This reading group guide for Over the Holidays includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Sandra Harper. 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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This year, Vanessa Channing is NOT flying across the country to New England to spend Christmas with her in-laws. Determined to have a simple, meaningful holiday at home, she suggests to her husband they just stay in Los Angeles with the twins. But simple becomes complicated with the arrival of the Massachusetts relatives and, as plans go awry, Vanessa, her family, and friends search for the joy and goodwill of the season. Discussion Questions
1. As sisters, Vanessa and Thea couldn’t be more different. Vanessa lives in the suburbs of Los Angeles with her husband and twin boys, while Thea lives in vibrant, gritty Venice Beach with her art. How are these two sisters different in their approaches to life? Do they share any similarities?
2. Vanessa wakes up early one morning to find her husband JT making a spontaneous batch of cinnamon rolls (p. 22). What is the reason for JT’s sudden need to bake so early in the morning, and how does Vanessa deal with her husband’s stress?
3. There’s a lot of fantasy and romantic images at the holiday season. How does that contribute to a woman’s sense of herself and her well-being?
4. Vanessa comments that Patience’s voice makes her “feel like she was standing in line at the soup kitchen” (p. 44). Why? How does Patience make her feel inferior? Do you think it’s intentional, or is Vanessa being overly sensitive?
6. Thea is 40—twelve years older than her boyfriend, Marcus. Is there still a double standard about older women dating younger men?
7. Vanessa is called in by her friend Gary to help fix the play he’s producing. But the playwright, Neil, is not happy with the decision. How does Vanessa break down Neil’s initial resistance to having her help him with his play? What assumptions does each person make about the other?
8. Patience takes her daughter Libby on a trip to historic Concord, Massachusetts, hoping to enjoy the holiday decorations and bond with her daughter. Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned, and Patience breaks down and cries. Why is it so hard for Libby and Patience to communicate with each other?
9. Vanessa and Thea have a tumultuous relationship. Vanessa declares that Thea is “the worst aunt ever.” (p. 108). Can the tension between married with children and happily single be bridged?
10. When Libby arrives in LA, she immediately falls for a local boy, Brian. How is her emotional roller-coaster over Brian indicative of her age and her feelings about her family?
11. Even though Vanessa and JT are happy, what is it about married life that causes Vanessa (or any woman!) to want to stray?
12. Thea finally works up the courage to visit Cal Hawkins in Northern California, but her trip doesn’t go as planned. Is it a good idea to look up old boyfriends?
13. Vanessa and Patience finally find common ground getting ready for New Year’s Eve. What are their new understandings about each other? How are they more alike than they realized?
14. What is it about the holidays that makes us believe our families will behave better and circumstances will be different from the rest of the year?
15. Patience clings to holiday traditions and Vanessa feels unsure of her beliefs. How important is it to stick to tradition? Is there room for change or improvement? Enhancing Your Book Club
1. Everyone in the book experiences a complicated mixture of feelings about Christmas and the holiday gift-giving season. Discuss your own thoughts and memories of Christmas with the group. Share any family traditions you have, or any that you wish you could get rid of. If the mood is right, have a craft day and make Christmas decorations. You can find ideas for crafts at www.marthastewart.com/christmas.
2. Vanessa and Patience have different ideas about the ideal Christmas dinner. Vanessa insists on a turkey, while Patience wants roast beef. Schedule a potluck meeting and have everyone bring in their favorite Christmas recipes. You can find ideas for good dishes at: epicurious.com/recipesmenus/holidays/christmas/recipes and allrecipes.com/Recipes/Holidays-and-Events/Christmas/Main.aspx.
3. Vanessa tries to educate Alex and Ethan with ideas about the ancient celebration of the Winter Solstice. Are there any alternative ideas for the holiday season that you and your family have experimented with? Have any been a successful cure for “Holiday Stress Syndrome,” as Thea calls it?A Conversation with Sandra HarperWhat was your inspiration for writing this novel? Do you have special memories of Christmas? Growing up, was the holiday as chaotic for you as it was for some of the characters in this novel?
I like to write comedy and the holiday season is delicious material for that! There’s so much pressure and everyone goes a little crazy. My parents were divorced so when I was a girl we had to celebrate twice: once with Dad and once with Mom. That could be pretty chaotic. Vanessa and Thea have a tumultuous relationship. How did your own relationship with your sisters influence your portrayal of Vanessa and Thea?
No one can love and fight like sisters! It’s just the nature of the relationship. I was the oldest so I was the terrible bossy one. Like some of your characters, you also live in Los Angeles. Do you prefer spending Christmas in sunny L.A. or have you ever tried spending the holiday in the snowy setting of New England? Where is your favorite spot to spend Christmas?
There’s no question that New England is absolutely beautiful at Christmastime. But my holiday fantasy is to book a lovely little hotel in Paris, have café au lait and that wonderful french bread for breakfast, and then stroll along the Seine to Notre Dame. Please inform my husband. The characters in your novel all struggle with the expectations of the holiday season. Do you see yourself more as Vanessa, frazzled and stressed out, or as Patience, focused and intent on having the best Christmas ever?
I sympathize with both characters. I myself have given up on the holidays but I understand the need and the desire that women have to create something meaningful. With any luck, no one will ask me to do them again. Thea has an interesting and very personal relationship to her art. Do you feel the same way she does about being “married” to your art? Are you “married” to your writing?
Thea is my hero!!! I wish I was as focused as she is—I’d be so much more successful!! I love that she’s bold and unafraid to give herself over to her art. Plus the idea of living alone and not having to compromise is so seductive, isn’t it? Is there any character you feel particularly close to in the novel, and if so, why?
I love all my characters for different reasons. When I begin a story, I sit down at the computer and wait for the characters to show up. I really enjoy getting to know them. How do you see Vanessa’s character evolving through the story? Do you relate to her on any level?
Vanessa struggles with the stuff of ordinary life: marriage, motherhood, and work. And because regular life can be tedious, it’s a miracle that all of us aren’t running away every day of the year. A major theme of this novel is the importance of family and the need to communicate with one another. Do you think relatives come with certain requirements and expectations?
I’d probably need a Ph.D. to answer this. I can assure you that I’m highly unqualified.