Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Canterbury Sisters 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.
From the critically acclaimed author of Love in Mid Air and The Unexpected Waltz, The Canterbury Sisters is a warm, compulsively readable novel about how one woman’s mission to grant her mother’s last wishes ends up saving her own.
Che de Milan’s life is a mess. Her longtime boyfriend has just announced—in a letter—that he is leaving her for another woman and her eccentric mother has recently passed. When her mother’s ashes show up on her doorstep with a set of instructions that require a trip to Canterbury Cathedral, Che reluctantly packs her bags and embarks upon a pilgrimage. The eight women in the touring group swap stories along the length of the Canterbury Trail in the best Chaucer tradition, vying to see who among them can describe true love. Armed with wine, ashes, camaraderie, and the magic of Canterbury itself, these unlikely pilgrims help Che find the sense of peace and hope that has always eluded her.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. In the opening pages, Che loses her mother, Diana, and describes herself as an orphan: “I’ve always been an only child, and now I’m an orphan as well, and the time has pretty much passed for having children of my own. Not that I ever particularly wanted such a thing. The bumper sticker on my Fiat reads, I’M NOT CHILDLESS, I’M CHILD-FREE, but still, to find myself utterly alone in the world, at least in terms of blood relations, has hit me harder than I would have guessed.” (pg. 6) What does the loss of her mother represent to Che? As the story progresses, how does Che reconcile with her loss?
2. When Che first meets sees Broads Abroad, she remains on her side of the pub, observing from a distance rather than approaching the group. What about this trip makes her reluctant to sit down with the women at first? How does a stranger in the pub ultimately convince her to go on the journey? Describe her initial reactions to the women and how her opinions change over time.
3. The Canterbury Tales include pilgrims who are men, whereas the Broads Abroad is a group made only of women. Discuss how this affects the sort of stories that are told during Che’s pilgrimage versus the one Chaucer would have experienced in the Middle Ages.
4. Before the women officially begin their journey, they briefly mention their marital statuses. Che blurts out “I was married once, but so long ago that it’s like it hardly happened.” (pg. 48) Describe the role of secrecy, lies, and “personal myths” (pg. 261) in the novel. Whose secrets are the most surprising?
5. Jean’s tale is a good example of how self-blame permeates the women’s lives in The Canterbury Sisters. Discuss how other characters blame themselves (or others) for events that have occurred in their lives. Are they able to liberate themselves from this self-blame? Why or why not?
6. In chapter five, Che checks her emails after a day or two without her cell phone. After seeing over a hundred unread emails she says, “Would it be such a crime to be unreachable, to hold my silence for just this once?” (Page 77) Consider what this statement means in relation to her recent break up with Ned, the loss of her mother, and her overall experience on the pilgrimage.
7. Because of the reality television show she stars on, Angelique’s entire relationship is the most exposed and seemingly the most brutally honest. Why does she choose to illustrate her relationship through the myth of Psyche and Eros?
8. In chapter six, Che reveals how one of her mother’s lovers ruined Cinderella for her as a young girl. What is it about this memory at this point in the book that causes Che to react so strongly and to finally cry? What is it about Valerie’s presence that causes her to flee?
9. After Claire’s tale, Tess says, “We aren’t telling these stories to entertain each other” (pg 131). What is the purpose of the tales on this journey? Discuss what the storytelling represents in this novel.
10. Valerie chooses to tell the tale of Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady instead of the story of her own life. The tale has an important message: that above all, women wish for the chance to make their own decisions. Were you surprised to learn Valerie’s secret at the end of the novel? Do you think the chance to make decisions is what women truly want most in life?
11. In Chapter Eleven, Silvia reveals that her seemingly perfect marriage was devoid of love and that ultimately, both she and her husband find true love once they are no longer following “The Plan.” What does your plan look like? What do you think about Silvia’s decision to start a marriage and a family with a path already set forth?
12. On page 223, Claire asks Che, “What did she teach you? Your mother, I mean. Girls always learn something from their mothers, even when they try not to.” What did Diana teach Che? Discuss with your fellow book club members what you’ve each learned from your own mothers.
13. The accident comes as big shock in chapter fifteen. How does this change the dynamics of the group? Describe how each woman reacts to the accident.
14. One of the major themes in The Canterbury Sisters is the importance of company. Discuss how companionship—or the lack thereof—in Che’s life plays a role in her participation in the trip. Do the other women lack companionship? Consider the relationships between Becca and Jean, Claire, and Silvia, Che and Diana. Do you think the group comes together by the novel’s end? Why or why not? What do you make of the book's title?
15. On page 290, the priest asks, “Why do people pilgrimage?” Share your initial reaction with your book group. What would you hope to gain from a similar experience?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Read some of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales with your book group. Do you see any characters from The Canterbury Tales echoed in The Canterbury Sisters? Are there any particular scenes that appear in both books? Consider the influence of Chaucer’s themes on The Canterbury Sisters.
2. Consider reading Kim Wright’s other two novels, The Unexpected Waltz or Love in Mid Air. Do you notice similar trends, characters, or plot points? Discuss these similarities and differences with your book group.
3. Take a trip to a historic site or scenic hiking trail in your area—and leave the phones at home! Invite your fellow book group members to tell the “tales” of their own romances or love stories that have touched them throughout their lives. Or have a "walk and talk" book club meeting and get exercise and insight all at once.
4. Select a memoir or biography about someone who travels on a trail or specific path for your next book club pick, such as Wild by Cheryl Strayed or Tracks by Robyn Davidson. Do you see similarities between these books? Why or why not?