This reading group guide for The Women in Black 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
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The women in black, so named for the black frocks they wear while working at an upscale department store called Goode’s, are run off their feet selling ladies’ cocktail dresses during the busy season. But in Sydney in the 1950s, there’s always time to pursue other goals . . .Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. The Women in Black
is set over six weeks in the late 1950s. What themes in the novel are still relevant today? Would you consider this book a modern classic?
2. The Women in Black
has been described by critics and readers alike as hilarious and a comic masterpiece. What are some of the funniest moments in the text? How does Madeleine St John craft scenes of such warmth and humor?
3. The Women in Black
is set against the backdrop of great societal change in 1950s Australia—from evolving roles for women to an influx of postwar European refugees. How does St John use her characters to illustrate these changes? Keeping in mind that St John herself left Australia for England and the US, are there places in the text where her feelings and attitudes about her home country emerge?
4. Compare Patty’s marriage to Frank with Magda’s marriage to Stefan. Other than the fact that neither couple has children, how are these relationships similar? What do you think Madeleine St John is trying to say about happiness in marriage?
5. Fay Baines lives by the motto “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again” (page 15). In the realm of romance, this motto doesn’t work for her (until it does). Fay does not have family around to offer emotional support during her unhappy times. What advice would you offer Fay?
6. Discuss Stefan’s ironic statement “Naturally we are cultivated, we reffos, we are famous for it, or rather notorious, it is one of our most despicable qualities” (page 94). How do Stefan, Rudi, and Magda’s appreciation of the finer things in life set them apart from the Australian characters in the novel? What do you make of their desire to share that appreciation with others?
7. Early in her friendship with Lisa, Magda thinks, “It was very nice to have the charge of so ignorant a little girl, for she, Magda, could teach her everything” (page 60). Contrast this with Mrs. Miles’s comment to her daughter, “If only you knew what being grown-up can be like, you wouldn’t want to do it any faster than you have to” (pages 98–99). Discuss how each woman influences Lisa in her own way.
8. Nearly all of the details of Miss Jacobs’s life remain a secret, even her name. What do you think she is supposed to represent? Who do you imagine she is mailing letters to on Christmas Eve when Mr. Ryder spots her (page 121)?
9. Both Stefan and Rudi stand in stark contrast to the Australian men in the novel. Discuss the ways in which the Australian men are as trapped as the women. Do any of the men in the book defy the roles set for them?
10. When Lisa falls in love with one of Magda’s model gowns, she is hit by “the sudden recognition that a particular frock is not merely pretty, would not merely suit one, but answers beyond these necessary attributes to one’s deepest notion of oneself” (page 65). Have you had a similar feeling about an item of clothing before? Discuss.
11. “Change is the law of life,” remarks Mr. Ryder in the closing pages of the book (page 208). What do you imagine Lisa, Magda, Fay, and Patty will be doing the following Christmas?Enhance Your Book Club
1. For Lisa, William Blake’s poem “The Tyger” is mysterious and enticing. Read the poem in full and discuss why St John might have made reference to it in the novel. Discuss, too, her reasons for including allusions to other literary works such as Anna Karenina
2. In 2018, The Women in Black
was adapted into a film by Bruce Beresford called Ladies in Black
. Watch the film and discuss how it compares to St John’s novel.