This reading group guide for Secret Lives of Husbands and Wives by Josie Brown 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.
Lyssa Harper has it all: a comfortable home in the exclusive neighborhood of Paradise Heights, a handsome and successful husband, and beautiful kids. But bubbling beneath the exterior of her enviable life, and the lives of her close friends, is a web of gossip, cheating, lies, and scandal. When the neighborhood’s most attractive power couple breaks up, Lyssa finds herself drawn to the newly single Harry Wilder. As the bond between Harry and Lyssa grows, rumors begin to spread, and the long repressed tensions in the quiet enclave of Paradise Heights boil to the surface. Friends become enemies, charity events and middle-school basketball games become battlefields, and the secret lives of husbands and wives are finally exposed.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. The town of Paradise Heights is portrayed as an upscale enclave for mostly upper-income families. What did you think of the author’s portrayal of the people in this town? Do you admire or condemn them? Envy them for all of their material wealth, or pity them for the emotional balance they lack? Or both?
2. Why do you think Lyssa is so drawn to Harry Wilder at the beginning of the novel? Does she really just feel sorry for him, or is she projecting her own childhood experience with divorce on his circumstance? How are both Lyssa’s and Harry’s experiences with divorce different, and how are they similar?
3. Lyssa spends most of her time socializing with the women who make up the executive board of the Paradise Heights Women’s League. They are depicted mostly as villains in the novel—especially their ringleader, Margot. In fact, the league board is called “the Coven” by those less-popular mommies they’ve nicknamed “the Undesirables,” and all of them have been given nicknames of fairy-tale witches. What, if anything, is attractive about the power wielded by the members of this cruel clique? From where do you think they derive their power?
4. Do you think that all the members of Paradise Heights Women’s League are equally guilty of bad social behavior? Does a follower like, say, Colleen, who silently allows Margot to behave atrociously, deserve just as much blame as the queen bee herself?
5. At times, the character of Lyssa seems both needy and eager-to-please. Her friend Brooke likens her to a puppy, saying, “If someone scratched your belly, you’d never leave their lap” (page 262). How do you think Lyssa changes over the course of the novel? What role does her relationship with Harry play in that transformation?
6. Many of the adults in the novel seem less well-behaved than their children, and Lyssa spends a lot of time worrying about the example that she and the rest of the adults in her social circle are setting for their children. They get into fights at basketball games, and shamelessly throw themselves at the husbands of their friends. How did you feel about the way the adults in this novel conducted themselves? Have you personally witnessed similar behaviors in a social setting? Did you think less of Lyssa for surrounding herself with people who acted the way they did? Would you consider Lyssa a good parent?
7. What did you think of the way Ted withheld intimacy from Lyssa and then used it as a means of marking his territory when he became jealous of Lyssa’s relationship with Harry? Did you find it odd that Lyssa admittedly enjoyed being used by Ted as a way of his proving his dominance over Harry?
8. At one point, Lyssa’s mother questions her daughter’s need to have married “The One.” And DeeDee very pointedly remarks that, “no marriage is perfect.” Almost every relationship in the novel is unstable. What do you think is the author’s opinion of marriage? Would it surprise you to learn that she has been happily married to the same man for more than twenty years, and that like her, he is a journalist who covers relationship trends?
9. Is it significant that DeeDee is the only one who admits—and acts on the fact—that her marriage made her unhappy?
10. Lyssa is concerned that Harry may be labeled an “Undesirable” and, admittedly, dreads it for herself. Do you think that the need for the approval and admiration of our peers can ever be overcome? Can a person be truly happy with themselves without some sort of recognition from others, or will we always need to be noticed in order to be happy with ourselves?
11. As a character, Lyssa can be a little judgmental. She is quick to find fault with her friends and to point out when they’re in denial. And yet, she is blind to the problems in her own life. Are most people better at finding faults with others than at looking within? Why?
12. What is the significance of Lyssa’s relationship with her mother and father? How do you think the example of her parents’ marriage affected the way she handled her own romantic relationships with both Ted and Harry? How does the news that her father didn’t abandon her help Lyssa to reevaluate her views on love and relationships?
13. The Paradise Heights basketball team plays a game at a rival school that displays a banner in its gym, reading: “We Own You.” How do you think the wealth of some of the characters in this book influences their views of the world? How does it affect their children?
14. Although the novel takes place in an exclusive community, a place where most people could never afford to live, are there certain commonalities you noticed between the characters in this book, and the less elite? What sorts of problems transcend class barriers?
15. How did you feel about the way the novel ended? Were you at all upset that Lyssa immediately jumped from a marriage with Ted to a marriage with Harry? Did you want her to strike out on her own and prove her independence? What did you think of the way Lyssa’s relationship with Ted was concluded? Did you want him to get more of a comeuppance?
Enhance Your Book Club
• Each chapter begins with a quote about love and relationships. Which quote was your favorite? Did any hit particularly close to home? Have you received any advice in your own life that rivals the advice offered in these quotes?
• The mean-mommy clique is part of a long-hallowed literary and film tradition that depicts the cattiness with which some women treat one another. Watch, read, and discuss other books and movies that depict similarly icy relationships between women (e.g. anything by Jane Austen, Edit Wharton; Jane Eyre, Cinderella, Mean Girls, Heathers, The Women; etc.). Discuss how you think these portrayals of female-on-female emotional violence affect societal views of women.
• One of the many ways that women in this book jockey for social superiority is through their baking skills (think of DeeDee’s gingerbread man triumph over Lyssa). Have a friendly bake-off of your own and see who can bake the best treat for your book club.
• Go to www.josiebrown.com for information on the author’s previous novels, her reading events, and to download additional book club questions, or to invite her to teleconference with your book club.