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The Sisters of Summit Avenue

LIST PRICE $12.99

From the bestselling author of Mrs. Poe and Twain’s End comes a “poignant, beautifully rendered story of two sisters who find the courage to reclaim their bond after years of misunderstandings and heartbreak” (Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author) during the Great Depression.

1934. Ruth has been single-handedly raising four young daughters and running her family’s Indiana farm for eight long years, ever since her husband, John, was infected by the infamous “sleeping sickness” devastating families across the country. If only she could trade places with her older sister, June: blonde and beautiful, married to a wealthy doctor, living in a mansion in St. Paul. And June has a coveted job, too, as one of “the Bettys,” the perky recipe developers who populate the famous Betty Crocker test kitchen. But these gilded trappings hide sorrows: she has borne no children. And the man she loves more than anything belongs to Ruth.

When the two sisters reluctantly reunite after a long estrangement, June’s bitterness about her sister’s betrayal sets into motion a confrontation that’s been years in the making. And their mother, Dorothy, who’s brought the two of them together, has her own dark secrets, which might blow up the fragile peace she hopes to restore between her daughters.

An emotional journey of redemption, inner strength, and the ties that bind families together, for better or worse, The Sisters of Summit Avenue is a moving and heartfelt tribute to mothers, daughters, and sisters everywhere.

This reading group guide for The Sisters of Summit Avenue includes an introduction, 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

Introduction

Ruth has been single-handedly raising four young daughters and running her family’s Indiana farm for eight long years, ever since her husband, John, fell into a comatose state, infected by the infamous “sleeping sickness” devastating families across the country. If only she could trade places with her older sister, June, who is the envy of everyone she meets: blonde and beautiful, married to a wealthy doctor, living in a mansion in St. Paul. And June has a coveted job, too, as one of “the Bettys,” the perky recipe developers who populate General Mills’s famous Betty Crocker test kitchens. But these gilded trappings hide sorrows: she desperately wants children but can’t have them. And the man she used to love more than anything belongs to Ruth.

When the two sisters reluctantly reunite after a long estrangement, June’s bitterness about her sister’s betrayal sets into motion a confrontation that’s been years in the making. And their mother, Dorothy, who’s brought the two of them together, has her own dark secrets, which might blow up the fragile peace she hopes to restore between her daughters.

An emotional journey of redemption, inner strength, and the ties that bind families together, for better or worse, The Sisters of Summit Avenue is a heartfelt love letter to mothers, daughters, and sisters everywhere.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. The book begins with June’s story and her job in the Betty Crocker kitchens. What is your first impression of her? What do you think of the Betty Crocker persona and the act June and the other women put on?

2. Ruth has worked hard running the family farm since her husband John fell ill, but she is still anxious about her sister’s impending visit. They have a difficult past, but what do you think June is most worried about?

3. Dorothy acts as John’s primary caregiver. She is an extremely private and introverted woman, but as she cares for John, she tells him about her past. Why do you think she chose John to share her stories with?

4. June was an ambitious and proud teenager, but we hear only a few stories from that time. Chapter 9 tells the story of her experience as a window model. Why was this story important to tell? How did that experience shape June?

5. When June and Ruth reunite for the first time in almost a decade, tensions are high. How does each behave? Who acts more honestly?

6. John and Ruth’s daughter, Margaret, compares her father’s life to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”. Why does the comparison disturb Ruth so much? Is it compassion for John or her own guilt?

7. In a series of flashbacks, we learn that John was engaged to June before he married Ruth. Discuss how this happened. Do you think John would have married June if Ruth had not come to Chicago that night? What do you think of Ruth’s behavior?

8. Do you sympathize with one sister more than the other? Do your sympathies change over the course of the book, and if so, why?

9. It is no small miracle when John wakes up. How do Ruth, the children, and Dorothy each handle this development? What does John have to say about his time “asleep”?

10. As John and June dance in chapter 38, we glimpse more about their current relationship and his relationship with Ruth. Describe how he feels about each woman. Is it possible for him to love them both?

11. Ruth believes June has always been gifted anything she wants, while Ruth has to fight tooth and nail for everything. How has this belief affected their relationship and the course of their lives? How does it all come to a head in Chapter 39?

12. Dorothy had been waiting half her life for June’s father, Edward Lamb, to rescue them, but when he finally arrives, she rejects him. What has changed for Dorothy? Why has June never sought out her father and her inheritance? What do you think Ruth would have done if the roles were reversed?

13. We see June and Richard’s relationship at many different stages. What were they like when they first met? How did they treat each other after they had been married for several years? How has their relationship evolved over time?

14. We end with a small glimpse into the future, when both sisters are working for Betty Crocker and living on Summit Avenue. How do you think they were able to mend the rift between them? Discuss how their relationship with their mother has changed.

Enhance Your Book Club

1. There are three marriages represented throughout the book. Discuss how each is different from the others and how they are similar. Do you think one is a more accurate representation of marriage in the 1920s–1930s than the others? Is one a more modern approach? Are these relationships similar to any in your life?

2. Many people turned to Betty Crocker for advice in the 1900s. Imagine what it would have been like to work as a Betty, giving advice and creating recipes with a team of women. What recipes or advice would you share? Are there any recipes or advice you would not share?

3. Imagine you are one of the Summit Avenue sisters. How would you have handled the many unexpected twists and turns they face? Would you have done anything differently? Is there anything you would not change?

4. In the 1940s, Betty Crocker was named the second-most popular woman in America. (Eleanor Roosevelt was #1.) How did the advent of the radio, the first form of media that could instantaneously reach a nationwide audience, contribute to Betty Crocker’s popularity? In what other ways did the radio and advertising contribute to shaping what women wanted in the 1930s? In what ways does advertising contribute to what women want now?
Photograph by Parker Clayton Smith

Lynn Cullen grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana and is the bestselling author of The Sisters of Summit Avenue, Twain’s End, and Mrs. Poe, which was named an NPR 2013 Great Read and an Indie Next List selection. She lives in Atlanta.

More books from this author: Lynn Cullen