This reading group guide for When You Were Mine includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Elizabeth Noble. 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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Susannah is about to turn forty. She’s been living with Doug for eight years, acting as stepmother to his three unappreciative children, and wondering why she doesn’t mind when he sometimes sleeps in his study. She’s known her best friend Amelia since they were ten years old; Amelia never minces words, and Susannah doesn’t want to hear what Amelia would say about her noncommittal relationship.
At her youngest brother’s wedding, Susannah has a brief chance encounter with Rob—her first love and the one that got away. Susannah is stunned that her feelings for Rob return as if they had never left, but her world is turned upside down when Amelia discovers she has cancer. Susannah tries to be there for her friend, but the revelation that Rob is a married man causes the two best friends to fight—just when they need each other the most. When You Were Mine
is a novel about friendship, old loves, and the twin heartbreaks of holding on too long and of letting go. QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. As a child, Susannah loved watching the weddings in her village. “She loved the dresses and the bridesmaids and the flowers, the beribboned cars...and all the guests resplendent in hats and high heels. She loved the bells; she thought it was the happiest sound in the world.” (p. 21) She refers to the elderly ladies of the village watching the procession after Chloe and Alexander’s wedding as “the real romantics, just as she’d been, once.” Do you believe Susannah’s claim that she is no longer a real romantic? If so, do you think she regains her belief in love by the end of the novel? What do you think the connection is, if any, between romanticism and optimism?
2. Despite the different directions their lives have taken, Susannah and Amelia have remained best friends since childhood. Susannah credits their regular trips to Portchester Spa, in part, for keeping them connected over all the years. What is the importance of ritual in maintaining your closest relationships? How can places become a receptacle for memories, and an essential part of reliving shared experiences?
3. Although they are opposites in many ways, Susannah and Amelia’s friendship has lasted for thirty years. Why do you think they get on so well and how do they complement one another?
4. Did you have the same kind of experience of young love that Susannah believes is universal? If you had a similar chance to reunite with an old love, would you take it, or would you let it stay in the past?
5. Even though Doug and Susannah have been living together for eight years, and raising his three children, Doug is reluctant to marry. How do you think their desire for something secure, rather than risky, influences the stability of their relationship?
6. Susannah describes to Sean her seemingly ideal marriage as, “somebody else’s blueprint for how her life should be.” (p.180) Whose expectations do you think she was trying to live up to? In what ways did starting her relationship with Doug—a ready-made father, house, kids—though imperfect, also represent such a blueprint?
7. Susannah never told Sean much about Rob, because “she’d always been ashamed of what she’d done, and she hadn’t wanted to carry her past into their future—she’d made a concerted effort not
to do that.” (p. 256) In what ways is Susannah’s life the story of her trying and failing to leave her past behind? Why do you think she has such difficulty?
8. After leaving the Air Force, Rob wanted stability and continuity more than anything else, and he found it in Helena. How is Rob’s decision to marry Helena similar to Susannah’s decision to live with Doug? How are their relationships different?
9. Part of Doug’s difficulty in relating to Susannah is that he wants to keep his relationship with her separate from his previous marriage, and he never understands how to let her have a role in his family. In fact, holding off their past failures rather than building a future together appealed to both of them. Do you believe that their relationship was doomed by their past, or do you think they could have succeeded had Rob not come back into Susannah’s life?
10. Susannah is always concerned that Amelia will hurt men’s feelings by leading them on, including her brother, Alistair, and her ex-husband, Jonathan. Yet it is Susannah who causes men the most heartache in this novel. Why do you think that is?
11. After walking in on her step-daughter, Daisy, and her boyfriend, Seth, in bed together, Susannah is able to sidestep her role as a parent and take on the role a confidante instead. How much do you think her decision to do so was influenced by her relationship with her own mother? What does the novel seem to say about the role of family versus friends in offering support and advice?
12. Susannah has a great appreciation for Frank and Lois’s warmth and openness. Are there other characters in the novel that share these qualities that Susannah values so highly?
13. Rob feels guilty for getting married without his parents’ involvement, yet still refrains from telling them that his new wife is going off to war. How does the book deal with the fine balance of how much truth you owe to your loved ones? Consider Susannah’s miscarriage, Amelia’s cancer, and Susannah’s infidelity.
14. When Rob and Susannah first reconnect after twenty years, he says to her “We all change, don’t we?” (p. 258) In what ways has Susannah changed since they first fell in love? In what ways has she stayed the same?
15. The author paints quite a bleak portrait of Doug throughout the book. We gain some understanding of his character when he plans a surprise party for Susannah and apologizes afterward for his ill-conceived marriage proposal in front of all her friends and family. Do you find Doug to be a sympathetic character by the book’s end, or do you think he gets what he deserves?
16. Amelia disapproves as soon as she senses that Susannah has seen Rob in London. Although their meetings have been innocent to this point, do you agree with Amelia? At what point would you consider it cheating?
17. Rob gives up his career in the Air Force when he learns of his father’s illness, even though he knows his father would be furious with him for making that decision. What other sacrifices do characters make in the book? Where do you draw the line at the sacrifice of personal happiness for the good of others?
18. How might things have been different if Rob had said hello to Susannah when he saw her on the street with Sean in 2003? Do you think they would have felt the same old connection, or do you think it would have been the wrong place and the wrong time? How would you have handled it if you were Rob? If you were Susannah?
19. After Susannah and Rob start their affair, Susannah asks herself for the first time whether or not she’s a good person, and finds “she couldn’t quite answer.” (p. 271) Do you believe that Susannah is a good person? If you were in her shoes, would you have behaved the same way?
20. A succession of tragedies intervenes to prevent Rob and Susannah from being together in the end. Was it fate that kept them apart? Do you think they got what they deserved or do you wish that things had worked out differently?
21. If Susannah and Rob had consummated their young love as teenagers, do you think they still would have risked so much to be together? Was this lack of closure the reason they both thought about this relationship for so long after it had ended?
22. The last lines of the chorus in the Prince song, “When You Were Mine,” are: “I love you more than I did/When you were mine.” Discuss the theme of loss in the novel, and how love is sometimes strongest when its object is taken away. Why do we sometimes need a crisis to recognize what we love most? Consider Jonathan’s feelings when Amelia is diagnosed with cancer, Susannah’s when she learns Rob is married, and Rob’s after Helena returns from the war. ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
A CONVERSATION WITH ELIZABETH NOBLE Is there a particular musical era that is closest to your heart?
- After years of living together, traveling abroad, and exploring their city as best friends, it’s the ritual of visiting the same spa, always together year after year, that has strengthened the bond of Amelia and Susannah’s friendship. Consider establishing a special place to convene or visit in conjunction with your book club, such as a favorite spa, museum, park, or pub.
- One of Susannah’s fondest memories of her youth is eating Frank’s freshly made cannolis while studying for school alongside Rob. If you’re feeling indulgent, treat your book club to some fresh cannolis.
- Just as Rob was amused that Susannah asked whether he could stay in touch with Helena while she was in Afghanistan (whereas they had only letters in his day), technology has changed our ability to communicate and reconnect with our old loves, for better or for worse. Visit the website, www.dearoldlove.com, where you can express that final sentiment you’ve always wanted to get off your chest to your old loves, without all the tears.
I think most people identify most with the musical era of their own youth and I’m no exception. That’s when music was most important to me—I lived with the radio on, memorizing song lyrics, writing down the Top 40 every week, and spending most of my allowance on tapes. I still remember what was playing when I had my first kiss, my first broken heart, my first school dance. I had a huge fight with my mother after I claimed Duran Duran were bigger than the Beatles. I felt like some of those songwriters could see right into my soul, and they were writing just for me. My diaries of those years are peppered with song lyrics. Music was my poetry. It was the age of the mixed tape, when boys showed how they felt about you by making tapes of sappy songs, and I can hear a few bars of something on the radio now and be instantly transported back to the day… Those songs are the soundtrack of my growing up, and although I still love and listen to music, it isn’t quite so crucial these days. It is fun to watch my daughters, as they come into adolescence, begin to feel exactly the same way about music.You pull all the strings as the author. Did you ever feel a bit cruel putting Rob and Susannah through so many fortunate and unfortunate catastrophes?
Not cruel, no. For me, a good story has to have twists and turns, ups and downs, triumph and tragedy. That is what I like to write, and, I think, what people like to read. If you read the book, you’ll see, I hope, that I leave everyone in a place of hope and optimism—I always feel a compulsion to do that for characters I have grown to love. But at the same time it has to be real.Amelia and Susannah embark on a number of enviable holidays throughout the novel, especially Amelia. Did you choose these locales because of any personal connection you have to those areas?
I love travel, and I’ve been lucky enough to go to some amazing places, although I am always aware that it is a vast world, and I’ve barely touched the surface. Actually being in a place is really the only way to get a proper sense of it. Google, Wikipedia, and the Internet in general are a fantastic resource tool for any author, but there is no substitute for real research. So, I think I often send my characters to places I actually know, because it makes the writing more authentic. Great excuse for booking more holidays, huh?!Is it difficult to write a novel that so intently dredges up the past? Were there personal touchstones that you drew upon or any forgotten memories that resurfaced in thinking so deeply about the past?
Absolutely. Although this is absolutely not an autobiographical novel, Susannah and Rob grew up in the era that I did, and I drew on many precious memories of my own in reconstructing their past. It was great to go back, actually. And I have had many letters and emails from friends and readers who also enjoyed the nostalgia trip that goes along with reading this novel.Which character did you identify with the most: Amelia or Susannah? Were these best friends inspired by any of your own personal friendships?
I have fabulous girlfriends who I go back many years with, and with whom I have wonderfully strong, supportive friendships that I treasure and rely on. I love when your friends know you well enough to speak shorthand to you, and know how they’ll react almost before you do, as well as always having your back. So of course I borrowed on my own, very lucky, experiences when writing about Amelia and Susannah, but, at the same time, I have strived to make them real and individual characters in their own right. And I don’t especially identify with either of them—I suspect they are, in some ways, an amalgam. I think they’re both great!Christmas traditions have a recurring role in the novel, including eggnog and Christmas Top of the Pops. What are some traditions you’ve adopted now that you’re stateside?
My family has had 4 American Christmas holidays together, and yes, we have embraced some great traditions—although we stop short of the family holiday sweater! I love New York at Christmas—the huge tree at Rockefeller Plaza, the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, and the amazing Christmas merchandise in the stores. It’s the most wonderful time of the year! We have begun taking a family photograph each year for our Christmas cards—it’s a wonderful way to record how everyone has grown and changed over the past twelve months. We tramp through the cold and the snow to choose and harvest our own Christmas tree at a wonderful tree farm near our home in Connecticut and drink hot apple cider as a reward. But we preserve many of our own national and family traditions too. We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in the UK, so we’re still pretty determined to eat a turkey on December 25th—although we now deep fry it, which is fabulous!When you set out to write this novel did you know, as Amelia did, that the romance would end in tears, or did you have some hope for a happy ending?
I knew from the start that Susannah and Rob could not end up together. I had a very clear sense that, although the love between them was real and deep, the timing and their personalities would keep them apart, and that this was the right thing, for everyone. I wasn’t quite sure, all along, how they would come to realize this for themselves—that part of their story presented itself as I was writing. It’s always that way for me—I know the basic shape of my story as I begin, but the detail and twists in the plot fall into place as I go along. That’s what makes writing so exciting.Are you working on any new projects?
I am putting the finishing touches to my new novel—as yet untitled. It’s a story about the layers of grief in a family hit by a tragedy, and the redemptive power of love, both within and outside of the family unit; how it can help to heal. It has been a pleasure to write, and I am very excited about it.