This reading group guide for The Frederick Sisters Are Living The Dream includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jeannie Zusy. 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 Every family has its fault lines, and when Maggie gets a call from the ER in Maryland where her older sister lives, the cracks start to appear. Ginny, her sugar-loving and diabetic older sister with intellectual disabilities, has overdosed on strawberry Jell-O.
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Maggie knows Ginny really can’t live on her own, so she brings her sister and her occasionally vicious dog to live near her in upstate New York. Their other sister, Betsy, is against the idea but as a professional surfer, she is conveniently thousands of miles away.
Thus, Maggie’s life as a caretaker begins. It will take all of her dark humor and patience, already spread thin after a separation, raising two boys, freelancing, and starting a dating life, to deal with Ginny’s diapers, sugar addiction, porn habit, and refusal to cooperate. Add two devoted but feuding immigrant aides and a soon-to-be ex-husband who just won’t go away, and you’ve got a story that will leave you laughing through your tears as you wonder who is actually taking care of whom. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Bets, Maggie and Ginny all have their roles to play as sisters. Discuss each of their relationships. Does their dynamic change throughout the story? If so, how and if not, why do you think that is?
2. When the story starts, Bill and Maggie’s relationship is essentially over. Maggie takes ownership for what finally ended their marriage but what else happened in their relationship that led up to her affair?
3. As the story goes on, we see Maggie’s drinking steadily increase. Discuss how she handles her drinking. What are some of the excuses she uses to justify her actions?
4. Discuss the differences in approach by Philomena and Lika as they take care of Ginny. How are these women similar despite their different backgrounds?
5. Being a caretaker doesn’t look to same for every person. Maggie is a caretaker for Ginny, but also her sons and pets in the family. Where do you think she succeeded in taking care of her family? Were there moments where you thought she could have handled situations better? Do you see a connection to how Maggie treats Ginny and her sons?
6. If you were Maggie’s friend, or family member, how would you react to her relationship with Ginny? Would you have or supported her caretaking decision? What does or doesn’t seem to work between the sisters?
7. There are many funny scenes in the novel, in addition to its humorous tone. Which moments made you laugh, and how did they make you feel about the characters?
8. During the snowstorm, beginning on pp. 212, Maggie realizes that she can’t control Ginny’s care, despite her best efforts. Discuss what advice you might give Maggie on letting go when you’ve done all you could.
9. Although they all have various frustrations with one another, Maggie, Betsy and Ginny clearly love each other. What are some ways they demonstrate their affection, albeit in perhaps untraditional ways?
10. Maggie owns the fact that she has made mistakes over the course of the novel. Discuss what some of them were. Did you empathize with her decisions or choices at all? How does author Jeannie Zusy make her sympathetic despite her mistakes?
11. The title of the book is The Frederick Sisters Are Living the Dream
. Why do you think the author chose this? Do you think the sisters are living the dream? In what ways do their dreams change throughout the book? And how do you think Maggie’s job might connect to this concept of living the dream?
12. Maggie and others vacillate in their determination to break Ginny of her sugar habit. Meanwhile, it seems that Maggie and others have some of their own addictive habits. How does this inform how they all deal with Ginny? Do you think the others even see these parallels?
13. Discuss how the novel is organized and broken into four parts, each focusing on different locations and the setting.
14. Each character brings something different to the story – did you relate to any of them? If so, please explain who and why. Enhance Your Book Club
1. In recent years, there have been many more movies, TV shows, and documentaries exploring Neurodivergent protagonists, such as Atypical, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay,
. Pick one to watch for a book club screening!
2. With its big cast of characters, charming small town New York setting, at times hilarious plot twists and heart tugging storylines, The Frederick Sisters Are Living The Dream
seems perfect for a film or TV adaptation. Who would you cast as its main characters? What scene would you most look forward to watching?
3. Look into Adult Care Centers in your area and volunteer your time! A Conversation with Jeannie Zusy Q: The Frederick Sisters Are Living The Dream is both heartfelt and laugh-out-loud hilarious. Did you set out to write a funny novel, or did the characters you created inform its tone?
A: Oh, thank you! I definitely wanted to lean into the humor. This story is about so many serious things, actually. Complex, hard things. When I was going through something similar, I found the only way I could keep myself centered was to be true to my heart and tuned into my humor. Laughter is an excellent survival mechanism. And yes, the characters also made this happen. Ginny often cracked me up when I was writing her, and there are certain scenes, for example the one between Maggie and Lika after the Apple store, that just totally caught me by surprise. Q: Sisterhood is an evergreen topic in literature, what dynamics in this relationship were you interested in exploring?
A: I wanted to capture the intensity, connection and loyalty that comes with sisterhood. There are no other relationships that share the same history. Sisters share bedrooms and bathrooms and an intimate knowledge of one another since childhood. The roles they play in relation to one another and the rest of the family are established so early on. This is rich and wonderful territory to explore. Q: Tell us about your inspiration for the novel!
A: My brother Davie. He was very special to me and the few of us who were lucky to know and love him. He inspired me in many ways, and I admired his strength, sweetness, and dignity.
A few years ago, he was having health issues that he couldn’t manage on his own. My siblings and I decided to move him to live near me and my family. It was an intense and gratifying three-year adventure. While this was happening, I was struck by how many people I knew that were in similar situations (usually with a parent). I wanted to write a novel that addressed the rewards and challenges that come with caring for a loved one. I wanted to celebrate people who have special needs and shed some light on the preciousness of every life, even a very quiet one.
I chose to fictionalize it because I wanted to give myself some flexibility and freedom. I made it about sisters because I wanted to explore that unique dynamic. Also, I wanted to write about women, specifically the overall amazingness of women in middle-age, whom I feel are under-represented in today’s fiction. And finally, I wanted to celebrate caregivers, many of whom are immigrants and have their own awe-inspiring stories. I honestly don’t know where our country’s medical system would be without them. I dedicated this book to both my brother Davie and to those who care. Q: Why did you choose to separate the story into four parts, designated by place or setting?
A: These parts were very clear to me, each symbolizing where Ginny was in her process of rejection or acceptance of her situation and ultimately her new life in New York. Q: Was there a character that was your favorite to write about? If so, why?
A: I loved writing all three sisters. I enjoyed diving deep into Maggie’s better-to-laugh-than-cry point of view. Ginny was super fun to write. She’s a woman who is not afraid to speak her mind, and sometimes she surprises with her gentleness and wisdom. And Bets- well, she’s just so cool and complex. I also loved writing Philomena and Lika, Bill, the boys, oh my goodness, did I mention Rascal, Coyote, and Crazy Cat? I guess I just fell in love with all of them. Even Mr. X. Q: You’ve written a few different mediums – playwriting (shorts & full lengths), fiction – do you prefer one over the other? If so, why?
A: The exploration of mediums has been organic. As an actor, I started writing material for myself and then plays with friends in mind. This segued into screenplays and then short stories for my kids, then for adults. Several years ago, I would not have predicted that I’d start writing novels, but then I had stories to tell that couldn’t fit into ninety minutes or thirty pages. My first attempt did not get published. Then I had this story, and I felt it needed to be a longer form, and well, here we are! As far as a preferred medium, it really depends on the story and what I feel will be the most fun and satisfying way to tell it. Q: As a writer, what do you hope readers take away from
A: I hope this story will inspire compassion (including self-compassion), encourage humor, and perhaps offer a new view on the challenges and rewards of those living with special needs and an appreciation for those who care for them. Q: Do you have a next project in mind? And, if so, what is it?
A: I do. It’s another heart-driven sometimes humorous contemporary novel. I’d also like to get back to that first novel attempt, a story inspired by my family history that takes place in the Middle East and Europe in the 1950s.
Thanks for these questions and thanks to all the readers!