This reading group guide for The Summer of Good Intentions includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Wendy Francis. 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
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The Herington sisters and their families come together for their annual vacation at their Cape Cod summer house. Life there is supposed to remain reassuringly the same, but they quickly realize that their relaxing summer vacation is jeopardized by each sister’s secrets. Through poignant and engaging storytelling, Wendy Francis offers a fresh new summer read that takes readers through the complex and emotional web of family relationships. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. All the Herington sisters, particularly Maggie, think of their summer house as a place of comfort and relaxation. What does the house symbolize for each sister? Do you have a place where you, too, can escape the routine of everyday life?
2. For Maggie, summer is represented by “sticky fingers. The smell of mosquito repellant. The wind whipping up, then settling down again. Her husband’s arms around her. The sounds of the kids laughing.” Virgie thinks it’s not really summer until she steps into Grouchy Ted’s and breathes in “the familiar scent of beer and peanuts.” What does summer mean to each sister? What makes these memories so significant? What do you think of when you think about the summertime?
3. Describe the relationship between Maggie, Jess, and Virgie. What are their roles in the family? What do they teach you about sisterhood?
4. Jess doesn’t think her relationship with Cole is the reason for her marriage troubles: “She’d read enough self-help books to understand he was a mere symptom of her troubled marriage. That she had allowed herself to fall for him in the first place
and return his kisses was further testament to the fact that her marriage wasn’t working. She wasn’t in love
with Cole.” Do you agree with Jess’s assessment of her failing marriage, or do you think she’s making excuses so that she doesn’t have to take responsibility for her affair?
5. How would you characterize Gloria’s role in her daughters’ lives? Does her elusive and carefree personality put a strain on her relationship with them?
6. How does Tim learn to forgive Jess and move forward with their relationship? Can Jess trust that Tim will now change his attitude toward their marriage? Can Tim trust Jess?
7. Why is it so difficult for Maggie to tell Mac she’d like to have another child? How do you think Mac handles the news?
8. How does the fire Arthur accidentally started bring attention to issues he has been keeping under wraps? How do his daughters interpret the accident?
9. Arthur has an epiphany right before his death. “He rubbed his hands together briskly, thinking of Gloria. Always of Gloria
. Yes, a dip would be just the thing to mark a fresh start, his resolve to embrace life anew.” Describe the irony of this scene. Why do you think the author included it?
10. “MS was but one melody playing in Virgie’s life at the moment. In fact, it had probably been playing for some time. She just hadn’t been listening.” What does Virgie learn from her MS diagnosis? Why had she been ignoring the signs for so long? How
has her diagnosis offered her a different perspective on both her career and her relationship with Jackson?
11. Do you think there was an active denial of Arthur’s illness in the Herington family? Maggie realizes, “There had been plenty of signs—Arthur’s absentmindedness, the collection of trash he’d started at her house, his overstuffed car—but she’d written them off as typical for a slightly scatterbrained older man.” How did each family member deny the signs? If they had been able to confront Arthur’s illness head-on, would the story have had a different outcome?
12. Arthur’s daughters are shocked to discover that he has been living in squalor. Maggie thinks, “There was something terribly cruel about the juxtaposition of a life filled with so much junk and a life irretrievably lost. Arthur had died drowning, but he’d been drowning long before that.” What was Arthur drowning in? Why did he start hoarding? Why do you think Arthur never told his children about his problem?
13. How does each woman—Maggie, Jess, Virgie, and Gloria—move forward after Arthur’s memorial service? How do their memories of Arthur inspire each of them to do better?
14. The essence of this story is about strengthening family ties and romantic bonds. How does each Herington sister accomplish this?
15. In the beginning of the story, Maggie remembers that Que sera, sera
is one of Gloria’s favorite sayings—they even have it on a plaque in the house. What does this saying mean? Is this message as relevant at the end of the book as it was at the beginning? Enhance Your Book Club
1. The Book of Summer
was Maggie and her family’s notebook of special memories, funny moments, and important milestones that they collected each summer at their Cape Cod summer house. Create your own notebook to memorialize special times in your life. Write a brief entry, even just a few sentences, for each funny anecdote or exciting moment that you experience with your family.
2. What are your good intentions for the summer? Share with your book club.
3. Visit Cape Cod. The peaceful beauty of the Cape comes to life in the pages of The Summer of Good Intentions
. Plan a summer vacation to explore the beaches and the history of one of New England’s most popular vacation destinations.
4. Read Wendy Francis’s first novel, Three Good Things
, for your next book club meeting. Filled with love, humor, and the scent of the delectable Danish pastry called kringle, Three Good Things
tells the story of two midwestern sisters, each with a secret. You can even bake kringles as a special treat for your group using the recipe on page 233 of the book.
5. Wendy Francis does a wonderful job introducing two important, serious health conditions to readers: multiple sclerosis and hoarding. To learn more about MS, visit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Web site at http://www.nationalmssociety.org/. To learn more about hoarding, visit the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s Web site at http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/hoarding-basics. A Conversation With Wendy Francis Despite being sisters, Maggie, Jess, and Virgie are very different and very dynamic individuals. Which sister do you relate to the most?
Maggie is probably the sister with whom I identify the most. I’m at that age where my six-year-old son is growing up at rapid speed and I’m wondering what’s next. Who else needs nurturing? My husband likes to joke that I’m always trying to fix things for people, and that’s probably not far from the truth. Though I hope I’m not a meddler, per se, there’s still some of that midwestern girl in me, the one who wants to set things right and make sure everyone is happy. Like Maggie, I also love the beach; summertime; and the slower, languid pace that those things suggest. Was the setting of the story important to you? Why did you decide on Cape Cod?
As much as I love the Midwest (where my first novel was set), I also love the seaside. Even as a young girl in Wisconsin, I would search out whatever pockets of beach I could find, usually just a slice of sand next to a water-filled quarry. Once I moved east and settled closer to the ocean, I felt as if I’d found my second home. I’m also fortunate in that my in-laws have a house near the Cape, which has become a favorite retreat for all of us during the summer. So the rhythm of the waves, the sound of crickets whirring at night—all those things were familiar to me. What’s more, it seemed a summer house would be the perfect setting for the sisters’ emotions to percolate and collide. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different member of the Herington family, except Gloria. Why didn’t you write from Gloria’s perspective?
It never really occurred to me to write from Gloria’s perspective. She was always a bit of an outsider in the family, and I thought it should remain that way. Besides, Gloria is such an opinionated, zany character, I’m not sure I could have handled going into her head! Did you plan how you were going to develop each character’s journey, or did their stories evolve as you wrote the book?
For better or worse, I’m one of those writers who let the characters guide the story. I’ve never been able to map out a novel’s plotline in its entirety (though I wish I could!). All the sisters, I knew, would be dealing with some kind of conundrum, and once I determined that Arthur had a hoarding problem, all the other elements began to fall into place. The Summer of Good Intentions emphasizes the strong bonds between sisters. Do you have sisters who helped inspire this story?
No, but my mom was my best friend, and in many ways, like a big sister to me. I’m a big believer in the support system that women can provide for one another, whether as sisters, mothers and daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters, aunts and nieces, or good friends. How was writing this book different from writing your first novel, Three Good Things?
Looking back, I feel as if Three Good Things
almost wrote itself. Don’t get me wrong: it took multiple revisions and drafts! But, as my agent likes to say, first novels tend to live inside an author’s heart for a long while. Somehow I felt as if I knew
Ellen and Lanie in that book, as if they were my neighbors. I wasn’t sure I could ever feel the same way about another cast of characters. Also, as a former book editor, I was all too familiar with the curse of the second novel, when authors get stuck wondering if they’ll ever write another book—or was the first novel just a fluke? The Summer of Good Intentions
had some false starts for sure, but eventually, I found myself falling in love with all these women, and Arthur, too. You tackle very emotional and complex issues in The Summer of Good Intentions: divorce; infidelity; expanding a family; and health matters such as memory loss, MS, and hoarding. What literary challenges did you face to properly address these subjects in the book?
The challenges in tackling the various health issues here was to reveal them over time, as the characters’ stories played out, and to resist the impulse to infuse the book with research and statistics. I’d done a fair amount of research on MS and hoarding, and at points the book veered into textbook territory—thankfully, those sections were cut! As for the more everyday issues, I really just trusted my own emotional instincts to guide me through the characters’ thoughts and reactions. With luck, they ring true in the book. As a former book editor, how does writing your own book compare to editing someone else’s? What’s the biggest challenge for you in the writing process?
Oh, my goodness, writing is much, much harder than editing! And I’d had no idea. You think when you’re an editor that you have a fairly good understanding of how a book should be written. But when it’s you staring at the blank page, you realize just how impossible and insurmountable the whole writing thing is. Given that, it’s amazing to me how many great books get written. The biggest challenge in my writing is turning off my editor’s ear so that I can focus on getting the characters and story down on the page. Otherwise, I’d be tempted to revise every sentence as soon as it’s written, and it would take me about ten years to finish a single chapter. If your readers were to take away only one message from this story, what would it be?
Wow, that’s a tall order. Basically, the epigraph at the beginning of the book by Dani Shapiro sums it up: “The mess is holy. . . . There is beauty in what is.” She was referring to the writing process in her wonderful meditation Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
(which, incidentally, every writer should read). When I read those words, they resonated with me on so many levels. My whole life felt like a big mess at the time: my mom was battling leukemia; I was flying back and forth between Wisconsin and Massachusetts, trying to help her and still be a good mom back at home. For me, those words were a potent reminder to live in the moment. Yes, our lives may be messy, and every last good intention we have may get foiled. But remember: there is beauty in our lives right now
, as cluttered and out of control and crazy as it might seem. That’s the
conclusion I think Maggie comes to by the book’s end and the one that I hope readers will take away from this novel. Can you share with us any news of upcoming writing projects? What can we expect from you next?
All I’ll say is that my new novel involves plenty of family drama once again—and a boat. Stay tuned!