This reading group guide for Best Kept Secret includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Amy Hatvany. 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.
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Questions& Topics for Discussion
Enhance Your Book Club
- Do you think the pressures that moms feel today are different from those that previous generations of mothers have faced? How do the challenges of balancing work and family fit in? Discuss to what extent this was illustrated in the novel.
- Cadence’s doctor and Andi both use the phrase “different behaviors, same compulsion” when discussing addiction and recovery. What do they mean when they say this? Can you think of other addictive behaviors that women adopt in an effort to “escape”?
- Cadence says that her mother, Sharon, never discussed the end of her relationships with the men she dated. Do you think this had an effect on Cadence? What was your opinion of how Sharon reacted when Cadence called her father?
- Did you agree with Martin’s decision to file for custody? In your opinion, what were his motivations for doing this?
- Alice is one of the novel’s most enigmatic characters. Did your opinion of her change from the novel’s beginning to its end?
- Forgiveness is an important theme in this novel. Discuss instances within the narrative where it is offered freely, and those instances where it is withheld. Is forgiveness something that should always be available to people who are repentant?
- Cadence’s grandmother is arguably one of the most important characters in the novel, and yet we never see her or know her, beyond secondhand descriptions. How did your opinions of both Sharon and Cadence shift once you knew more about her?
- Did this novel change the way you think about (or talk about) your own drinking habits, or those of your friends? Did it change any of your preconceptions about addiction and addicts?
- Best Kept Secret is about one woman’s mistake that she can’t undo. Is there a decision or choice that you have made in your life that you regret? Were you able to rectify it?
- The truth of Cadence’s grandmother’s alcoholism is a long and closely guarded family secret. Are there any family secrets that you only learned about as an adult?
- Did the ending surprise you? Who do you think should have received custody of Charlie?
A Conversation with Amy Hatvany What inspired you to write Best Kept Secret?
- Many memoirs have been written about addiction (Lit by Mary Karr, Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher, Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp, Smashed by Koren Zailckas). Consider selecting one to read as a group, or having members bring in one that they have read that they found particularly moving. How is reading a memoir about addiction different from reading a novel about the same topic?
- Mothers who drink have been in the news in recent years. Do some research online and revisit the stories that made headlines. Do you have a different perspective on these women after reading Best Kept Secret?
- Think about the portrayal of alcoholism and addiction in films, and consider watching one as a group. Some examples include: Barfly, 28 Days, Requiem for a Dream, Rachel Getting Married, Blow, and Postcards from the Edge. Do you see a distinction in how male and female addicts are depicted?
I began writing the story as a direct result of my own emotional experiences around being a mother and a recovering alcoholic. While the characters and plot are fiction, Cadence’s emotional turmoil during her descent into addiction and her journey back to sobriety are largely based on what I went through. As I worked on the emotional side of getting sober, it became clear to me that there is a special, intense kind of shame that accompanies being a woman who has been drunk in front of her children. It’s that shame which forces so many of us to keep our addiction secret, for fear of what might happen if we tell someone the truth. We’re terrified of the stigma and possible consequences, but keeping this secret can have devastating—even deadly—results.
I wanted to write a story that would hopefully illuminate how this can happen to anyone. How quickly a seemingly innocent behavior can destroy an otherwise successful, strong woman while she attempts to keep the balls in her life in the air so no one will suspect what’s really going on. I wanted to emphasize how many women, whether or not they end up becoming alcoholic, face incredible amounts of pressure to do everything in their lives perfectly. And when we fail, we experience such profound levels of shame and self-loathing, even as we smile brightly and tell ourselves that we can’t expect to always be perfect. But deep down, perhaps subconsciously, I think we still believe that we “should” be. So we reach for behaviors that drown our shame out, at least temporarily. And then we become ashamed of the behavior, and a vicious cycle emerges. When do you find the time to write? Do you have a special workspace, or any writing rituals?
Since I still have a day job, I pretty much fit in writing time wherever I can. Early in the morning, late at night, or on the weekends when the kids are still sleeping. My ritual is to get my butt in the chair and keep it there until I hopefully get at least 2,000 words on the page! I wear my most comfy pajamas so I can sit cross-legged while I try to ignore my two adorable dogs, who constantly pester me for attention. Like Cadence, I need total and complete silence in order to write, but I’m easily distracted—“Oh, look! Shiny things!”— so my husband’s Bose noise-cancelling headphones are one of my favorite accessories. You’re the author of two other novels (published under the name Amy Yurk). How was writing this novel different than your previous two?
It was different for me in many ways. Because of various circumstances, I hadn’t written anything substantial in more than five years, so I felt pretty rusty and stilted when I started out. Obviously, the emotions behind this story were incredibly personal, more so than with my first two, because in revealing Cadence’s secret I was revealing my own. There were dark memories I had to revisit, and it took some time to build up the courage to get the emotional side of those experiences fully onto the page. I worried about being judged for my alcoholism, but the idea that if I told the truth it might help even one woman who is still suffering alone in silence made it worth the risk of what others might choose to think of me personally. Since this is admittedly such a personal story for you, why did you choose to write a novel instead of a memoir?
I chose to write a novel primarily because that’s the genre I feel most comfortable working within, but at a deeper level, I also wanted to address broader themes around the pressures women face every day in all our roles: as mothers, as professionals in our chosen careers, and as wives, daughters, and friends. Unfortunately, feelings of not being good enough, self-loathing, shame, and guilt are common to most women in our culture, and it was important to me to speak to all women—not just alcoholics and addicts—about the dangers of letting those emotions get the better of us. Fiction allows me a much wider canvas to explore the complicated issues at play. Part of Cadence’s struggle is that she feels like she can’t measure up to other mothers—that her peers in her Mommy and Me group have it “together” in a way that she does not.Is this a sentiment you’ve observed in women you know?
Absolutely. Society places an increasing amount of pressure on mothers to maintain ridiculous levels of expertise. We’re supposed to be mindful of every possible effect our actions might have on our children and edit ourselves accordingly. We’re expected to be psychologists, nutritionists, teachers, doctors, and organic farmers, (or, at the very least, shop only at local, sustainable farmers’ markets!) If a mother is thinner or better-dressed, or has taught her three-year old how to ask for juice in Mandarin Chinese, it’s a common reaction for many women to feel somehow “less-than” in that woman’s presence.
I think what’s dangerous about this feeling of inadequacy is that it’s entirely based on our perception of what a woman appears to be on the surface. But the truth is we rarely know what’s really going on behind closed doors. Maybe that thin woman has a terrible eating disorder, or the better-dressed woman has a hidden online-shopping addiction that is about to bankrupt her or end her marriage. And so on. When I find myself feeling unworthy next to a mother who manages to work full-time, runs the PTA, and bakes delectable gluten-free goodies for her children, I remind myself that every one of us is fighting some kind of battle. Everyone suffers. Cadence finds some peace and satisfaction in cooking. Do you have a similar activity that relaxes you and gives you a sense of fulfillment?
Oh, I’m a total foodie, too! I adore cooking—the creative side, of course, that comes out of whipping up something glorious to put in my mouth, but also the calming, Zen-like effect the process has on me. If you do the right thing in a recipe, you get an expected result. There are very few things in life that predictable, so I find a lot of peace in the kitchen. (And on my couch, watching the Food Network! Ina Garten—the Barefoot Contessa—is my personal culinary hero.) I post some of my favorite recipes on my website and on Face-book, and I always love it when readers send me their favorites, too! At the end of the novel, Cadence notes that “if a father spent as much time with his child as I do with Charlie, if that same father worked and went to school, and still somehow managed to see his child that often, the world would canonize him.” Do you agree that this double standard exists? Do you think we tend to expect different things from mothers and fathers?
I do see a double standard. As the traditional nurturers, mothers are expected to put their children first, and as the typical primary breadwinner, fathers are expected to put their career first. If a family’s situation differs from these standards, our sense of normality is disrupted, and we’re not quite sure how to respond to the people involved.
This is especially notable in the standard perception that after divorce, children should remain with their mother and the father should have visitation rights. How many men are judged or looked down upon for spending their allotted two weekends a month with their children? People don’t make moral suppositions about his character. They don’t automatically wonder what horrible thing he did to not have primary custody. He’s just doing what fathers should do. If he manages to do more than that, he is lauded as going above and beyond.
Now, put a mother in that same scenario, working hard at her career, paying child support, and spending two weekends a month or more with her children. What is your core emotional reaction? What does it bring up in you? Are you immediately horrified, assuming she must be a druggie or a prostitute not to have been granted custody, or at the very least a selfish or immoral creature? The underlying belief is that in order to be a good mother, at least as society defines it, a woman needs to have her children with her the majority of the time. Mothers without primary custody are typically ostracized.
Some might say these expectations are shifting, but I would argue that overall, they have not. Our culture’s belief systems around gender roles are deeply entrenched, and judgment comes much easier to most of us than acceptance. When Cadence researches mothers and alcoholism, she comes upon the Whore/Madonna theory of societal expectations for feminine behavior. Can you tell us a bit more about why you chose to mention this in the novel? Do you think that women face more of a stigma with alcoholism than men do?
My decision to include this reference goes back to societal expectations around how women should behave, especially once they become mothers. The idea that a woman should aspire to a sort of self-sacrificing sainthood once she has children is one of the chief obstacles that keeps a woman struggling with addiction from getting the help she needs. Even if she isn’t a mother, the cultural preset notion is that female alcoholics are sexually trashy. Male alcoholics are often seen as sexually indiscriminate, too, but sexual prowess in men is encouraged, if not worshipped in our culture, whether the man is an alcoholic or not. The lens society uses to view women who suffer from alcoholism is a much different prescription than the one used for men.
Our culture is more comfortable with absolutes around sexuality—a woman is either the Madonna or the Whore. This categorization is so ingrained in people’s minds that many aren’t even aware of their own prejudice. And how many women do you know who would step up and admit their problem with alcohol or drugs, knowing this label (drunk = whore) would be applied to them? The fear of this is a significant contributor to why so many women go without the help they need. They’re diagnosed by their doctors as depressed or anxious, and the terror of that damaging stigma keeps them from talking about the real trouble they’re in. Both Laura and Susanne are friends of Cadence’s who struggle with addiction, and both are unable to overcome their reliance on drugs and alcohol.How much do you think someone’s ability to overcome an addiction depends upon the network of support they have, and how much of it is contingent upon the individual themselves?
That’s a tough question, because I think it takes a balance of both. The first step toward overcoming an addiction is the realization that you can’t “fix” the problem yourself. This was a serious challenge for me in getting sober, because I was someone who had actually accomplished quite a bit in my life before alcohol took me over. Whatever goal I set, I reached. But I couldn’t make myself stop drinking, and it totally baffled me. It wasn’t until I finally surrendered and said, “Okay, I need help,” that I moved toward healing myself and my life. The trickiest part of alcoholism or drug addiction is that it is a disease that tells you you don’t have a disease. Even after you’re sober, the “addict” in your head will always be there, telling you things weren’t really that bad, you aren’t really an alcoholic.
That’s where having a support system comes in. I need to be surrounded by other people in recovery, because our brains work the same way. They have addicts in their head, too, spouting off some crazy stuff. (I think it’s Anne Lamott who says, “My mind is a dangerous neighborhood not to be entered into alone.”) They understand why I did the things I did. They felt the same compulsion and the same profound self-loathing I suffered from when I couldn’t stop drinking. These people don’t judge me. They taught me that no matter the things I’d done, or how much I’d beaten myself up for them, I am worthy of love. And now I try to help other newly sober people understand the same thing.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to determine whether someone will overcome an addiction. There isn’t a personality type or social group that has a better chance at sobriety. When you’re emotionally fit, you’re able to use more effective tools to manage your life, when you’re not, you can easily fall back into unhealthy behavior, including using alcohol or drugs. Twelve-step programs are designed to help develop and then maintain that emotional fitness, and only the individual can decide if they are willing to do that kind of daily, continuous work on themselves. Both Cadence and Martin were raised by single mothers, and both are determined to “do better” than what they were raised with—Cadence wants to be a more present mother, while Martin is determined to be a stable provider for his family. Do you think that the adults we grow into are inevitably reactions to (and perhaps against) our upbringings?
I think for the most part this is true. Though I certainly don’t take the stance that we should blame our parents, or whoever it was that raised us, for all that goes wrong in our lives. I believe we all do the best we can with the tools we are given. As adults, it’s up to us to take a look at what works for us and what doesn’t. If a behavior isn’t serving us anymore, or if it’s damaging us or the people we love, it’s our responsibility to reach out and gather new tools so we can grow as individuals. We need to ask ourselves if something we’re doing is a result of programming or if it’s something that contributes to the kind of person we want to be. And then we need to act accordingly. What do you hope readers will take away from this novel?
Overall, I hope that women, especially, are able to see the similarities they share with Cadence, rather than the differences. I hope that the story widens the readers’ understanding and compassion, and perhaps makes them reevaluate any preconceptions they might hold about women who suffer from alcoholism and mothers who don’t have primary custody of their children.
I also hope that any woman in the throes of active addiction sees herself in Cadence’s story and finds the courage it takes to reach out for help.
For me, that’s the inherent beauty of books—each person will walk away with something different from a story. My hope as an author is that readers will find a need met, perhaps one they weren’t aware they had to fill. Do you have any plans for another novel?
I actually have another novel completed, though I’m sure I’ll have more revision to do! It tells the story of a woman searching for her homeless and mentally ill father, from whom she has been estranged for twenty years. I used alternating viewpoints, flashing back and forth between father and daughter as well as between past and present. It was a different approach for me, and I felt stretched as a writer, which was a good thing!
I’m also about to start my fifth novel, which will explore what happens when a woman is suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into the role of full-time mother and is forced to confront the complicated reasons behind her previously hard-and-fast decision to remain childless.