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An Elegant Woman

A Novel

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“A portrait of self-creation in the vein of F. Scott Fitzgerald”,” (The Wall Street Journal) An Elegant Woman is “a rich exploration of legacy and memory” (Entertainment Weekly) that follows four generations of women against the sweep of 20th century American history.

Drawn from the author’s own family history, this powerful, moving multigenerational saga from National Book Award finalist Martha McPhee masterfully explores the stories we tell ourselves, and what we leave out.

As Isadora, a novelist, and two of her sisters sift through the artifacts of their forebears’ lives, trying to decide what to salvage and what to toss, the story shifts to a winter day in 1910 at a train station in Ohio. Two girls wait in the winter cold with their mother—the mercurial Glenna Stewart—to depart for a new life in the West. As Glenna campaigns in Montana for women’s suffrage and teaches in one-room schoolhouses, Tommy takes care of her little sister, Katherine: trapping animals, begging, keeping house, cooking, while Katherine goes to school. When Katherine graduates, Tommy makes a decision that will change the course of both of their lives.

Told “with an easy grace many historical novels lack” (Los Angeles Times), An Elegant Woman follows one woman over the course of the 20th century, taking us from a drought-stricken Montana farm to a yellow Victorian in Maine; from the halls of a psychiatric hospital in London to a wedding gown fitting at Bergdorf Goodman; from a house in small town Ohio to a family reunion at a sweltering New Jersey pig roast. Framed by Isadora’s efforts to retell her grandmother’s journey—and understand her own—the novel is “sharp, precise, and, yes, elegant” (The Boston Globe) in its gorgeous depiction of one hundred years in a family’s history.

This reading group guide for An Elegant Woman 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

Drawn from the author’s own family history, An Elegant Woman is a story of discovery and reinvention, following four generations of women in one American family. As Isadora, a novelist, and two of her sisters sift through the artifacts of their forebears’ lives, trying to decide what to salvage and what to toss, the narrative shifts to a winter day in 1910 at a train station in Ohio. Two girls wait in the cold with their mother—the mercurial Glenna Stewart—to depart for a new life in the West. As Glenna campaigns in Montana for women’s suffrage and teaches in one-room schoolhouses, Tommy takes care of her little sister, Katherine: trapping animals, begging, keeping house, cooking, while Katherine goes to school. When Katherine graduates, Tommy makes a decision that will change the course of both their lives.

A profound meditation on memory, history, and legacy, An Elegant Woman follows one woman over the course of the twentieth century, taking the reader from a drought-stricken farm in Montana to a yellow Victorian in Maine; from the halls of a psychiatric hospital in London to a wedding gown fitting at Bergdorf Goodman; from a house in small-town Ohio to a family reunion at a sweltering New Jersey pig roast. Framed by Isadora’s efforts to retell her grandmother’s journey—and understand her own—the novel is an evocative exploration of the stories we tell ourselves and what we leave out.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. At the beginning of the novel, as Isadora and her sisters sort through their grandmother’s belongings, Isadora reflects on her grandmother’s life. Have you ever had a similar experience? How did it make you feel?

2. On the long train ride west, do you sympathize with Tommy? With Katherine? With Glenna? What do you make of her disappearance?

3. All through Tommy’s childhood, Glenna campaigns for votes for women: “Man is man and woman is woman and our natures are different and our voices are different, but both must and will be heard” (page 106). Do Glenna’s political preoccupations help her daughters see their opportunities, or do they have to make opportunities in spite of her?

4. When their apartment lights on fire, why does Tommy refuse to leave? Why does she tell Katherine that she hates her?

5. Through Isadora’s interjections into the narrative, McPhee reveals that much of a family history can be fictional. What purposes does she suggest these fictions serve?

6. Before they part, adults now, Tommy and Katherine argue. Does their relationship ever recover from this argument? Is either sister honest here about what she wants?

7. McPhee’s novel focuses on the way her characters go about making their lives. Do you think chance or determination influences a life more? How much of each?

8. Over the course of the novel, attitudes about children change dramatically. What does that have to do with the times? With economics?

9. Why does Tommy repeat that, on her trip with the Simmons family, she was “treated like a guest” (page 164)? Why was that so important to her?

10. Why do Tommy and her sister choose their respective husbands? What does each see in the man she marries?

11. Growing up, how does Slim feel about Aunt Thelma, Uncle Charles, Winter, and Jet? Jealous, admiring, interested?

12. Describe the scene between Slim, Tommy, and Mr. Moon. What is the connection between Slim and Tommy in this scene?

13. Why does Pat take the Cantonese wedding bowl from Tommy at the end of her New Jersey visit?

14. Tommy and her sister take very different paths. Why? What character traits make the difference?

15. What are the ramifications of what Lavern does to Winter—for Winter, for Nan, and for Tommy?

16. Describe Winter’s first meeting with Arthur. How is the complexity of their later relationship seeded in their car ride to the hospital? Even then is Winter attracted to him? How does she view him?

17. Why is Isadora, out of all her sisters, the most attached to her grandmother? What’s their special bond?

18. How does Tommy feel about Zasu? What’s her reaction in the hospital, after Zasu is born? When she describes Zasu as “illegitimate” (page 351), what does that reveal about Tommy’s prejudices and limitations?

19. Are Tommy’s stories about her ancestors, the ones she passes on to Isadora, fabrications? Are they exaggerations? The truth? Or somewhere in between? What is the value and purpose of these stories?

20. How do women and their opportunities change across the century McPhee describes?

21. What does Isadora learn on that final trip with Sam, Zane, Gracie, Mathilde, and Slim?

22. Women change their identities in this book, travel to different places, take on new names, first and last. Does it feel more or less possible to shift identities now?

23. The relationships between sisters, between women, drive the narrative, but the women still operate within a patriarchal society. How do you think the influence of patriarchy influences each of them and their relationships?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Discuss the stories passed down in your family with your book group.

2. Embark on research into your own family history and discuss the results. Did you learn anything new?

3. To learn more about Martha McPhee and An Elegant Woman, visit https://marthamcphee.com.
Photograph by Ann Billingsley

Martha McPhee is the author of the novels An Elegant Woman, Bright Angel Time, Gorgeous Lies, L’America, and Dear Money. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. Gorgeous Lies was a finalist for the National Book Award. She teaches fiction at Hofstra University and lives in New York City.

"Martha McPhee’s novel An Elegant Woman explores the archetypally American virtue of self-invention. To its redoubtable, shape-shifting matriarch, Thelma, the past exists to be molded and falsified in the pursuit of an ideal...This is a portrait of self-creation in the vein of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but without his disenchantment."
—Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal

"Isadora, the narrator of Martha McPhee’s fifth novel, An Elegant Woman, is a writer with deep curiosity about her family history. Fortunately, her grandmother — known, among other monikers, as Tommy, Katherine and Grammy — is a teller of endless tales, dashed here and there with truth...The novel’s finest pages are the ones set in Montana, where the sisters grow up against the backdrop of the American West...The writing is at its best in...tense moments, when no amount of name-changing can afford the characters any escape."
—Jackie Thomas Kennedy, The Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Calling her book An Elegant Woman, in which family lore conveys as much made-up grandeur as fact, is both fitting and ironic. For the elegant woman in question...embodies incessant self-invention...Throughout, the writing remains sharp, precise, and, yes, elegant...McPhee’s narrative swings back and forth in time, creating wide-angled panoramas followed by intimate closeups."
—Dan Cryer, The Boston Globe

"[McPhee's] new novel, An Elegant Woman, expands this distinctly American drive across the span of a century and the breadth of the country. McPhee has earned this sweep: Over five novels she has developed such a sophisticated grasp of social-climbing characters that she’s able to track three generations with an easy grace many historical novels lack."
Los Angeles Times

"Martha McPhee is less interested in revealing family secrets than in probing the way insistently told lies can become a kind of truth. Partly inspired by McPhee’s grandmother’s own stories, An Elegant Woman... charts the course of a hardscrabble youth in the raw American West that’s deftly camouflaged by a prosperous, sophisticated Eastern adulthood."
New York Times Book Review

"Flashes of gleaming prose illuminate Martha McPhee’s novel, which is rooted in her own family history and offers much insight."
Christian Science Monitor

"This novel by National Book Award finalist and Hofstra University English professor McPhee is proof positive of the importance of family stories being passed on from generation to generation. The author found inspiration in her grandmother's recollections of her ancestors and of growing up out West for this tale of two sisters whose lives take wildly divergent paths following an act of betrayal."
Newsday

"Spanning four generations of women through the 20th century, Martha McPhee’s fifth novel is a rich exploration of legacy and memory. It untangles the sacred myths of an American family, as a woman pieces together the story of her extraordinary — and highly elegant — grandmother."
Entertainment Weekly

"The new novel by Martha McPhee—daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Princeton professor John McPhee—is a heart-warming family saga that follows four generations of women. Drawing from her own family history, McPhee takes readers on a journey across the country in this meditation on memory, history and legacy."
Jacqueline MrozNew Jersey Monthly

"Spanning four generations of women through the 20th century, Martha McPhee’s fifth novel is a rich exploration of legacy and memory. It untangles the sacred myths of an American family, as a woman pieces together the story of her extraordinary and highly elegant grandmother."
MAG The Weekly

"Calling her book An Elegant Woman, in which family lore conveys as much made-up grandeur as fact, is both fitting and ironic. For the elegant woman in question...embodies incessant self-invention...Throughout, the writing remains sharp, precise, and, yes, elegant...McPhee’s narrative swings back and forth in time, creating wide-angled panoramas followed by intimate closeups.”
Boston Globe

“A richly animated work, McPhee’s enthralling new novel glides through American history, from early-twentieth-century Billings, Montana, to a Prohibition-era Adirondacks lakeside retreat and beyond, alongside fabulous characters...McPhee elevates the generational saga into a dazzling, artfully detailed presentation of self-determination.” 
—Booklist, starred review 

“A richly textured family portrait." 
Kirkus Reviews

“McPhee’s ambitious tale...captivates."
Publisher's Weekly

"Martha McPhee has outdone herself with this irresistibly lively, worldly-wise, wonderfully imagined novel, wherein the American art of self-invention is explored with an clear eye to the price it exacts. All the characters are richly realized—none more so than the narrator, who regards her family myths with amused skepticism, tenderness and a consistently engaging intelligence."
—Phillip Lopate, author of A Mother's Tale and Two Marriages