Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
The novel opens with Jessie Maddox having fantasies of her husband's
untimely death, either by fate or by accident. What has happened in her life to
cause this? What do you think she would do, and how would she react, if her
fantasies were to come true? Do you ever have similar thoughts about those you
love? If so, examine the way your innermost thoughts often conflict with what
you believe you want in life.
Jessie is the one telling her story. What are the strengths and weaknesses
of Jessie's first-person narration? Do you think she's able to remain objective
when discussing her unhappiness, or when describing her family and friends? How
would the novel be different if it were narrated by her husband Turner?
Jessie talks about wanting the perfect marriage and the perfect home. She
subscribes to House Beautiful, Southern Living, and Psychology Today, trying to
copy decorating ideas and lifestyle tips. She joins the Glenville Society
Cotillion, and she and her husband are members of the local country club.
Discuss how Jessie is influenced by what she reads in books and magazines, or
sees in movies, and how her expectations of love and marriage may be
unrealistic. Do you know people who do the same thing? How has she, as she
admits, worked to create the life she always dreamed of having? How much of
Jessie's dilemma do you believe is based on her desire to keep up with what
society expects of her?
We know Turner only from the details Jessie reveals, and from the few
scenes where he appears. What do you think of him as a husband, and what about
Turner hasn't Jessie told us? Do you believe he loves Jessie? What could he be
doing to help her through this crisis? Do you think he realizes how unhappy
Jessie is? Consider reading Gustave Flaubert's classic novel Madame Bovary, and
discuss the similarities and the differences between the characters and the
plots of Madame Bovary and A False Sense of Well Being.
Is Jessie experiencing a typical midlife crisis? If so, what do you
believe she should be doing to work through it? If not, what do you think
triggered the wave of self-doubt and self-examination she's having? Discuss any
time in your life when you may have felt the same way.
The novel uses passages from The Book of Common Prayer to introduce
certain chapters. Why do you think the author chose The Book of Common Prayer,
and what is the significance of each passage to the story that follows? Do you
think Jessie, or any of the characters, find any comfort in the passages and
prayers that are presented?
As a social worker at a mental health clinic, Jessie talks about the power
of confession, and wonders if her clients are helped by telling her their
secrets. Do you believe confession, as the saying goes, is good for the soul?
How do you feel about Jessie as a therapist? Do you think she's helped by the
confessions she makes to her friends and family? Discuss how the power of
confession is the novel's central theme.
Unlike many contemporary novels, in which the male characters are the ones
making bad decisions, having affairs, or leaving home, it's the women in this
novel who are the ones doing all the misbehaving. What is the significance of
this? Discuss the choices these women make and how these choices affect their
lives. Are the women who are having affairs or running away from home behaving,
in a sense, like men? Do you believe--as does the self-help writer that Jessie
listens to on tape--that men and women want the same things but have trouble
communicating their wants and needs to each other? Discuss the changing roles of
women over the past few decades, and how this has affected the traditional ideas
of marriage and family.
Jessie and her friend Donna have different ways of looking at things,
especially marriage. Jessie says, in fact, that she feels like she can live
vicariously through Donna, because of Donna's affair
From the Trade Paperback edition. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Vintage Books.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Ballantine Books.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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