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Leaving fans “practically [begging] for a sequel” (Bookpage), critically acclaimed author Kristy Woodson Harvey returns with the second novel in her beloved Peachtree Bluff series, featuring a trio of sisters and their mother who discover a truth that will change not only the way they see themselves, but also how they fit together as a family.
After finding out her military husband is missing in action, middle sister Sloane’s world crumbles as her worst nightmare comes true. She can barely climb out of bed, much less summon the strength to be the parent her children deserve.
Her mother, Ansley, provides a much-needed respite as she puts her personal life on hold to help Sloane and her grandchildren wade through their new grief-stricken lives. But between caring for her own aging mother, her daughters, and her grandchildren, Ansley’s private worry is that secrets from her past will come to light.
But when Sloane’s sisters, Caroline and Emerson, remind Sloane that no matter what, she promised her husband she would carry on for their young sons, Sloane finds the support and courage she needs to chase her biggest dreams—and face her deepest fears. Taking a cue from her middle daughter, Ansley takes her own leap of faith and realizes that, after all this time, she might finally be able to have it all.
Harvey’s signature warmth and wit make this a charming and poignant story of first loves, missed opportunities, and second chances and proves that she is "the next major voice in Southern fiction” (Elin Hilderbrand, New York Times bestselling author).
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Secret to Southern Charm
Time had lost its meaning. I only realized it was night because the water outside my bedroom window at my mother’s home in Peachtree Bluff, Georgia, wasn’t blue anymore. It was black and shining like fresh-paved asphalt. But inside, in my room, on my TV, it wasn’t night. It was Saturday morning, the third precious birthday of my son Adam, Jr., or AJ, as we called him. My strong, national hero of a husband, in his off-duty khaki shorts and collared shirt, was holding our other son, six-month-old Taylor, in one arm. I was behind the camera cooing, “Smile for Daddy one more time. Can you smile for Daddy?” Taylor smiled. Who wouldn’t smile for the handsome man holding him?
It was almost funny to see that six-foot-three soldier with his big, sculpted arms and huge hands made for protecting holding that tiny baby. But Adam wasn’t just a strong and loyal soldier. He was my husband. He was my boys’ father. He was my home.
His arms were the only place I had truly felt safe, special, and loved. His smile was the one that changed my life, had convinced me to marry, to have children, to put myself out there and love this big. His heart was the one that, after a decade of feeling so terrorized by my father’s death, had made me feel safe again. Adam had changed absolutely everything.
His dark hair, peppered with gray, was buzzed short. His kind brown eyes twinkled at me through the camera as he said, “Three, Sloane. Can you believe he’s three?”
We were in front of our town house on post in North Carolina. Adam liked the idea of us being in a town home, of having other families close by. He didn’t say it, but he liked the idea of other families being close by because he wouldn’t always be around. It was inevitable. He felt like we were safe here when he was away.
The video panned over our house, a sweet Carolina blue with a front porch on a street, like all the streets on post, named after a World War II battle campaign. My mother had decorated the generic four-bedroom interior, converting one of the bedrooms into a playroom and sparing no expense on the open-floor-plan living room, dining room, and kitchen downstairs. It was almost embarrassingly beautiful.
We shared a driveway with my friend Maryanne and her husband, Tom, who was a part of Adam’s unit, and their four kids. Tom called, “Hey, Sarge!” and gave Adam a double thumbs-up. We were all still basking in the glow of Adam’s promotion to sergeant first class. There were a lot of perks that came with the job.
But hands down the perk that meant the most to Adam was the respect, the feeling of a job well done. Junior enlisted soldiers would come to him, asking for advice, wanting his opinion. He always said he was raising men, and he didn’t just mean his sons. Those boys were his now, even though he wasn’t much older than some of them. It was his job to protect them, to instill in them morals, values, and a sense of pride in their country and in themselves.
Adam was an imposing man, a strong leader, but he also had a kind heart. Maybe the Army didn’t care about that. But I had to think his empathetic nature was a factor in his promotion.
We loved living there, surrounded by other military families, the only ones who could truly understand the life we had chosen.
Four of our favorite couples and their small children were scattered around our postage-stamp front yard, each of them, from the largest officer to Maryanne’s newborn baby, wearing a Mickey Mouse party hat. AJ was attempting to ride his new mini scooter through the grass, the red Keds and white Jon Jon with the red fire truck Mom had sent him for his birthday seeming more than a little out of place amidst the other children in their shorts and T-shirts.
My husband had protested the outfit, but I had simply kissed him and said, “Oh, sweetheart, he’s only little once. Let me have this.”
Adam had pulled me to him then, kissed me longer, and said, teasingly, “If you get the girly outfits, I get buying him a BB gun for his sixth birthday.”
This was a common joke between us. I was, ironically, very anti-gun. He was a soldier, a card-carrying member of the NRA, a proud Second Amendment supporter. We would never agree on this. We would never agree, in fact, on a number of things. But that’s what made us work.
Back on the screen we were all singing, “Happy birthday, dear AJ! Happy birthday to you!”
We cheered as it took him not one, not two, but three tries to blow out the three candles on his cake.
“Third time’s the charm?” Adam asked me, looking into the camera.
We both laughed, sharing that private moment, my favorite man in all the world holding one of our sons, his arm around the other.
Adam smiled into the camera, that special smile he reserved just for me, a secret we would never let the rest of the world in on. I hit pause on my sticky remote. Sticky from what I couldn’t say. Popsicle? Go-gurt?
I pulled the two down comforters I had wrapped around me up closer to my chin, trying to soothe the perceptible chill that ran through me as my mind pulled out of that world, where Adam was here and we were happy, and back into the present, the real world where life was bleak, empty, and so cold it felt like the depths of the arctic instead of a seventy-eight-degree night in Georgia.
My bed was covered with letters Adam had written me over the years, the ones I carried in a leather portfolio my mom had gotten me when I was accepted into art school. Whenever I traveled, it was the first thing that went into my suitcase. This trip to Peachtree had been no exception. A few of the letters fluttered when I disturbed the comforter.
I glanced over at the nightstand to see my dinner untouched on its tray. My mom was trying, bless her heart. I almost smiled because nothing ever changed, not really. I did the same thing with my sons now, putting the broccoli on their plates even if I knew they wouldn’t take a single bite.
The mere thought of eating turned my stomach, made bile rise up the back of my throat. I couldn’t remember the last time I had even gotten out of this bed or had a sip of water. I certainly hadn’t bathed in far too long. How long had it been since I heard Adam was MIA? Two days, a week, a month? It terrified me. Who had been taking care of my children? Even if I couldn’t eat, I would bathe tomorrow. I would face my boys. But this was something I thought every day.
I looked back at the TV, studying Adam’s smiling face, so joyful and alive. He was my home. He was my everything. I sank even deeper into the covers, and the sobs, so powerful they seemed like they were in danger of stealing the very life from me, overtook me as I realized it: I may never be home again.
Reading Group Guide
This readers group guide for The Secret to Southern Charm includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. 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.
When Sloane Murphy hears that her husband, Adam, is MIA, she breaks down. Thankfully, she finds herself in the care of her sisters, mother, and grandmother in her family’s home in Peachtree Bluff, Georgia, where the sky is blue, the breeze is fresh, but naturally—nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Sloane must learn how to pick herself up and out of bed, be the mother she needs to be for her two sons, and prepare to pick up the pieces in case Adam never returns. Meanwhile, her mother Ansley’s affections with her teenage sweetheart grow more complicated when he forces himself into her life in an unexpected way. There’s never a dull moment in the Murphy household, and book two in the Peachtree Bluff series proves it!
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. There are three generations of mothers, and likewise, many styles of parenting in this novel. Discuss the different relationships that exist and consider the relationship between Sloane and Ansley or Sloane and her grandmother, and how Sloane and Caroline view parenting.
2. Discuss the title The Secret to Southern Charm. Secrets abound in the novel: Sloane neglects to tell Adam she uses an IUD and doesn’t truly want kids; Jack is Sloane and Caroline’s father, yet Ansley won’t tell them; Ansley’s early financial woes that her daughters know nothing about; and Grammy’s decision to hide her illness from the family. Discuss what other secrets exist and how they impact the characters in their own ways.
3. “Grammy had said earlier that the accent was the secret to Southern charm. But she was wrong. This putting on a brave face, carrying on, helping others, being kind and humble and giving, believing with all your heart that the world could be a better place and that you could make it that way . . . that was Southern charm. Looking around at these women who embodied those qualities so well, I had to think that maybe Grammy was wrong. Maybe it wasn’t a secret at all” (page 240). How do you interpret the title and Grammy’s thoughts on what the secret of Southern charm is? After reading the book, do you think this is what Southern charm is about? Why, or why not?
4. Ansley mentions her longstanding desire to decorate the home next to hers. When her new neighbor ends up being her former lover, Jack, she offers her service to him. How does this decision play out for Ansley? Do you think it was wise for her to pitch to Jack? Why, or why not?
5. Sloane describes her marriage to Adam as love at first sight. Do you agree with Ansley that their engagement moved quickly? Do you think this intensity so early on in their relationship creates any sort of bond for their future? Why, or why not?
6. Take a moment to think about the different women in the novel. What does it mean to be a mother, a daughter, a sister, or a wife in the book? Discuss how the relationships are different or similar. Is Ansley the same type of mother her own mother was? Is Sloane like Ansley? How would you describe Sloane and Caroline’s relationship versus Sloane and Emerson’s? Lastly, discuss the difference in marriages that exist: Sloane and Adam versus Caroline and James. Recall Caroline’s story from Slightly South of Simple to help with this discussion.
7. “Sometimes being a mother isn’t about having to fix it. Sometimes, the best thing a mother can be is there at all” (page 13). Discuss this quote in the context of Ansley’s treatment of Sloane in the first half of the book versus her own mother’s “help” in her own time of need. Do you agree with their behaviors and decisions? Do you relate to either relationship?
8. The concept of a home versus a house is an underlying theme in the book. Discuss how the family home in Peachtree Bluff is a home rather than a house.
9. On page 181, Grammy says to Sloane, “I’m going to say this. I love you, Sloane. You’re a beautiful, talented, artistic bright light. It has bothered me for years that once you married Adam, you became this . . . ‘Stepford wife.’” Based on what you’ve read about Sloane’s marriage and her life after it, do you agree with her grandmother? Why, or why not?
10. “I’ve always been very good at being numb. I’m the doer, the fixer, the one to take charge. It keeps my mind off of what is actually happening so I don’t have to face the sadness” (page 199). What does Ansley mean by this thought? Do you think she hides from her feelings in the book? If so, in what ways? In which circumstances?
11. Take a moment to reflect on the events in Slightly South of Simple, the first book set in Peachtree Bluff. Although it is focused on Caroline’s experience, would you say the characters have changed at all in The Secret to Southern Charm? How so?
12. There are a lot of thoughts on memories in the book, either in creating new ones (Grammy’s desire to take a trip to Starlite Island) or reminiscing on the past (Ansley’s early years with Jack). How do the characters preserve memories or describe important moments? What would you hope your family would remember about you on your last day?
13. Which of the characters do you relate to the most? Is it helpful to read new points of view in each Peachtree Bluff novel to understand the Murphy family? Can you make any predictions for what comes for the Murphy’s or Emerson?
14. Sloane describes their life on the army base in a few chapters. Do you have any familiarity with living on an army base or have you had friends/family who have done so? What do you imagine it would be like? Have you had friends or family who have married military personnel? In what ways do you think their lives are similar to Sloane’s?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. For your next book, consider reading a memoir about being an army wife such as Unremarried Widow by Artis Henderson. Do you see similarities in Sloane’s and Artis’s stories?
2. If you live near a lake or a waterfront, consider taking a tour of the area on a sailboat as the sisters do to drop Vivi off at camp.
3. As a group, go to your local painting party shop. Try your hand at some conceptual art as Sloane does or try a paint by numbers-style class.
4. Connect with Kristy Woodson Harvey on Facebook, Twitter, and visit her official website at: KristyWoodsonHarvey.com. Consider inviting her to Skype in with your book club.