This reading group guide includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Emily Listfield. 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. Questions for Discussion
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Enhance your Book Club
- Reflect on the epigraph from writer Georges Bernanos, “The worst, the most corrupting lies are problems poorly stated.” How do these words resonate throughout Best Intentions? What role does misunderstanding and poor communication play in this novel?
- Early in the story, Lisa spies on her husband, Sam, by checking a voicemail on his cell phone. Is this an acceptable thing for someone in a relationship to do? Should there be complete openness, transparency, and trust in a marriage, or are people in relationships still entitled to some degree of privacy?
- Discuss the nature of Lisa and Deirdre’s friendship. What are some of the cornerstones and some of the pitfalls? Do you think Deirdre sees the friendship in the same way Lisa does?
- Review David and Lisa’s conversation on page 69 about mosaic theory. How, in this novel, do small bits of information prove to be dangerous? David mentions mosaic theory as applied to terrorism suspects. Can you think of any other examples of when this theory might be used? Is this method ever valuable?
- In the opening paragraph of chapter 7 (page 73), Listfield offers two richly descriptive metaphors comparing the physical effects of a suspicion and a lie. Have you ever experienced similar sensations? Are Listfield’s descriptions accurate? Try writing your own metaphors about the physical effects of other feelings—worry, hope, love, envy, etc.
- Do Sam and Lisa have a healthy marriage? Are their problems typical of couples in a rut, or is there something more deeply dysfunctional taking root? Do you agree with Lisa’s thoughts on page 102 that “[i]t is so hard to tell when it comes to love if you are being blindly delusional or are simply accepting the flaws and compromises, the disappointments and prosaic compensations necessary to stay together”?
- What do you make of Lisa’s relationship with her client, David Forrester? What are her motivations in wanting to befriend him?
- Is Lisa a reliable narrator or do her perceptions and feelings shape the telling of the story? Is she a likable protagonist? Is she sympathetic? Does she make good decisions for herself? Does she make good decisions as a wife, mother, and friend?
- Nearly every character in the book becomes tangled in some form of deception. Discuss the motives for these deceptions; do these characters act out of fear, spite, greed, jealousy? Or are they motivated by a quest for truth and love, or a desire to protect or support those around them?
- As the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” How does the title Best Intentions relate to this proverb and to how the events of the novel unfold? Do any of the characters have truly good intentions?
- David Forrester explains his digging into Lisa’s personal life by claiming he wanted to help her. His ignorance caused suffering in his own relationships, and he states on page 287 that “information is power.” Do you agree? Are there some instances where this is not the case, and other things are more important than knowledge?
A Conversation with Emily Listfield
- Print out a map of Manhattan (http://www.onlynyc.com/new-york-maps) and label the places mentioned in the book (the Upper East Side, where Lisa’s kids attend school, Grand Central Terminal, across from where Deirdre and Lisa have breakfast, etc.). Try to determine which places in the book are fictional and which are real.
- Encourage book club members to bring something to auction off, and donate the proceeds to a good cause. It can be a junk auction—it doesn’t have to be a vacation in Mustique!
- The events of Best Intentions are set in motion by the reunion that takes place. Have each member of the group share a reunion story, or state who in their past they’d most (or least) like to reconnect with.
1. What set this story in motion and got you thinking about this central question of how well we can really know the people we love? I began with a kernel of an idea: What are the effects of miscommunication on relationships? What happens when you think you know what someone else wants—whether it is a spouse, friend, or lover —and you are totally wrong? This is something we all have experienced. Often, because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, or because we think we know them better than we do, we don’t ask the right questions and instead proceed to act in ways we think will make them happy. But without honest communication the results can be disastrous.
2. Though many characters’ stories are intertwined in this novel, we experience it all from a single character’s perspective, through the voice of Lisa. Why did you choose to make Lisa the sole narrator? Did you experiment with writing from the voice of any of the other characters or was this Lisa’s story from the outset? I wasn’t sure how to tell this story at first. I tried writing from the four main characters’ points of view in alternating voices, but it gave the reader too much information. The point I wanted to drive home is that we don’t really know what someone else is thinking. Telling the story solely through Lisa’s eyes lets us learn and experience and form conclusions, right or wrong, at the same time she does.
3. Do you feel a kind of kinship with Lisa? Does any part of her story overlap with your own?
I have certainly stolen some of my experiences raising a daughter—much to my daughter’s chagrin! My female friendships have always also been deeply important to me as a source of humor, comfort, fun, and connection. Though there is no single “Deirdre” in my life, the spirit of my friendships informed the writing. Lisa’s observations, too, about the schoolyard chemistry among mothers, working and not, comes largely from my own experiences.
4. Your novels are praised for their emotional depth and honesty. How do you so accurately imagine situations, characters, and internal conflict that might be outside your own experience? It’s like method acting, I suppose. You just have to imagine you are that other person. Also, you take bits and pieces of past emotions and experiences of your own and recast them.
5. Like many of the female characters in your novels, you have enjoyed a successful career in media. You’re also a mother. How do you balance your writing career with the rest of your life? It changes from day to day. I think all working mothers find that being flexible is the key to making it work—or at least not losing your mind. My daughter is very supportive, and because she is a bit older now, quite independent. It’s sometimes complicated, of course, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
6. In this book you offer up a pretty scathing picture of life among the urban glamorous and elite. Lisa longs for acceptance into these circles but shuns them at the same time, becoming a sort of rogue mommy. Is this something you’ve experienced and struggled with in your time in New York City? Yes and no. I am a downtown mom with a daughter in an uptown private school. There are times when I feel our lives are different in various ways, including financially, but it is not a world I crave to belong to. Would I like some of their freedom and perks? Sure, at times. But I am happy with the choices I have made and with the type of life I’ve chosen. I like being able to move within different worlds.
7. You also write rather lovingly about some places in New York City. What do you most enjoy about life there?
I love the energy, the way the city makes room for so many different types of people; I love how you can move between groups and identities, how you do not have to be cast and held to one thing. And I love that you can get almost anything at almost any time!
8. You’ve written seven novels now. How do you think you’ve matured and grown as a writer? What things have gotten easier and what things are still challenging for you?
The beginning of a new book is always a challenge: finding the voice, discovering the characters, figuring out pacing. As with anything, I think you get better at it the longer you do it—or at least you know some of the pitfalls to avoid. Coming to terms with the ups and downs, the doubts and the pleasures, gets a little easier only because you know that writing entails all of them. It doesn’t make it any less real at the moment, though.
9. Do you have a muse? What inspires you to sit down and spin these tales? I don’t have a muse.
For me, writing is a way of making sense of experience and emotion, a way of putting some order to it. Like most writers, I think at heart I am an observer, storing away tidbits that will come out in later writing, imagining what it is like to be inside other people’s heads, and wanting to share what is in yours.
10. Do you plan to continue writing novels, or is there another genre you’d like to try someday? What are you working on now? I love writing novels and can’t imagine ever stopping. Right now I am working on a new book about the intersection of politics and family secrets. Does how people behave in their personal lives affect their public acts? How do you balance the right to privacy versus the public right to know? And what is the effect of discovering and keeping secrets on family members? There are topics of great relevance today.