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Book Club Discussion Questions
The Fifth Avenue Artists Society
1. What did you enjoy about The Fifth Avenue Artists Society? Which character did you most associate with?
2. The Loftins often speak of their family history, recounting stories of their ancestors. What is the most interesting story of your family?
3. All of the women in the novel are strong in their own way. Who is your female role model? Why? What is it about that person that makes them strong?
4. Discuss the triumphs and tragedies of Ginny’s life. How did they shape her? What do you feel for her?
5. The relationships between Ginny and Charlie and Ginny and John are both complex. What are the strengths of each relationship and the pitfalls? Can you think of real-life examples of relationships like these?
6. Art is a major force for nearly every character in the novel. Discuss each of the siblings. Why is their particular art so important to them?
7. When Ginny first encounters the artists society, she is shocked that men and women are sharing their ideas and art. Can you think of some changes that allowed this sharing to become more acceptable in our country today?
8. Discuss the goals of each sibling. How did these goals drive them?
9. John and Franklin are both active participants in the Optimism Solution scandal. How did their involvement change your perception of them?
10. Societal norms of the Gilded Age were much different than they are today. If you could restore some of them to today’s world, would you? If so, which ones? In the same manner, which of them are you glad to see extinct?
11. What is the role of the artists society in the novel? How does it shape each character?
12. What will you take away from The Fifth Avenue Artists Society? Will any aspects remain with you?
1. Secret Sisters is set during the Gilded Age, a time period I love because social boundaries and norms were on the cusp of great change. What did you enjoy about this period? What do you dislike about this period?
2. Beth, Lily, Mary, and Katherine are all studying subjects that are very unconventional for women of the time. What surprised you most about their struggles/triumphs?
3. Secret Sisters has a large cast of principal and supporting characters. Who did you most associate with and why?
4. There are several viewpoints examined in this novel, best seen in the contrast between Grant and Beth. Why were these views common during this time period in history? Do you think these issues have been settled over time or do you think that they’re still somewhat at odds today?
5. The characters’ parents play a cloaked but active role in their lives. Discuss the influence of each main character and their parents. If you feel comfortable to discuss this, talk about your own parents. Have you embraced their ideals or decided upon a different path?
6. Beth, Lily, Mary, and Katherine are all very different. Who did you enjoy most?
7. All of the characters in the book are chasing their dreams. What challenges have you overcome to chase yours?
8. Grant and Will are so different and yet Beth finds honorable characteristics in them both. If you were to go on a date with one of them, who would you choose and why?
9. Beta Xi Beta is based on the founding of the 27 panhellenic sororities, a part of history that is relatively unknown to the general population. What surprised you most about how these organizations were formed?
10. Co-education was still a controversial topic at the time of the novel. Many colleges in the north and south were sex-segregated, while those in the Midwest were often sex-integrated. Why do you suppose some people believed it best to separate men and women?
11. The novel concludes with many promises for the characters’ future. What would you like to see happen to the characters in the following years?
12. Overall, what did you enjoy most about the story?
Behind the Book
Dig around in your family’s history long enough and you’ll start to find stories behind the names and dates on your pedigree chart. Every family has them—tales of triumph and victory, love and tragedy, of tumultuous lives and simple days well-lived.
For as long as I can recall, my family has made a habit of telling our ancestors’ stories—a way to keep them alive in a world that has long since forgotten them. Because of this, I can’t remember when I first heard of the real Loftins—Alevia VanPelt and William Lynch and their children, Annie (Bess), Virginia, Alice (Mae), Franklin, and Alevia—but I’ve always been entranced by this family of extraordinary artists.
My great-great grandmother was Alice—Hunter College graduate, educator, and the only one to marry and have children. My grandmother, Alevia VanPelt Jenkins Ballard, often told me how lovely and kind and smart she was, but she also told me of the others—of Annie the milliner, Virginia the writer, Franklin the salesman, and Alevia the concert pianist. They have each captured hours upon hours of my thoughts, but when I sat down to write a story based on this family, it was Virginia’s voice I heard, a voice I found rather fitting considering her profession.
Not only was Virginia an artist, but in her soul, she was an adventurer. She traveled the world, seemingly unperturbed by the difficulty in doing so at the turn of the 20th century, wrote several books—mostly nonfiction—and articles for the Bronx Review, painted, taught, organized a women’s suffrage group, and helped establish an artists’ colony in Lime Rock, Connecticut. Though she never married, I’d like to imagine that she’d had the option. Her diaries suggest her interest in a man who proposed to another woman quite without warning. The character of Charlie is fictional, but his profession is roughly based on lithographic illustrator, Berhardt Wall. Wall illustrated Virginia’s book, Washington Irving’s Footprints, but their relationship was likely much closer, as evident by his inscriptions in several of his own books to various members of the family. In later years, they both lived in the artists’ colony in Lime Rock.
Though only imagined, the Hoppers, Lydia and Tom, and the society are a conglomeration of the colorful friends, artists, and groups mentioned in Virginia’s diaries and Virginia and Alevia’s letters to Alice. Alevia never sought acceptance in to the Symphony or Philharmonic, though she did make her living both playing for hire and testing pianos at several of the local factories.
The place where the old Mott Haven home once stood on the corner of Morris Avenue and 142nd street is now a parking lot, but the story of this remarkable family lives on each time it is told, made immortal by our remembrance.