This reading group guide for Slightly South of Simple includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kristy Woodson Harvey. 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 last thing Caroline Murphy expects to hear when she’s seven months pregnant is that her marriage is falling apart. In the wake of this news, she packs up her bags and flies south with her eleven-year-old daughter to her mother’s home in Peachtree Bluff, Georgia. But Caroline isn’t the only Murphy girl who’s returning home: both of her younger sisters, Emerson and Sloane, find themselves right back in their mother’s arms for one reason or another. Slightly South of Simple
is a chronicle of sisterhood, motherhood, marriage, and all the ways secrets weave themselves in and out of one’s life, filled with Southern charm and plenty of heart.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the title of both the book and the series. By the novel’s end, do you think the title fits the work? Is there another title you would select?
2. Discuss Caroline as the novel goes on. Do you think she comes to any sort of epiphany before the end of the novel? Does she come to appreciate her hometown? Can you relate to her relationship troubles, parenting style, or values? Why or why not?
3. Ansley admits to the reader early in the novel that her financial situation after her husband’s death was quite dire. In the pursuant chapter, Caroline mentions that she has a “nest egg” to fall back on and is less afraid of leaving her husband because of it. Do you agree with Ansley’s decision to keep these secrets from her daughters? What other secrets do the members of the Murphy family keep from one another? By the time the book is complete, have any of these secrets been resolved?
4. Rumors are a prevalent motif in the novel, from rumors of James’s affair with Edie, to rumors of a love triangle between Kyle, Caroline, and Emerson, and beyond. Do you believe that there is a difference between the rumors spread amongst the group in Peachtree Bluff versus New York City? What is the root of these respective rumors in the novel? How do the characters respond to gossip? Do you think any of them handle it better than the other?
5. Caroline determines the best way to resolve the feud between her mother and Mr. Solomon is by tearing down the fence between their yards. How do the neighbors resolve their issues and reconcile their differences in the novel? Have the other characters mended other figurative fences between one another? Discuss the different boundaries, both physical and figurative, that the characters may have placed between one another and why they may have done so.
6. Discuss the lingering feelings of loss experienced by the Murphy women by losing Carter in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. Why do you think Caroline was so comfortable with moving back to New York so soon after the attacks? Why do you think her other sisters, Emerson and Sloane, stayed away? By the book’s end, do you think any of them will return? Why or why not?
7. On page 283, Caroline says, “[ . . . ] I knew that no one else would ever measure up. I would spend my entire life comparing every man with the one I had fallen so hard for. Young love is only for the young. Nothing else compares.” Take a moment as a group and discuss your first loves. Is your current partner someone you met as a young person? Do you think this statement is true for Caroline, Ansley, or the other women in the novel? Why or why not?
8. Sloane’s husband, Adam, is serving in Iraq throughout the course of the novel. Discuss the ways she seeks to keep him present in her son’s lives and consider the greater affect that a parent’s absence has on her family.
9. “Mother’s are supposed to know what to do, but there’s no handbook for this. There’s no appropriate response for something this horrible.” (Page 341) In Slightly South of Simple,
there are many variations of loss. As a group, discuss the ways Ansley supports her daughters. How would you handle the circumstances? As a group, discuss the different ways your own parents or siblings have helped you through hard times. Do you think it’s different when the support is from a mother versus a father, a sister versus a brother? Why or why not?
10. Forgiveness is a major theme in the novel. Are you surprised by Caroline’s decision to forgive James? What would you do in her shoes? Similarly, discuss the ways Jack has forgiven Ansley, Caroline has forgiven her sisters, and beyond. Do you feel that Caroline has grown as a character as a result of having moved to her home in the presence of her sisters and mother?
11. The narration alternates between Ansley and Caroline throughout the novel. How does this push the plot along? Do you think it gives you greater insight into the characters or their lives? Why or why not?
12. Jack has given Ansley ample time to come around to his wishes. Do his intentions seem genuine? Does your impression of him change over the course of the novel?
13. Betrayal plays a large role in the novel, from Jamess’ affair to Emerson’s acting role. How do the characters move forward and seek forgiveness for their wrongdoings? Are they largely successful in achieving forgiveness?
14. Of all of the women in the book, who do you feel you relate to the most? The least?
15. Slightly South of Simple
is the first book in a three-book series. Discuss what you think may happen to Ansley, Caroline, Emerson, Sloane, and the Murphy family in the next few books.Enhance Your Book Club
1. Neither Caroline nor Emerson have particularly “Southern” diets. Consider sharing some gluten-free and vegan sweets or smoothies for your book club. Great (and delicious) vegan recipes can be found at ChefChloe.com and gluten-free recipes can be found at GlutenFreeGirl.com.
2. For your next book club, read Kristy Woodson Harvey’s other novels, Dear Carolina
or Lies and Other Acts of Love,
Mary Alice Monroe’s The Summer Girls,
or Elin Hilderbrand’s The Rumor
. Do these novels remind you of Slightly South of Simple
3. Interior design is a big part of Ansley’s life. Talk to your fellow book club members about a possible renovation you’ve been considering. Take the time to research new interior design techniques and processes or take a class together at a local art school.
4. Connect with Kristy Woodson Harvey on Facebook
, and visit her official website at: KristyWoodsonHarvey.com. Consider inviting her to Skype in with your book club.A Conversation with Kristy Woodson HarveyHave you ever lived on the northeast or in New York? Do you think there’s a real appeal for southerners to leave for another place and return home?
Is this something you saw with your own family and friends from North Carolina? Yes! We lived in Manhattan half the time when I was a little girl. I always thought that I would move back. Even now, I’m very comfortable there, which might be a little surprising considering every town I’ve lived in since had a population of less than 50,000. I think there is definitely a tendency for southerners to grow up and move to the big city. There’s something very exciting about the unknown, about the idea of “making it” in New York. But I think sometimes it’s just too big of a change! I read somewhere that the average southerner makes it about eighteen months in New York. Maybe it’s the winters. Who knows!You studied journalism at UNC Chapel Hill and also have a master’s degree in English. Is your process in researching your novels at all similar to any of the skills you learned while studying journalism? What is different for you about your process?
Oh, absolutely. I learned from writing columns how to find my voice as a writer, and that is definitely a skill I have used as an author. I learned how a story “feels” when it is complete. In addition to that, that’s where my love of story telling comes from. I still love telling true stories, but it’s so much fun to get to make them up. I also have a long list of research “dos and don’ts" in my head from journalism school and am always keeping in mind what are acceptable sources. On the flip side, it’s very nice to know that, from time to time, I can make something up if I need to.In that vein, you keep a design blog, Design Chic, with your mother. What is your process for researching new posts for the blog? Do you think you’ll open a design shop like Ansley’s in the novel?
The “research” is the most fun part because it’s usually just Mom and me and some coffee and a lot of chatting. We both read tons of magazines and are always searching for new designers, new trends, new brands, new things we think our readers will love. It’s so much fun to look back six years when we started the blog and see what we were writing about then and what we are writing about now. It’s like a working time capsule of the evolution of our tastes and design trends. I never say never . . . I do have this thought in the back of my mind that it would be so fun to open a bookstore where all of the displays are antiques for sale. But, in reality, I know what it takes to run a business, and it’s always more fun in your mind than in reality! But you never know!Further to the above, can you tell us a bit about working with your mother? Does this change the dynamic in your relationship?
My mom and I have always been very good friends, so working together has been great. There is definitely a business side to our relationship that wasn’t there in the past, but we live five hours apart from each other so brainstorming ideas, choosing new designers to profile, even negotiating with advertisers, keeps us close.“Gransley” is a unique way to refer to a grandmother. The combination of Ansley’s name and “Grandma” are sweet. Was this nickname inspired by someone you know personally?
No. But grandmother names are very important! Speaking of my mom, she picked the names for this book. I told her about the characters and she went to work finding the perfect names for them. She suggested Ansley for the mother, which I loved, and when I started writing I realized that “Gransley” would be a fantastic grandmother name. Then I was totally sold!Your portrayal of Caroline, Emerson, and Sloane’s relationship is a vibrant picture of sisterhood. Do you have sisters or brothers? Is their relationship inspired by people in your life?
I am an only child, actually, so I feel like, in some ways, I’ve been studying family dynamics my entire life. My mom has three sisters, and we are a very close-knit family, so I spent a lot of time with them growing up. I’ve always been fascinated by how close they are, and a lot of those dynamics played into writing the Peachtree sisters. These characters aren’t like my mom and her sisters, but that bond between them is very true to life.Where did you spend your summers as a child? Did you travel to a place similar to Peachtree Bluff? Where in the south would you recommend your readers travel to experience a similar place of beauty?
We went to Debordieu, Soth Carolina, every summer, which is an incredibly beautiful part of the South Carolina Lowcountry. But Peachtree Bluff is heavily inspired by Beaufort, North Carolina, where I live now. The islands and sandbars, the small town full of quirky characters . . . It’s all a part of where I live, and I have been dying to write a town like this for some time. More than any of my other books, Peachtree Bluff becomes a character. I hope that readers love it as much as I do.You come up with a pretty clever way to force reconciliation between Ansley and Mr. Solomon. Where did you get the inspiration to literally have the fence removed? Was this inspired by an event in your life, a friend’s, or perhaps another book or film?
Don’t we all have a fence in our lives? Mine happens to be, literally, a fence. Let’s just leave it at that.How did you come up with the title, Slightly South of Simple?
In all honesty, I don’t know! I usually write the book and then choose the title but this book was unique in that I brainstormed a huge list of titles before I was finished writing. Slightly South of Simple
struck me right off the bat and, when the editorial team at Gallery picked it from a huge list immediately, we all knew we had found a winner.What inspired you to write contemporary fiction? Do you think you’ll explore another genre, say historical fiction or fantasy?
I read a lot of contemporary fiction, so I think when stories started coming to me that was the genre I was daydreaming. But I also love historical fiction, and I do have some historical characters that have always fascinated me. I can’t imagine that I would ever write fantasy or mystery simply because I think that’s a whole different type of imagination! For now, contemporary fiction has come. I think I’ll stick with it for the foreseeable future.Do you have a favorite book that you return to year after year? What makes a book special to you? Do you find yourself more interested in plot-driven or character-driven works?
Yes! A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Betty Smith. I read it for the first time in third grade and have read it every year since. It wasn't until much later that I realized Betty Smith actually lived in North Carolina. I was this North Carolina girl who had never had any real problems and I felt so connected to Francie Nolan, a Brooklyn girl with an alcoholic father living in poverty. We thought and felt so many of the same things. I think it was the first time I realized the power of story to connect us. I’ve been fascinated by it ever since, and every year, I find something new to love about this book. I am for sure most moved by character-driven stories, and I think I write them as well. The inner workings of people’s minds, even as they pertain to the simplest things, always fascinate me.Is there a particular reality show you modeled Ladies Who Lunch after? Are you a fan of reality television programs? If so, which ones are you currently watching?
Well, it was supposed to be a bit like The Real Housewives.
I’ll catch an episode of The Real Housewives of New York
from time to time, but I’m not a devoted fan. I have to admit that I have watched every season of The Bachelor
since it first aired when I was in high school. All of my high school friends would get together every week to watch it, then my college friends, and even in grad school. Now, I always tell myself that I won’t watch the next season, but I always do. I’m not sure if it’s the good memories or what, but I can’t stop myself!Can you share a bit about your next project or the next book in the Peachtree Bluffs series?
The next book in the Peachtree Bluff series is Sloane, the middle sister’s, book, and I am so excited about it. She is going through quite a bit of turmoil in her life in the present. Her love story, which takes place through a series of flashbacks and letters, is one of my favorites I’ve ever written. We also get to delve deeper into Ansley’s relationship with her mother and her brothers, which is fun—and a little tricky. I also haven’t been able to keep myself from writing just a bit of Emerson’s story. Let’s just say, the future for the women of Peachtree Bluff still might be Slightly South of Simple
. But it’s looking bright all the same!