By the Book
by Julia Sonneborn
Discussion Questions:
1. The first man Anne introduces us to is Larry, who provides much of the comic relief in this novel. What else does he provide for Anne? How do his relationships connect her with other people? She doesn’t think the acknowledgement to him in her book captures their relationship. Do you agree?

2. Dr. Russell forces Anne to evaluate her post-grad options. She bluntly states, “When I think of the advantages women of your generation have had . . . I don’t understand why you would throw all of it away.” What hardships did women Dr. Russell’s age face when trying to have a professional career? What problems have women of later generations faced? Has having had more options led to greater happiness?

3. Because Adam agrees with Dr. Russell (that Anne should go to Yale), Anne has a moment where she believes “I could have a fulfilling professional life and a fulfilling personal life. I could have it all.” Why doesn’t it turn out that way? How much responsibility lies with Adam? With Anne? What family and social pressures were they each dealing with?

4. Anne feels her father treated Adam poorly and looked down upon her decision to acquire a PhD and so much student debt. But by his funeral she chooses to read Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays.” Why do you think Anne chose this poem? How has her view of her father changed over the course of his illness?

5. At the beginning of the book Anne feels that her sister, Lauren, also looks down upon her lack of financial security. As their father grows ill and dies, does the dynamic of the sisters’ relationship change? Why do you think sisters have such a natural inclination to compare and compete with each other?

6. Anne reconnects with Bex at Lauren’s book club. That night Anne tells her she could have been a great professor. While she means it as a compliment, she realizes Bex thinks she’s judging her for deferring to her husband’s career. Why do women do this to themselves? And why are there some women who would judge Bex? Is there any way to have it all?

7. Anne’s book is an academic novel, but even her publisher notes it ties in with the current popularity of authors like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. Why do you think their novels have had such staying power?

8. Anne tries to teach her students that nineteenth-century novels about marriage “weren’t about love. They were about money, and power, and imperialism, and real estate.” While this makes a strong academic argument, do you think Anne truly believes it? Why is her favorite novel still Persuasion?

9. Anne has never read Rick’s books, so at first, she doesn’t believe the accusations of plagiarism. Then she stays with him because she’s worried for his mental health. But after she speaks to Emily, she cuts off all communication with Rick, going so far as to get a restraining order. What did you think of Anne’s relationship with Rick prior to the plagiarism scandal? How do you feel about how Anne handled the end of their relationship? How did it compare to her break-up with Adam?

10. Anne sees Emily as the “younger, better, more hopeful version of myself,” and feels terrible for introducing her to Rick. Should Anne feel so guilty? Is there any way for a college-aged woman to see relationships in the same light as a thirtysomething woman?

11. The author uses the barrage of email Anne receives to give us insight into both Anne’s professional and personal life. Did you enjoy the switch from Anne’s direct narration? What significance does it take on given that Anne studies authors to whom letter writing was so important?

12. At graduation, Larry and Anne discuss how men handle break-ups verses women. Anne admits that the way she handles them is for self-preservation. Why was it so important that she admit this to herself? That she say it aloud?

13. Adam’s letter to Anne is a direct reference to Persuasion. But his two proposals to Anne are unique to this book. How to they compare to each other? Did you enjoy the first, second, or both?

(Discussion Questions by Publisher)


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