Reading Group Guide
Amber Winslow (of the New England Winslows) and woman-about-London Vicky Townsley, both eager for a break from their own lives, are about to find out if the grass is greener on the other side of the Atlantic. Though happily married and the mother of two adoring children, Amber feels trapped. She's found herself in an endless cycle of suburban one-upwomanship, constantly competing to be more fashionable and have better taste than women she doesn't even like. Between tackling her self-serving “charity” work, spending ludicrous amounts of money, building a wardrobe a Hollywood starlet would envy, overseeing a gag-inducing redesign of her living room, and striving to be queen bee, Amber's too exhausted to be a good mother, much less a good wife.
While Amber thinks back to a simpler time when she was independent and single, Vicky sits dreaming of a more stable and domestic life for herself than the one she's living in London. Single just isn't where she expected to be at thirty-five. Sure, she has her brother and his family to visit in the country; but it's just not the same as having a family of her own. What's worse is always being told by her married friends that she doesn't know how good she really has it. Easy for them to say—they don't have to deal with her ongoing battle with dead-end relationships and having no one (well, except for her conveniently close-at-hand and not-too-demanding neighbor Daniel) to cuddle with on chilly evenings. She wants to get out of this rut, even for just a little while.
So what if two women really did it, if they really swapped lives? The editor of Poise! magazine, where Vicky is features director, thinks it's a great idea for a story, and Amber looks like the perfect woman to make the trade. But could this possibly be a good idea? What woman in her right mind would leave her husband and children for a whole month? And what woman in her right mind would spend a month pretending to be married to a perfect stranger? In their pursuit to understand each other's lives, Amber and Vicky discover much more about their own. And it is these discoveries that help both women learn the most valuable lesson of all: If the grass on the other side looks more appealing, don't run for greener pastures; your own grass might just need a little tending.
ABOUT JANE GREEN
Jane Green is the author of eight bestselling novels, including The Other Woman, To Have and to Hold, andJemima J. She lives in Connecticut with her family.
A CONVERSATION WITH JANE GREEN
What gave you the idea for Swapping Lives?
I can never remember quite where the inspiration for my books comes from, but I knew that there were times when I looked at women who were single and felt a slight envy. Not that I wanted to swap with them, but there were things I missed: the freedom, the anticipation of not knowing where life would take you. And yet, when I was single, I thought that getting married was the ultimate “happily ever after,” the end of the fairytale, and really had no concept of what marriage itself is all about.
With the characters of Suzy and Nadine, in particular, you take an unflinching look at the superficial friendships shared by some women. Why do you think these women choose this sort of friendship and allow it to continue?
I think women are very good at compartmentalizing their friends. I have some friends I go to for their wisdom and compassion, always the best when I am having a crisis. Others I wouldn't dream of confiding in, and yet I love them for their humor, their energy, their ability to make me laugh. I have had various unhealthy, toxic friendships over the years, and like to think that I am of an age now where I tend to recognize the unhealthy ones and get out quicker. There have certainly been instances in the past when I have attracted friends who have not served me well, and it is only afterward that I realize I was either meeting one of their needs—often in my case their need to be needed—or they were meeting one of mine. I tend to avoid superficial friendships these days, and am fairly careful about my inner circle, but so many of my friends are not like that and are able to have friends who they can enjoy on a superficial level for any one of a variety of reasons.
Would you talk about your own experiences navigating the differences between living in England and the United States?
I've been here in the States five and a half years now, and have to say I feel incredibly American. I'd always visited the States, from when I was tiny, and it honestly did feel like coming home for me. I have always loved the way people here involve themselves in the community: from mothers getting involved in the schools to charity work. So many people give of themselves, which I had never seen before.
Reality television shows like Wife Swap got their start in England. What is it that you think people find so fascinating about the genre? Is it pure voyeurism or the desire to see others on television and think, “OK, I'm not that bad after all”—or something else entirely?
Oh, I think it's pure voyeurism. I will confess that in my early twenties I used to walk my dog every evening at twilight just to peer into people's basement flats to see how they lived. It was fascinating, and reality TV is much the same thing.
You have a lot in common with both Amber and Vicky. To which of the characters do you feel closest?
Vicky is very much who I would have been had I not been married at thirty. And Amber's dilemmas were very much my dilemmas living in an affluent suburb. There were so many good things about my town, but for a while all I was able to see was the bad, the social climbing, the keeping up with the Joneses. Of course it was only with hindsight that I was able to see that my unhappiness had less to do with my town and more to do with things going on in my personal life, which I think is so often the case. When we start finding fault with everything, generally there's something much closer to home that is causing us pain.
Who are some authors you most admire? Have any been particularly influential? What are you reading now?
I'm a huge fan of Jonathan Tropper. Also Patrick Gale, Ann Patchett. Anything by Marian Keyes is always a treat, and my current favourite is A Family Daughter by Maile Meloy.
What are you working on now?
I'm sadly selling my beloved farm in the country and moving back to the real-life equivalent of Highfield, tail between my legs and eating lots of humble pie. I did rather worry that Fairfield county would never let me back, but I have found living in the country to be far more isolated and lonely than I had anticipated, and various life changes have meant it is necessary for me to be close to my friends right now. But as soon as I move I will be getting back to work on my new book, which is about a group of school friends who are reunited after one of their group dies.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONSIf you had the opportunity to switch lives like Amber and Vicky did, would you be willing to do so? For whom do you think the swap would be more difficult—a wife and mother leaving her husband and children for a month or a single woman trying to play mom and wife to strangers?
In your opinion, who walks away more changed after the swap: Amber, who sees everything that's been wrong with her life, or Vicky, who has a new appreciation for hers?
Vicky's pre-swap relationships seem to follow a not-so-healthy pattern. Describe this pattern. In what ways does her relationship with Daniel, for example, influence her ability to have a healthy, long-term relationship?
Life in Highfield surprises Richard and Amber—it's more like Manhattan than they'd imagined. Do you think social status plays an equal role regardless of whether one lives in a large city or small town? What are some of the differences? What are some of the similarities?
Swapping Lives abounds in examples of adults being susceptible to what can only be called peer pressure. Discuss the role of such concerns in the novel. Reflect on occasions in your own life when, as an adult, you've unwittingly given in to peer pressure.
Vicky's identity seems to be wrapped up in her work. Amber, on the other hand, laments ever having stopped working. In your opinion, how much of women's self-esteem is connected to their occupations? Discuss some examples of women—whether in fiction, film, or real life—who have managed to strike a balance between career and family?
What do you think about Amber as a mother? What do you think should be her steps toward improvement?