I hadn't come across Lisa Jewell’s fiction until I read Then She Was Gone, for which I had a grudging admiration. Psychological thrillers are a genre about which I know little; they've never been my thing. That is, until now. The Family Upstairs is an engrossing page turner that gripped me from beginning to end.
The Family Upstairs tells the story of the Lamb family. Mr. Lamb, a coarse and brutish figure, and his socialite German wife seem to have it all. Ensconced in their Chelsea residence, full of dark furniture and stuffed animals, they live a privileged life. Mr. Lamb is delighted to have made good from his humble beginnings. Though cold and reserved, their life is relatively sweet until the one-time pop success, Birdie arrives on the scene. This is closely followed by the arrival of David Thomsen along with his family - Phinn, Clemency and his wife. David is a manipulative and domineering bully and the dynamics of the house change. The reader watches David expand his authority and power, stealing the family’s wealth, under the guise of spiritualism and giving. In essence a cult has developed under the nose of Mr. Lamb, who after suffering a stroke is powerless to stop events unfolding.
The story is told by various narrators. The person who gives us the most background is Henry Lamb, the teenage son, who the reader has great empathy with. However, as with all good thrillers things are not completely as they seem.
We also follow the life of Lucy, mother of two children, and a homeless victim of domestic abuse, living in France. It takes the reader a while to realize that Henry’s sister is also called Lucy.
Finally, we explore events from the viewpoint of Libby, an ordinary young woman who was adopted at birth, and finds that at twenty-five, she has inherited the Chelsea house. How that comes to be, is the backdrop of the story, which enables the writer to explore and develop the complex characters who have suffered at the hands of David Thomsen.
But what is the story about… ? Well, we learn early on that three murders and the abandonment of a baby in a cot that took place in the house twenty-five years previously has been uncovered. Who they all were is what needs unearthing; who is the baby and who does she belong to? You’ll have to read The Family Upstairs to find out what happens.
Book Club Questions on Lisa Jewell's The Family Upstairs
Clemency said that Henry had a pure twist of evil running through him. To what extent do you think this is true and and if it is the case, can't he be blamed?
In the story, The Family Upstairs, David had a charismatic power whereby all the female characters, even Lucy, seemed enthralled by him. Discuss why you think David could wield such authority over the household?
Henry was besotted with Phinn, to the extent that he scrawled 'I am Phinn' over the furniture. As an adult, when discovered, he told Libby that he was Phinn; He also, as an adult, had cosmetic surgery to appear more like Phinn. Discuss and analyze Henry's character.
The sequel to The Family Upstairs called The Family Remains has recently been released. Predict what you think will happen in it.
How believable did you find the events leading up to and following the deaths of the three adults? When reading a psychological thriller is it important to you for the storyline to be completely credible?
Which of the plot twists in the novel surprised you the most? Which did you see coming?
Which character in the novel do you have the most sympathy for and why?
Libby’s real family is clearly extremely dysfunctional. Do you think it would be better if she had never learned of her background?
Libby becomes emotionally involved with Miller even though he is not her type at all. Miller’s obsession with the case of the Lambs' had led to him losing two years of his life and his wife leaving him. Do you think the relationship will be a happy one? Discuss.
Book Club Questions on Lisa Jewell's The Family Upstairs (if you haven't read the book!)
Libby goes from working as a kitchen designer to becoming the owner of a house in Chelsea, worth several million pounds. Despite this she continues to go to work. How would you react if you came into a great fortune?
Libby's life is completely upturned as she learns who her real mother is and that she has two half siblings. As an adoptee she'd been reasonably happy, but she seems very keen to develop a positive relationship with her biological family. Discuss the importance of family, be it an adopted or biological one.
As children, Lucy and Clemency had been inseparable. How important were childhood friendships in your own life? Discuss.
Although Lucy and Clemency return to their friendship they avoid discussing the childhood trauma they went through. This is counter to many modern counselling practices that suggests it is better to discuss trauma openly. What is your viewpoint about counselling and talking openly about difficult scenarios and situations?
Personal Response to Lisa Jewell's The Family Upstairs
It’s impossible to write too much about thrillers without giving far too many spoilers! The characters invite sympathy though and despite, I felt, some aspects of the storyline being unbelievable, Jewell creates great tension.
As I reached the end of The Family Upstairs, I said to myself I'd love to know what happened next. It was then with delight that I turned the page to see that a sequel, The Family Remains, is in the making. I'm intrigued to know what happens next.
Book Review of Adam Kay's This is Going to Hurt
AdamKay's This is Going to Hurt describes his life as a junior doctor during the years leading up to his resignation. Written in a dry satirical tone, Adam doesn't hold back and shows the NHS in its raw state. The staff are overworked, underpaid and lacking in sleep. Humorous and heartbreaking in equal measures, Adam Kay's This is Going to Hurt shows that there is nothing glamorous about being a junior doctor. There are however, enough feel good moments to remind him and the reader of the value of being a doctor, until there aren't ....
As a memoir, it has proven hugely popular, perhaps because it validates from within the institution, what the public have thought and feared for a long time.
Book Club Questions on Adam Kay's This is Going to Hurt
Book Club Questions on This is Going to Hurt (if you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Adam Kay's This Is Going to Hurt
I have heard that the TV show of This is Going to Hurt, is pitched as a comedy set on a labour ward. This suprised me, as ultimately the book is looking at the good in humanity, but how, at times, we seem to do everything we can, institutionally and personally to wreck that goodness. Overall, depite its wit I found this book to be fundamentally sad. It reminded me a little of Christopher Button's The Secret Diary of a Student Nurse.
Book Review on Victoria Hislop's The Island
Victoria Hislop's The Island is her debut book, set on a fictional Greek island both pre-war and during the Second World War. The story begins with Alexis Fielding who, at a cross-roads in her own young life, wants to find out about her mother, Sofia's secret past.
Before heading off to Greece, Sofia gives Alexis a letter addressed to an old friend of hers, Fontina. It is Fontina, the best friend of Alexis's grandmother, Maria, who is able to provide many of the answers to the questions that Sofia had never been willing to answer.
There follows the telling of Alexis's family history. Both Alexis's grandmother and great-grandmother had caught leprosy and had been banished to the island of Spinalonga, a colony where all leprosy sufferers were sent. The novel reveals what life was like both on the colony, and for the family members of those who have been sent. The link between the island and the mainland, is Girogis, Maria's husband, who took provisions to and from the island.
Victoria Hislop presents Spinalonga as a place of far more hope than the reader might initially expect. The island is a place of love as well as death. Entertainment and industry flourish and people prosper, especially after the arrival of the lepers sent from Athens. Spinalonga is a place that people dread to go to, but once there, don't necessarily want to leave.
The novel heads toward a conclusion as a cure for leprosy is found and the islanders are free to leave. There is though one more dramatic twist that prevents a 'happy ever after' ending. Read more about the novel here.
Book club questions on Victoria Hislop's The Island
Book club questions on Victoria Hislop's The Island (if you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Victoria Hislop's The Island
I wasn't sure whether I would enjoy The Island or not. Love affairs, ending in tragedy; boring, but rich husbands; unreliable lovers; wild daughter and loyal daughters - it all seemed a heady romantic mix and family saga, that I wasn't sure was my cup of tea.
The structure was brave and accessible so that was good. The opening of Alexis travelling, provided a good reason for telling the story of her mother. To my mind, the development of Sofia's teen years were a little rushed. And, while I didn't bother to calculate the dates it seemed odd that Fontina was still in such good health, running her cafe, when both Maria and Kyritsis had died.
There were parts of the tale that I ddin't find completely convincing (spoiler alert), the shooting for example, was a bit too melodramatic for my stiff-upper lip British sensibilities. However, putting crimes of passion aside, I thought it was a good first novel.
Book Review on Elizabeth Day's Magpie
Elizabeth Day's Magpie begins with Marisa, the narrator for much of the story, explaining her relationship with Jake and their desire to begin a family. We see her being shown round the house they will go on to live in, despite the omen of a single magpie swooping into the living room, as the estate agent shows her round.
We learn of the early relationship between Marisa and Jake and their need to take in a lodger to increase their income. Following the entrance of film publicist, Kate, into the equation, things start to unravel for Marisa. She resents Kate's presence and thinks that Jake spends far too much time cosied up to Kate instead of her. The tension begins to become palpable.
And on it goes ... the first half of Magpie pretty much sets the scene. We are introduced to all the main characters, including the manipulative mother-in-law figure.
The reader is then presented the same events again from a different viewpoint, that of Kate. It becomes clear that things no longer add up. A crisis point is reached, but this isn't the end of the thriller. Jake's parents become increasingly involved in the story as secrets and deceptions lead to a make or break scenario for Jake, Marisa and Kate.
As the reader progresses through the novel, they realise the power an unreliable narrator has over them. Elizabeth Day shows skill and mastery of the form and uses foreshadowing to incredible effect. Marisa is so credible, particularly because there is enough truth in what she says to leave the reader completely floundered as to what to think!
Magpie has been likened to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, but other than the obvious thriller link, I found them very different reads. Magpie was a quick, straightforward page-turner, and I found it less frightening than Gone Girl. When I read Gone Girl, I felt that it was more accessible than Paula Hawkin's The Girl on the Train. I'd say that Magpie is easier and has less depth than either, but regardless is extremely readable. It received quite high acclaim from my book club pals.
Book Club Questions on Elizabeth Day's Magpie
At what point in Magpie did you realize that Marisa was not who she seemed? Did you spot, ahead of time, either of the plot twists coming?
How would you classify the genre of Magpie?
Why do you think Elizabeth Day called the book Magpie?
How believable did you find Elizabeth Day's Magpie? Discuss what was and wasn’t believable in the story.
The book starts by telling the reader how Marisa’s mother left her as a young child. What do you think is the significance of sharing this, in light of what happens later in the story?
Marisa stabbed her sister with a pin from her mother’s sewing box and then denied hurting her. Discuss why the writer chose to include this event in the story.
What is your opinion of Jake? To what extent is he to blame for how events unfold? How could he have prevented things escalating?
How would you sum up Annabelle’s character? Discuss.
How much sympathy do you have for Marisa?
It turns out that Marisa is bi-polar, but she has stopped taking her medication, as she didn’t want to hurt the baby. Does the book do a disservice to people who are bi-polar? Why or why not?
Discuss the significance of Jake’s secret visits to Annabelle and Marisa at his mother’s house? What does it suggest about both Jake and his mother?
What is your view of Jake’s father? Do you see him as a weak figure? Why or why not?
The book ends happily with Jake and Kate having the baby they wanted, but do you really think they will live happily ever after?
On the blurb of Elizabeth Day's Magpie, Sara Collins, says “An absorbing exploration of infertility and mental illness combined with the pace and plot of a heart-racing thriller … I literally couldn’t put this down.” Did you find the book un-put-down-able?
When Marisa’s father visits her for the last time he seemed frail and old and she realized he would soon die. “She felt loss, not because his death would bring an absence, but because his existence had.” After that visit she ignored his messages and cards and didn’t contact him again. Discuss what this reveals about Marisa and the father /daughter relationship they had.
Book Discussion Questions on Elizabeth Day's Magpie (If you haven't read the book!)
When Kate catches Marisa following her on the tube, Marisa begs her to not tell Jake, but any sense of Marisa being contrite soon turns to anger against Kate. The narrator says, “Anger always wins.” Do you think anger is an emotion that is likely to supersede other feelings?"
When Kate visits Annabelle, she is passive aggressive and controlling. Jake can’t see that Annabelle is playing power games and being unkind. Would anyone like to share any mother-in-law stories?!
To what extent did the book add to your knowledge on surrogacy? If the group feels it appropriate to do so, discuss your personal feelings about whether surrogacy is something you might consider if you wanted children, but were unable to have them.
Personal Response to Elizabeth Day's Magpie
A story of two halves, jumping back in time, with NOW and THEN capitalised as chapter headings, indicating the time frame in which the events are set, Elizabeth Day's Magpie is the most unusual psychological thriller I've read. For the whole first half I felt like I was reading realistic fiction focusing on family relationships, using surrogacy as a tool to explore the complexities of life. It didn't feel like a thriller and I, somewhat predictably, didn't see either of the twists coming! As a book club read this wasn't the easiest book we've dissected. It felt like the author gave us the answers to the questions we were asking. There wasn't much disagreement about characters, theme or plot. It was a good read and a great introduction to thrillers, for readers like me, who for far too long, have avoided them.
Book Review on Simone de Beauvoir's The Inseparables
The Inseparables is about Simone de Beauvoir's friendship (from the age of nine) with Élisabeth Lacoin, nicknamed Zaza. This was a hugely important friendship to her. which she frequently returns to in her writing.
Thinly guised as fiction, in The Inseparables, Sylvie (Simone) firstly meets Andree (Zaza) at a private Catholic school. Sylvie is immediately fasicnated by Andree, with her diminuative size, but irreverant and bold behavior. Andree announces that she had been 'burned alive' and her right thigh 'grilled to the bone' while cooking on a campfire. For the first time, Sylvie experienced what it was like to have a special interest in one of her classmates .She becomes a friend to whom she felt passionately towards for the rest of Andree's life.
As the girls grow up we get a sense of the intense disappointment Sylvie feels when Andree's love for her mother and commitment to family, comes between their special friendship. This distancing between them continues when Sylvie realizes that she no longer believes in God, whilst Andree feels that she couldn't bear to be alive without a religion.
As Sylvie watched Andree, to an extent at least, conform to the expectations her family have of her, there is a sense of Sylvie wanting Andree to take a stronger stance than she does against them. Sylvie is disappointed when Andree confirms to societal rules; the reader is left feeling that Andree's personality has been chastened and limited by external contraints that she cannot or will not fight against. Despite this, Andree is a strange mix of compliance and rebellion. She agrees to her mother's breaking off of an engagement she disapproved of, yet injures her foot with an axe in order to avoid attending a social engagement she didn't want to attend. It is hard to pin Andree down and it this elusiveness that Simone is fascinated by.
As children and young teenagers, Sylvie and Andree had talked intensly and frequently about social, political and educational issues. It is important to remember that this was at a time when women were not allowed to vote It was a time of political awakening, yet many women would not be encouraged into intellectual pursuits or judged on their minds.
Sylvie constantly wants to return to the sharing of the depth of feeling and openness of communication the friends once shared. She perhaps resents the intrusion of societal expectatons in Andree's life. She seems to constantly long for emotional intimacy with Andree.
The second part of the story moves quite quickly. Critics have said that it is rushed and the structure of the novella is imbalanced. I tend to agree. Nevertheless, the exploration of the friendship continues to be shown and invite a strong emotional response from the reader. Sylvie's involvement in encouraging Andree's love affair with Pascal, shows her deep desire for Andree to be happy.
The re-telling of what happened to Andree at the end of the book is rushed and needs more explanation and developement. It is perhaps indicative of the depth of feeling that Sylvie had toward Andree, and her confusion about Andree's own increasing sense of self-disregard, that she writes so briefly about what ultimately happens to Andree.
Book Club Questions on Simone de Beauvoir's The Inseparables
Best Book Club Questions on The Inseparables (if you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Simone de Beauvoir's The Inseparables
It's about thirty-fve years since I first read Simone de Beauvoir's works, but of course The Inseparables wasn't published until 2016. The well-written and interesting introduction by Deborah Levy to The Inseparables gave plenty of context to the thinly disguised autobigraphical account, as did this fascinating article Levy wrote about it for the Guardian. The Inseparables resonated with me as it shows the power and intensity that childhood and adolescent friendships can have. In this relationship Sylvie's awareness of the dislike Andree's mother had for her struck me as worth commenting on. Relationships with friend's parents, which at the time, are often only half noticed and observed intrigue me. It fascinates me how children, well in fact, all of us can feel that which we are not able to articulate, We immediately sense if we are 'liked or not'.
The amazing thing about Simone de Beuvoir's writing is its depth and accessibility. Having rediscovered her writing after all this time, I will definitely be venturing further back into her works. I remember a book called She Came to Stay which, at the time, struck me as incredibly perceptive and insightful. I wonder what I will think when I read it again.