This reading group guide for The Girls Are All So Nice Here includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Laurie Elizabeth Flynn. 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.Introduction
Two former best friends return to their college reunion to find that they’re being circled by someone who wants revenge for what they did ten years before—and will stop at nothing to get it—in this shocking psychological thriller about ambition, toxic friendship, and deadly desire.
A lot has changed in the years since Ambrosia Wellington graduated from college, and she’s worked hard to create a new life for herself. But then an invitation to her ten-year reunion arrives in the mail, along with an anonymous note that reads, We need to talk about what we did that night
It seems that the secrets of Ambrosia’s past—and the people she thought she’d left there—aren’t as buried as she’d believed. Amb can’t stop fixating on what she did or who she did it with: larger-than-life Sloane “Sully” Sullivan, Amb’s former best friend, who could make anyone do anything.
At the reunion, Amb and Sully receive increasingly menacing messages, and it becomes clear that they’re being pursued by someone who wants more than just the truth of what happened that first semester. This person wants revenge for what they did and the damage they caused—the extent of which Amb is only now fully understanding. And it was all because of the game they played to get a boy who belonged to someone else and the girl who paid the price.
Alternating between the reunion and Amb’s freshman year, The Girls Are All So Nice Here
is a shocking novel about the brutal things girls will do to get what they think they’re owed, and what happens when the games we play in college become matters of life and death.Topics & Questions for Discussion (12-15 Discussion Questions)
1. “Together we ruled
.” The first line of the novel sets up the theme of an alliance, a partnership. Do you think this is true of the relationship between Amb and Sully? At what points does this feel accurate and at what points does it feel less true?
2. The novel is told in alternating storylines, fluctuating between the characters’ first year of college and their school reunion ten years after graduating. How did this changing timeline affect your perceptions of Amb and Sully? How did this structure build suspense?
3. Amb describes how she and her best friend from home, Billie, had a “meager defense against the mean girls
” at their school, how they “studied them, then peeled them like overripe fruit in marathon gossip sessions to lessen the sting of not being invited to their parties
.” How does Amb’s experience with “mean girls” before college affect her attitude toward making new friends? Have you had any experiences with cliques or gossiping among peers?
4. After meeting Flora, Amb thinks to herself, “being nice was as naïve as being trustworthy, which had gotten me nowhere. Flora must have known the power she was giving people to hurt her. There was a danger in being too soft in a world that required a protective coating
.” Consider how “niceness” is portrayed in the novel. Is being nice a dangerous quality? What does it mean to be a “nice girl”?
5. Reunions–family, school or otherwise–can be a nostalgic time to reconnect but can also resurface memories or past selves. Discuss reunions you’ve attended and what your favorite and least favorite parts of the experience were.
“People thought girls’ bodies were our deadliest weapons. They had no idea about the mountains our imaginations could move
.” (112) Later, words are described as the weapon that killed Flora. What other “weapons” are there in the novel and who wields them against whom, and why?
7. The friendships detailed throughout the novel are predominantly between women. How would the story have changed if the characters had platonic male relationships? How do the gender differences among your friends shape your friendships?
8. On first meeting Flora, Amb is “prickled
” by how Flora “knew how to be herself–it seemed like everyone did. I only knew how to imitate other people
.” Later, Sully criticizes nice girls, saying, “it’s all a performance . . . they act sweet, then talk behind your back
.” What is the significance of imitation and acting for Amb? Who else in the novel is performing, on or offstage? Have you ever found yourself imitating others or performing for friends?
9. Kevin is characterized as the novel’s villain; is this a fair assessment? Discuss why or why not. Who do you think is the villain?
10. For many, freshman year is the first time young people experience living away from family expectations and setting your own rules. Did you experience this, either in a college setting or moving away from home? How did it feel to be on your own?
11. The descriptions of intimate exchanges between male and female students in the novel are rarely affectionate, and some are even animalistic: Amb characterizes sleeping with a stranger as “a ritual necessary to purge the memory of Matt’s betrayal
,” while, later, boys are described as “[surrounding] us, in packs, former sports kings with predatory eyes
.” In daring Amb to seduce another student, Sully says she wants to “prove he’s the same animal as the rest of them,
” after which Amb describes her actions as “the slaughter
.” How does this language affect your perception of their romantic and sexual interplay? For the women in the novel, is this approach empowering or limiting?
12. “It would be years before I realized that girls weren’t supposed to own their ambition, just lease it from time to time when it didn’t offend anyone else
.” Do you believe this statement is true? What are the characters ambitious for, and is there a difference between ambition and competition?
13. Consider this statement from Amb: “That’s what it came down to. Three girls, each with something another wanted. I was the snake that swallowed Flora, and Sully unhinged her jaw to swallow me. Maybe everything would have ended differently if we had talked, but we didn’t exist in a world where our envy was allowed to have a voice
.” Do you think talking would have saved Flora, Amb, and Sully from one another? Could anything have saved them?
14. Amb is drawn to Sully talking about “guys like they were toys
” while noting “her favorite playthings were the girls
.” Was Sully ever Amb’s friend, or do you think she was playing Amb all along? How would the novel have changed if it were told from Sully’s point of view? Could the same statement be said of Amb’s approach to relationships?
15. Amb and Sully end the novel in drastically different situations. Do you believe they deserved their conclusions?Enhance Your Book Club (3-5 Enhance Your Book Club Suggestions)
1. Ask if anyone in your reading group has had experience with calligraphy. Watch a tutorial video or explore DIY instructions for beginner calligraphy and customize handwritten invitations for your gathering, or send handwritten letters to members of your reading group. (Best to leave any threatening tones to the pages of the novel, though!)
2. Look up a campus map of Wesleyan University and trace the characters’ most visited locales.
3. Discuss how Flora’s emotional state deteriorated and how to look for signs of depression and emotional instability; how can you talk to your friends if you’re worried something is wrong? Explore the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services website for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and check out this guide for starting conversations about mental health: https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/tay-conversation-starters.pdf
4. Check out Project Gutenberg online and read some of John Donne’s poetry. Discuss whether anyone in your group has studied John Donne previously, or how the poems speak to you.
5. Give yourself a black and cardinal manicure—Wesleyan school colors!A Conversation with Laurie Elizabeth Flynn Q: Congratulations on publishing The Girls Are All So Nice Here! Could you describe the inspiration for the plot and characters? Did you know any real-life girls like Amb and Sully?
A: Thank you! I’m very drawn to dynamics between female friend groups and the ways in which girls can scratch each other’s darkest impulses, and I was inspired by the societal tendency to label girls as nice or mean. I wanted to write a story from the perspective of the bully, rather than the bullied, and to put readers inside the head of a girl under the influence of a dangerously charismatic friend. I haven’t known anyone as extreme as Sully, but I’ve definitely known people like her, ones who are harsh and magnetic in equal measure. Girls like Amb are even more prevalent—in search of validation and acceptance, and seeking approval from the wrong people, sometimes replicating the cruelty of a leader to avoid being cast out themselves. I think most of us have been in, or on the fringe, of situations like this, with insecurity as a driving force.Q: The novel is set at Wesleyan University, and the campus environment sets the stage for dramatic events. Did you attend Wesleyan yourself? What inspired the college reunion storyline?
A: I didn’t attend Wesleyan myself, but I knew I wanted to set this novel on a campus that had a liberal arts vibe and also felt tight knit. The college I went to was larger and more anonymous, and what I wanted for The Girls Are All So Nice Here
was a more insular setting where rumors traveled fast and friend groups could easily overlap. I thought that a reunion would provide such an interesting framework, as the setting and cast of characters would remain largely the same, and readers would get to see exactly how the characters have changed since their college days—and how they’ve stayed the same. I wanted to play with the idea of being summoned back to campus for a reason, and a threat too dangerous to ignore.Q: Although you’ve previously published for a YA audience (readers, go check out Firsts, Last Girl Lied To, and All Eyes on Her!), The Girls Are All So Nice Here is your first novel written for adults. What was it like writing for an older audience?
A: Writing for an adult audience meant there was much more room for retrospection, and the ability to see a character in two stages of her life: as an eighteen-year-old college freshman, and again as a married woman in her early thirties with a career. My YA novels are very immediate in tone, with characters in the moment, rarely looking back on things they’ve done or the consequences of their actions. In The Girls Are All So Nice Here
, I loved being able to dive deep into themes that apply to both teenage girls and women at different stages of their lives: jealousy, ambition, obsession, and desire.Q: You worked as a model before becoming a novelist; can you tell us what the transition was like to change careers? Does your modeling experience have an impact on your writing today?
A: My modeling experience seeps into my writing in myriad ways. Funnily enough, the transition from modeling to the life of an aspiring novelist helped steel me toward the rejection that happens in publishing. Modeling helped me develop a thick skin and not take rejection too personally. Thematically, modeling plays into my work because it’s an industry wherein intense, immediate friendships are formed, but at the same time, you’re often competing for jobs against those same friends. Competition between girls and women, and how society exacerbates it, is a main element in The Girls Are All So Nice Here
, and something I’m very keen to explore.Q: The title is a perfect balance of sweet and menacing, how did you land on it?
A: When I drafted this book, it had no title. Only in the weeks before querying it did I finally give it a name, and then it clicked with total certainty. The title is a line drawn from the novel—Ambrosia recalls writing letters to her grandmother and lying about her college experience, citing that “the girls are all so nice here.” I love how ominous it is in the context of the book, and the many ways in which it can be read.Q: Many early readers have commented on how finishing the novel has them reflecting on their own adolescent–and sometimes manipulative–friendships. Why did you want to write about toxic relationships, especially intense friendships between women?
A: I’m absolutely fascinated by female friendship. In these friend groups, there’s a dynamic I find really interesting, where bad behavior is legitimized if more than one person is partaking in it: the idea that if your best friend does something, it must be okay for you to do it too. It’s this intimate, baked-in peer pressure that’s quite powerful. I think this happens less with men because they tend to be celebrated for the very things women are condemned for, and wild antics are met with a high-five instead of a scolding. Men don’t look to each other to validate their actions because we live in a world where society already expects that kind of behavior from them.
A facet of toxic friendship that I’m drawn to is that only in hindsight do we often realize it was toxic or one-sided. At the time, poor treatment can be too easily validated. At eighteen, Ambrosia is so caught up in Sully’s thrall that she can’t separate herself from it. Only years later can she see the friendship for what it was.Q: Alternating the story between past and present offered readers a chance to meet characters at different stages in their lives. Was it difficult to write characters at two different ages? How did they change during the decade after graduation?
A: I loved the challenge of writing the same characters at two different life stages. I wanted to focus not only on how they changed—with spouses and careers—but how much they stayed the same, and how being back on campus brought out the emotions they’d felt as students during their school days: the insecurity, uncertainty, and in Ambrosia’s case, the fear. Ambrosia’s post-college life, on the surface, appears happy: she has a devoted husband and good job and nice apartment, but she’s still dissatisfied, having failed to achieve the dreams she set for herself when she came to Wesleyan. And as much as she tries to justify what happened in the past, she’s still haunted by it, and a part of her is still terrified by the prospect of being caught. Reunions bring reflection and a chance to compare where you are compared to how you thought your life would look. There’s also a component of pressure to appear successful and accomplished in front of former friends (and enemies . . .). Q: The ending is brilliant and shocking—did you always know where these characters would end up?
A: I don’t plot my books in advance, so I didn’t initially know how this story would end. I knew I had to wrap it up in a way that was fitting to these characters and what they had gone through. I wrote the last quarter of the book in a heady rush, and the ending came to me as I was writing it. It felt like the only right way to end the story. And the bones of it have not changed since that first draft.Q: Retribution and reward (or people getting what they deserve) is a theme throughout the novel. How did you decide to weave this into the characters’ motivations?
A: I think retribution is such a strong motivator, and it worked well here—both the fear of retribution, for Ambrosia, and the act of revenge itself, building for so long without her knowledge. The events of the past have a long tail, and I was interested in this dynamic—that past can too easily become present.Q: What do you like to read yourself?
A: I love anything that fuses psychological suspense with sharp, insightful social commentary on women’s experiences. Some of my all-time favorites are Gone Girl
by Gillian Flynn, Luckiest Girl Alive
by Jessica Knoll, Whisper Network
by Chandler Baker, and Such A Fun Age
by Kiley Reid.Q: Is there anything else you hope readers will take away from The Girls Are All So Nice Here?
A: More than anything, I hope readers come away with a realization that girls don’t fit neatly into the “nice” and “mean” labels that society likes to use. Most of us are a mixture of both, and while it’s easy to judge and condemn behavior, there are so many factors to be considered, especially given the pressures, both external and internal, on girls and women.