detail exactly what I borrowed from my real friends. For example, Marybeth (who is the hostess of the cookie party) does have gorgeous white hair but no daughters. I imagined all the rest.
Is there a character that you yourself particularly identify with in the novel?
I think I’m most like Allie, but my kids laugh when I say that and tell me there are elements of me in all the characters. That makes enormous sense to me because I think the narrative dream is similar to any other dream and the characters are projections of various aspects of the writer/dreamer’s unconscious. And so we all cannibalize our own lives, fantasies, and interests as we write. I do yoga, for example.
Infidelity is one of the recurring elements in the lives of your characters in The Christmas Cookie Club. How has your own experience, as well as the experience of writing Infidelity: A Love Story, affected your perspective on how marital betrayal affects others?
I’m aware of how very common and how very scarring infidelity is both in my own life and the lives of people I know. Most marriages will struggle with it and it’s implicated in the majority of divorces. I’m aware of what a challenge it presents to the couple and how much the entire family is impacted.
How do you think your writing is affected by your work as a psychotherapist?
I read somewhere that writers and therapists are very similar, the difference is that therapists believe they can help people change. As a therapist I am involved in transformation, and am continually impressed with resilience and people’s eagerness for life and happiness. What helps people to have the courage to change and the determination to struggle is a fascinating topic to me. The gift of being a therapist is that we hear and witness lives and histories. We see the elements and the stories that coalesce to form personality. I understand the complications of people’s lives. It seems to me, none of us get out unscathed. That sense that all of us have problems at some point, and it’s how we survive, interpret and deal that define us along with my interest in transformation and maintaining joy in life are themes in my books.
Are there any authors who have been inspirational to your work?
E.L. Doctorow because he was the first person to mix the real with the imagined. Truman Capote for using fictive techniques in non fiction and changing the face of non fiction. Jodi Picoult because you fall in love with her characters even though they’re flawed and can’t stop reading. Philip Roth because of his examination of sexuality and his amazing growth in his perception and understanding of it as well as portraying America. Margaret Atwood because of her entwining of tale and politics.
Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists hoping to also draw from real life experiences?
We’re told to write what we know and we know our own lives best, yet distilling what the STORY is in our lives that may be interesting to others is not easy. So much of what we experience is exquisite because it’s ours: our baby’s first smile, falling in love, the death of a dear friend. Making that particular have universal appeal requires digging deep and ferreting telling detail and language.
Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
Marybeth Bayer and I are finishing up How to Have Your Own Cookie Party, a workbook chock full of recipes and ideas for cookie exchanges. It should be out sometime in 2010. I’m writing a novel that is a sequel of the Christmas Cookie Club with Sky and Tara as the main characters. I am loving writing it.
Gabra Zackman knows romance. Her clever and “thrilling romantic caper” (Library Journal) Bod Squad series was inspired by the more than one hundred romance and women’s fiction titles she has narrated for audio. She divides her time between her native New York City and Denver, Colorado.