This reading group guide for What Nora Knew includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Linda Yellin. 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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Molly Hallberg is a divorced writer living in New York City. For the past four years, Molly has been on staff at EyeSpy
, an online entertainment magazine, getting all the wacky assignments. She’s jumped out of airplanes, snuck vibrators through security scanners, and tested kegel-squeezing panties. What she really wants is her own column and to publish her literary essays. Her latest assignment is to write about romance “in the style of Nora Ephron,” and she strikes out big-time. A self-professed cynic, Molly’s no good at love—she’s dating a chiropractor who’s comfortable, but safe—and she won’t acknowledge the one man who can go one-on-one with her. But with insights from Nora Ephron’s iconic comedies, Molly learns to open her heart and find her own fairytale ending. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The epigraph at the beginning of the book is a quote from Nora Ephron. “There’s no one who’s more romantic than a cynic.” Do you agree? Why do you think the author chose this quote?
2. “Deep-down love, deep-in-the-ventricles-of-your-heart love, was something that happened to other people, make-believe people in fairy tales and movies,” (p. 9) says Molly. Do you think she really believes this? How does her divorce affect how she understands love and romance? Does her relationship with Russell prove or disprove this belief? In what way does Cameron change this thinking?
3. Setting is an important part of Nora Ephron’s movies, from the rain-drenched houseboats in Sleepless in Seattle
to the infamous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene in Katz’s deli in New York in When Harry Met Sally
?. How does the geography of New York influence this story? Could it have been set anywhere else?
4. While discussing Sleepless in Seattle
, Molly tells Cameron “we know Meg will end up with Tom. But it’s not about who she’s going to end up with. We still want to keep watching. We’re mesmerized by the journey.” (p. 91) Would you say the same is true of this story? Why or why not?
5. “Happy couples create romantic narratives; they tell meet-cute stories worthy of a romantic comedy.” (p. 236) Do you think this is true? How much of an influence do you think movies have on what we look for in romance? Have they conditioned us to expect the grand gesture (p. 290) in our own romances? How does it affect us to compare our own lives to the stories we see on the big screen?
6. Discuss the role of technology in the romantic lives of the characters. How do online dating, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest play into the story? What do you make of the fact that Molly writes for an online magazine? Does technology help the characters find love? Stand in the way? How would this story be different if it had been written before the advent of these technologies? Consider Nora Ephron’s movie You’ve Got Mail
, about how email brings two people together, which was an updated version of The Shop Around the Corner
, about two lovers who communicated by letter.
7. “The thing is, why are sex scenes necessary?” (p. 118) Molly believes keeping the details of what happens in the bedroom off screen (and off the page) is better than describing these acts in detail. Do you agree? How does it change the story to keep the bedroom scenes off the page? What is gained and what is lost by not showing the details?
8. Molly breaks up with Russell while waiting in line for a terrible movie he wants to see. Throughout the story, his thirst for Nicolas Cage movies is at odds with her love of Nora Ephron movies. In a book so deeply rooted in film references, what else does their differing tastes in movies say about them? What does it say that Cameron takes Molly to see Sleepless in Seattle
? Can you judge a couple’s compatibility by their taste in movies?
9. Cameron insists that elements of his book aren’t stolen from other writers, they’re homages to other writers. Do you think the same is true of Nora’s movies, in the way Sleepless in Seattle
is a take on An Affair to Remember
and When Harry Met Sally
nods to Casablanca
? Do you see this book as a take on Nora Ephron’s movies? An homage to her? What allusions to her movies did you like? Not like?
10. Do you believe in love at first sight? Why or why not?
11. Molly dreams of having her own column and, eventually, publishing a book of her essays. Through the course of the story, she does get both a column and an agent, but both opportunities come because Cameron has pulled strings for her. Is this a weakness, a sign that she needs a man’s help to get ahead no matter what she thinks? Or does this come across instead as a type of modern chivalry, a sign that shows how much he cares for her? How do you interpret his interventions in her career?
12. Through most of the story, Molly is something of a cynic about love, but she admits, “I wanted to feel cherished. I wanted to feel adored . . . I wanted someone to get me and then love what he got. Most of all, I wanted to believe, re-believe, that was possible.” (p. 211) Do you think she gets this at the end? Why or why not? Does her transformation from cynic to romantic feel believable?
13. “How do we know they ended up happy?” Molly says of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan of Sleepless in Seattle
. “We never saw a sequel.” (p. 150) Do you think Molly and Cameron end up happy? What makes you think that? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Pick one of the movies Nora Ephron wrote (you can find a list at imdb.com) and watch it together. Or take it a step further and watch An Affair to Remember
(referenced in Sleepless in Seattle
(referenced in When Harry Met Sally
) or The Shop Around the Corner
(like in You’ve Got Mail
). Make lots of popcorn.
2. Mike Bing is Cameron Duncan’s literary alter ago, and while he shares some of Cameron’s quirks, he has a more glamorous job and love life, and is an idealized version of the writer. Imagine what your own literary alter ego would be like. What would she do, and how would she act? Share your thoughts with the group.
3. Nora Ephron’s last full-length screenplay was Julie & Julia
, about a woman who cooks through every recipe in Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking
. Make your next meeting a French-themed dinner, creating recipes from the cookbook (don’t forget the butter!) and drinking French wine.
4. In addition to her screenplays, Nora Ephron was known for her essays and journalistic writing. Check out some of her non-fiction, including Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women
, I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman
, or I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections
. A Conversation with Linda Yellin Your novel is filled with subtle references to Nora Ephron’s movies. Or what some people might call stealing. What are some of those references?
Well, the description of Cameron is a description of Tom Hanks, and Molly is blond like Meg Ryan. The scene with Cameron and Molly sitting back to back in a café is in the same setting as the scene between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail
. And the montage when Cameron and Molly walk together follows the same route as Tom and Meg’s in You’ve Got Mail
. Molly sees a boy with a teddy bear in the lobby of the Empire State Building; that’s a shout-out to Jonah and his teddy bear in Sleepless in Seattle
, as well as the Jimmy Durante music Molly hears. And Arnold and Shirley are the names of the hamsters in Heartburn
. There are other references, but they’re so subtle even I don’t remember them. Did you have to do research for the story?
Yes. Anything that takes place in Long Island, I had to call my friend Suzi in Merrick. Plus I watched all the Nora Ephron movies. Except Silkwood
. I’ve never seen Silkwood
. It sounds depressing. Isn’t that what Kristine says in the book?
She stole that from me. What was the most interesting thing you learned?
That Nora went into the family business; her parents were also Hollywood screenwriters. Did you ever consider going into your family’s business?
No. I had zero interest in manufacturing dog bowls. Everyone falls in love in the book. Who’s your favorite couple?
It’s a toss-up between Arnold and Shirley or Joyce and Irwin. Aren’t Joyce and Irwin turtles?
Correct. Doesn’t that give the edge to Arnold and Shirley?
That depends on how you feel about turtles. Who’s your favorite character in the novel?
Emily. She’s so divinely intrusive, and her workplace demeanor reminds me of my first job as a catalog copywriter at Sears. The copywriters all sat in cubicles, and we devoted far more of our workdays to pranks than to writing about toasters and washing machines. For reasons that now escape me, I had a rubber figurine of the Pillsbury Doughboy as well as a plastic donkey on my bookshelf. My buddies Mike and Jim were always sneaking into my cube and arranging the Doughboy and donkey into obscene positions. Emily doesn’t do that.
Only because Molly does not have a plastic donkey. Otherwise, I’m sure Emily would. How did you come up with the names for your characters?
I asked for volunteers on Facebook. It just goes to show how trusting some people are. I could have been writing a book packed with murderers and terrorists and naming all those murderers and terrorists after my Facebook friends, but nobody seemed to care. Except for one woman who stipulated that I wouldn’t use her name for any French schoolgirls. I don’t know why. But it wasn’t a problem because there are no French schoolgirls in the book. Molly says she’s terrible at writing sex scenes. Do you have the same problem?
Yes, and thank goodness. I avoid them. All my husband needs is me going, “Honey, that little thing you just did with your tongue—how do you spell that?” Molly seems to cover a lot of unusual assignments. Sneaking vibrators through security. Wearing kegel underpants. Oddly enough, you seem to have covered many of these same magazine assignments in your own career.
Yes. But I have never posed nude. Why not?
Nobody’s ever asked. Let’s play a game. Pick one: Billy Crystal or Tom Hanks?
It’s a draw. Bill Pullman or Greg Kinnear?
What’s the difference? Bruno Kirby or Rob Reiner?
Definitely Rob Reiner. I’ve been crushing on him for years. Carrie Fisher or Rosie O’Donnell?
Carrie. Mainly because her mom is Debbie Reynolds. Meg Ryan or Meg Ryan?
Meg Ryan. What’s the best way to get to know the real Linda Yellin?
Go to LindaYellin.com. Or spend eight weeks with me in summer camp. Preferably in Wisconsin. Molly says in the novel that writers are always asked about their process. What’s your writing process?
There tend to be two camps. Neither of which is in Wisconsin. The first is writers who make thorough story outlines. The second is all the writers who believe that, if there’s no surprise for the author, there’s no surprise for the reader. They start with a premise and a few characters and see where it takes them. I fall somewhere in-between. I make a rough list of possible scenes that might create a story flow. But no roman numerals are involved. When Harry Met Sally was made in 1989. Sleepless in Seattle in 1993. You’ve Got Mail was 1998. Why do you think Nora Ephron’s movies are still so beloved even decades after she made them?
Who doesn’t love a love story? And her characters are totally endearing. You can’t help but root for everyone to end up happy. But the movies aren’t just romantic; they’re filled with all that witty banter and repartee. So even though you’re sitting there crying at the end, you feel sophisticated. Did you ever meet Nora Ephron?
No. When I first moved to New York in 1996, we lived in the same apartment building, this big kinda famous courtyard building on the Upper West Side, but I never ran into her. All sorts of celebrities lived in the building and I never ran into any of them. Cyndi Lauper. Bob Balaban. But every morning I’d watch Rosie O’Donnell through my bedroom window when her limo picked her up for work. You spied on her?
That’s one way to put it. I’d prefer to say I observed her
. Spying would be if I broke into her apartment and hid behind her dining room curtains. So, Linda, having written this novel, is there any way you feel you’re at all similar to Nora Ephron?
Yes. I have a long, skinny face. Other than that, I remain forever in her awe. She was a genius.