This reading group guide for How to Party with an Infant includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kaui Hart Hemmings. 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
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Two years after being blindsided by her (surprise!) engaged-to-someone-else boyfriend and subsequently dumped while pregnant, Mele Bart is a thirty-year-old single mother who spends most days sitting in various San Francisco sandboxes with her daughter, Ellie. While she’s been lucky enough to have found fellow parents who become her de facto family, what Mele doesn’t have is much in the way of professional drive or romance—but all that changes when her ex invites her to his perfect Napa wedding to his perfect cheesemaker fiancée, with little Ellie to play the role of flower girl.
Aimless and dateless, Mele decides to occupy her mind in the months prior to the wedding by entering a cookbook contest sponsored by the San Francisco Mother’s Club. Mele begins to listen to her friends’ revealing, honest, and often hilarious stories—tales of babysitter envy and teenage delinquency, cheating spouses, oversexualized tweens, and super-rich mommies whose idea of charity is donating their lightly-used Hermes belts to the less fortunate—and transform their memories into rich, evocative meals. In the process of writing her cookbook, Mele, too, begins to transform in ways that she never sees coming as she opens her mind to love and a life that consists of more than just simply living. Laugh-out-loud funny, insightful, and real, How to Party with an Infant
explores motherhood, relationships, and food from a unique and timely perspective.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Why does Mele decide to enter the cookbook competition in the first place? What does she mean when she says, “It’s comforting to be able to explain yourself, or to be asked anything at all”? In what ways do the questionnaire and the cookbook become Mele’s diary? How do you think Mele would feel actually to win the competition? Is this even her goal?
2. What do you think about the unconventional format of the novel, from Mele’s revealing first-person responses to the questionnaire and her friends’ stories to the Greek-chorus style emails from the SFMC listserv interjected throughout? How does this creative structure contribute to your understanding of the plot and characters of the novel?
3. Talk about the concepts of “the mommy wars” and “helicopter parenting,” and how they come to play out in this novel. Have you ever found yourself the victim of judgment over choices you have made, whether pertaining to parenting or otherwise? How does the author satirize modern parenting in San Francisco?
4. Discuss the crucial role that class plays in the novel; think about specific scenes such as Mele’s first SFMC playgroup with the rich mommies, Annie’s obsession with Tabor Boyard, and Henry’s embarrassment over his friends’ reaction to his home. How and why do certain characters feel defined by and defensive about their wealth (or lack thereof)? Why does social class become such a key part of the relationships and interactions in the novel?
5. The core of the novel is Mele—the careful observer and frustrated writer—listening to the wide-ranging stories of her friends and reimagining their varied experiences as recipes. Of all the stories she hears, whose did you relate to the most and why? Which character would you like to hear more stories from? (And which meal would you most like to eat?)
6. Georgia tells Mele about the night she bailed Chris out of jail and ends up spinning a web of lies for her teenage son—that she was a model, a cocaine addict, and a yogi in India. Why does Georgia lie to her son? What does she stand to gain from the story she tells him? How does her tall tale impact her relationship with her son in the short term, and what does their one unplanned day—when “she’s not on a playground bench staring into space, when she’s not at home watching other people on television making love”—do for Georgia?
7. Why doesn’t Mele confess that she’s taken the Hermes belt from the charity giveaway pile at the Betts’s house? What does the belt symbolize and why does Mele ultimately leave it on the curb?
8. While Annie and Mele have only very young children, Henry, Georgia, and Barrett all have tween and teenage children in addition to their younger children. How do each of these characters’ stories highlight the increasingly complex challenges facing parents of teenagers? What fears about raising children to adulthood do each of these parents reveal in their stories? What can Mele learn about raising Ellie from her friends’ (often cautionary) tales?
9. Despite the fact that Henry’s wife cheats on him and Annie’s husband is constantly travelling for work, Mele is the only one of her friends who is definitely single. What challenges and judgments does Mele face as a single mother? Georgia says that she envies Mele and that she is “free.” Do you think that Mele is indeed free, or is it more complicated than that?
10. “Ellie wasn’t a baby anymore, and I was still reacting versus living.” How does becoming a mother change Mele? What does she miss about her life before Ellie, and how does she set out to change her approach to her life over the course of the novel? Do you think that she successfully reaches a place where she is in fact living versus reacting? If you are a parent, can you relate to Mele’s sentiment?
11. Discuss how Mele and Bobby’s relationship changes and develops over the course of the novel. Do you think that Mele should ask more of Bobby as a father to Ellie? Why does she decide to attend the wedding? What do you think the future holds for her, Bobby, and the cheesemaker wife?
12. Were you surprised by the end of the novel? What do you think happens next with Mele and Henry?Enhance Your Book Club
1. In writing her cookbook, Mele sets out to listen to her friends and “take moments from their everyday lives—moments that define their issues somehow, and come up with the food equivalents” and “make a difficult moment in their lives a little more palatable.” Talk about a significant memory or moment from your life and what meal you would serve to make the memory more palatable. If you're feeling ambitious, have a book club dinner party where you all bring your dish along with recipe cards to compile a book club cookbook!
2. Select a few questions from the SFMC questionnaire and tailor them for your book club to answer together. For example: What was the last thing you ate? How have your friendships from your book club changed your life? What is your proudest moment? If you could construct an interview for yourself, what questions would you want to be asked?
3. If you could write a cookbook, what would the title be, and what would some sample recipes be? Would you want to insert stories from your life into the cookbook?A Conversation with Kaui Hart HemmingsIt was so fun and refreshing to read a novel with such an unconventional, unique structure! How did you come up with the idea of the SFMC cookbook questionnaire?
When you publish a book the publisher’s marketing team sends you an Author Questionnaire, asking questions like, “How did you come up with the idea for your book?” Years ago I wrote an essay/story entitled “Author Questionnaire” that I really enjoyed writing—the structure allowed for a kind of ad lib narrative. So, I decided to implement that structure in a novel form.Would you ever enter a cookbook competition? If you had to enter a contest, what type of cookbook would you want to write and what would be three signature recipes?
Sure, I’d enter. I love that we no longer look to the experts anymore. I get so many recipes from friends or blogs, written by women who aren’t chefs. They just love to cook. Signature recipes? Sukiyaki, roasted cauliflower with this walnut sauce I make, and chicken marbella (though I often make brussels sprouts marbella). I love cooking with vegetables and I love throwing things together with whatever’s around.Your debut novel, The Descendants, was turned into a movie starring George Clooney and Shailene Woodley. If this book gets made into a movie, who would be your dream cast?
My favorite funny ladies—Amy Schumer, Kristin Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Reese Witherspoon. Throw in Michael Fassbinder—why not? For Mele, someone who doesn’t fit that “mother’s club” role and who’d be the elephant in the Pacific Heights living room. Zoë Kravitz? Selena Gomez? It would be nice to have a multiracial leading lady.
As a Brooklyn mom, I really identified with all the scenes and observations in the novel about the Bay Area mommy wars, from the breastfeeding debates to the preschool obsession. Did you have to do any research to get these details so right, or were you able to draw from your personal experiences of when you lived in San Francisco?
Fortunately (or unfortunately) no research was needed. I was part of a mother’s club in San Francisco and many of the things said (and all of the quotes before chapters) were right out of the mothers’ mouths. And yet, I don’t like the term mommy wars
. We are all moms with opinions, insecurities, and sometimes rigid beliefs, but we’re all just trying to connect, do our best, and get it right. And party.I loved how Mele’s San Francisco friends truly became her family and her support system. Did any of your own friendships inform or inspire Mele’s friendships? Why did you choose to have Mele be so independent from her own parents and from her previous life in Hawaii?
My friends in San Francisco (whom I met through the mother’s club) inspired a lot of the sentiments about friendships formed as a mom. We never would have met in any other way, and sometimes a forced bond turns into a real one.
Parenting is hard. Parenting without family is even harder, which is why I chose the distance. Unlike myself, Mele was more than physically distant from her family. I wanted to write about a young woman trying to forge her own path, a coming of age, but with the heroine strapped with an infant and who should already have come of age. Which character’s story was the most difficult to write and which was the easiest? Which character do you relate to the most?
I relate to Mele’s struggle to find her people in San Francisco. I was twenty-seven, living in a small apartment on the Panhandle and wasn’t planning on having a baby. I related to her desire to fit in and yet be herself. I related to the way she observed the world around her, how life—the good, the bad, and the ugly—could be her material. This also made her character harder to write because I don’t like writing about myself, so I had to use my experiences and yet allow myself to get out of character. Henry was easiest for me. For some reason I’m at home being a middle-aged man.If you had to pick one moment from your life and one meal to serve alongside your story of that memory, what would it be, and why?
When I gave birth to my daughter I remember first returning home from the hospital and looking back at her in the car seat, swaddled and tiny—she was like a little hors d’oeuvre. It was crazy to see a baby in the car, and yet, like that, you adapt. I thought to myself, with no fear or apprehension, and yet no certainty as to what lay ahead: Okay. This is my life now. With my son it was similar, even though we first met him at the adoption agency in Ethiopia. We were led to his crib and he peeked over, grinning and swaying back and forth, and I thought: This is incredible, this is crazy, and okay, this is my life now. I’m not sure what to do with these gifts, but let’s go ahead and unwrap them. The meal to accompany these memories would have to be lau lau, a Hawaiian dish, typically made by wrapping pork, fat, sweet potatoes, and fish in layers of luau leaves (like spinach). Once it’s swaddled, it’s then wrapped and held together with ti leaves that seal in the flavors. It’s then steamed, or put into an imu, an underground oven. It’s both simple, ingredient wise, and yet complex and laborious and rooted in history. It’s a beautifully presented gift that requires unwrapping. A lot has gone into it, time and care, lessons from and connections to the past, yet while eating, you’re fully in the present—delving into the layers, trying to figure it out.What do you think happens next with Mele and Henry? Do you think you’ll return to any of these characters in the future?
They live happily ever after, with complications from Henry’s divorce, adapting to stepchildren, a new (much larger) home. They live happily and unhappily depending on what went down that day. Like Mele I also write “something bad” into my daily calendar so I won’t be surprised. My son hit the substitute teacher today—well—it’s in the calendar! I don’t know if I’d return to them or not. I always love when novels leave various possibilities. A How to Party
cookbook would be fun though.What are you working on now?
A young adult novel, an adult novel, a screenplay, a kindergartener, a sixth grader, a crazy puppy. I’m working on trying to convince my husband that we need a mini horse. I’m working on skateboarding since my son loves it and doing dance tutorials on YouTube with my daughter.