This reading group guide for Mating for Life includes 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.
Join our mailing list!
Get our latest staff recommendations, award news and digital catalog links right to your inbox.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Consider the epigraphs of the novel. How do they work together? If you had to pick a character to match each with, who would you pick and why?
2. Discuss the chapter openers. How did they inform your experience of each chapter? Did the description of the animal mating patterns make you think differently about monogamy?
3. How are Fiona, Ilsa, and Liane each shaped by their fathers? In contrast, how do you see the influence of Helen illustrated in each of their personalities?
4. Is there a character you identify most with? Which characteristics do you most strongly identify with? Are these things you like about yourself or don’t like about yourself?
5. Turn to p. 119 and reread the scene in the faculty lounge, in which Grace and Tansy discuss marriage. Did any of the points raised here particularly resonate with you? Why do you think people get married? Stay married? Remarry, even if they had a disastrous first marriage?
6. How integral is motherhood to Helen’s overall identity, and does this change over the course of the novel? What is your perception of her as a maternal figure?
7. Aside from the sisters and Helen, who was your favorite narrator, and why?
8. Consider the examples of female friendship that we see in action in the novel, particularly the dynamic between Helen and Edie. How are the relationships between friends different from those between sisters— both in the novel and in your own experience?
9. What do you think the novel is saying about the ways that resentment and jealousy act on couples? What about between family members? Are the effects of each emotion different, depending on whether the relationship is romantic or platonic?
10. Beyond Helen, think of the other portrayals of mothering within the novel. In what way does seeing a character in a maternal role give us new insight into them?
11. Helen tells Ilsa, “I think love is a good thing, in any form. Even when it hurts. The pain often leaves behind a beautiful memory” (p. 175). Do you agree with this? Are there other statements about love within the novel that particularly resonated with you?
12. Discuss Liane and Laurence’s decision not
to get married and their reasons for it. Is it possible that their vision of what a monogamous, committed relationship without marriage looks like is as idealistic as the institution of marriage itself? To push that idea further: In an era where divorce rates are higher than ever, what does marriage truly mean anymore?
13. Consider the evolution of the sisters’ relationships with each other, as well as with their mother. Discuss the two scenes in which we see them all together—during the “spa” weekend at Crystal Springs and at Ilsa’s art opening. Consider the significance of these two events, and compare and contrast the dynamics between the four of them in each setting. Can you chart any changes in them—as individuals, perhaps, but also as sisters, daughters, and mothers?
14. Discuss the types of secrets kept in the novel and the role that these secrets play in the lives of these characters. Throughout the novel, who is keeping knowledge from whom? Do good intentions justify keeping something hidden? If the truth will hurt someone, but discovering that a secret was kept will also
hurt them, how can you determine which is the better alternative? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Pretend you are casting the film version of Mating for Life
. Who would play each sister? What about Helen and Iain? Myra and Johnny? Lincoln and Laurence?
2. While there are many men depicted in the novel, the narrators are all women. Which of the male characters would you have wanted to hear from? Imagine the twists and turns a chapter from this particular point of view might take. Are there questions that you still have about the novel that this character might answer?
3. Typically, we are more likely to rebel against a stricter, more traditional upbringing—but in some ways, it seems Fiona, Ilsa, and Liane rebel against their less conventional upbringing. In order to move fully into adulthood, it is natural (and instinctual) for people to break away from their parents and seek to build their own lives, but it can be a painful experience. Have you lived through this yourself, or with your own children? Do you think there is a way to be an individual while still honoring and respecting the traditions and ideals of your parents? In cases where an upbringing may have been more painful than positive, do you think there is a way to leave behind old and potentially harmful patterns rather than allowing history to repeat itself?
4. In Mating for Life
, Helen’s lake house serves as a tangible link for these characters, pulling them together across time and space. Is there a place in your life—either currently, or perhaps from your childhood—that holds that same power for you? Is it possible to differentiate how much of the pull of this place comes from the physical elements of it versus the feelings and relationships that you associate with it?
5. In particular, Fiona works hard to present a perfect image of herself and her family to the world—when in reality, things are not perfect. Do you agree that especially in a world where the strong presence of social media allows us to curate our life moments and present the selves we want to be rather than the selves we are to friends, family, and acquaintances, that we may be losing touch with who we really
are—or putting ourselves under incredible pressure to live up to these false realities? How can we work to stop this cycle, with ourselves and the people we know?