November 29, 2011

Knit One Pearl One Book Group Extras

Knit One Pearl One


Knit One Pearl One, the follow-up novel to The Beach Street Knitting Society and Yarn Club and Needles and Pearls, continues the story of Jo Mackenzie’s life in the scenic seaside village of Broadgate. Between her three adorable children, her ever-expanding knitting and café business, and her friends in high places, Jo can hardly find a moment of harmony in her crowded, hectic life. The arrival of Daniel, father to her young daughter, Pearl, throws a wrench into Jo’s carefully planned day-to-day whirlwind. Should Jo take a leap of faith with the globe-trotting one-, well, two-night-stand Daniel, or should she settle for Martin, the hapless but earnest local carpenter? In Knit One Pearl One, one thing is certain: everyone in the close-knit Broadgate community is part of the family. And in the end, Jo realizes she doesn’t need a man to make her happy—her busy life is already brimming over with love.

Discussion Questions

1. Have you read Gil McNeil’s other Beach Street novels? If yes, which one did you like the best? If no, do you feel your reading experience would have been better with more backstory?

2. How did the author’s British writing affect your comprehension or enjoyment of Knit One Pearl One? What words or phrases stuck out to you as particularly British?

3. Are you a knitter? If yes, did you feel particular kinship with Jo and the Stitch and Bitch ladies? If no, what drew you to this book?

4. A big part of the energy and heart of Knit One Pearl One comes from Jo’s relationship with her three kids: Jack, Archie, and Pearl. If you’ve raised young children yourself, do you feel the author captured the experience properly? If you haven’t raised children yourself, does this book change your opinion of raising kids?

5. When all three kids are playing harmoniously for a brief stretch, Jo thinks, “It’s moments like this when it all makes sense” (p. 11). When you think back on hectic times in your life, what moments or experiences made you feel your sacrifices were all worth it?

6. Jo’s family arrangement is an “untraditional” one, given that she’s raising her kids without their father present. What are the benefits of raising her children without a father? Does Jo have more time for them? What are the challenges she faces?

7. Jo places a high value on being able to support herself and her kids, and she insists on being financially prepared to handle anything that life might throw her way. She says to Ellen, “I don’t want to be beholden. Not to anyone. I never want to do that again. That way the world can’t come crashing down again. See, I’ve got it all worked out” (p. 45). Do you feel the same way as Jo? Have you taken any specific steps to create your own contingency plan? If yes, what steps; if not, do you hope to?

8. Knitting plays a large role in Jo’s life—it connects her with other people, gives her financial security, and is a big stress reliever. Similarly, Jo observes that after Mrs. Peterson has been knitting, “Somehow she seems lighter, like it’s not such a huge struggle to get through the day, which is great. I hope the knitting has helped, a bit” (p. 276). Do you have your own personal version of knitting—something you do in your day-to-day life that helps calm you down and bolster your spirits?

9. During one of her rare moments of quiet, Jo thinks to herself, “I’ve never liked the French; they’re far too snooty about food, and they don’t seem terribly good at laughing at themselves, which is a pretty vital life skill as far as I’m concerned” (p. 63). What do you consider your own vital life skills? Have you mastered them, or are you still working toward them?

10. When Pearl launches into one of her screaming tantrums, Jo is relieved to have fellow mom Connie around. As Jo explains, “Only another mum can really pull this off; with child-free people there’s always that slight tension, where you know they think you should have some magic trick to stop the yelling, and if you don’t you’re clearly a crap mother” (pp. 64–65). If you’ve raised young kids yourself, do you empathize? If you haven’t, do you ever feel frustrated around kids having loud tantrums in public?

11. Jo never told Elizabeth, her former mother-in-law, about the affairs and financial destruction that her late husband (and Elizabeth’s late son), Nick, had revealed to Jo right before he died. Do you agree with Jo’s choice to withhold the upsetting information from Elizabeth? What do you think you would have done in Jo’s situation?

12. During one of her many meandering conversations with Jo, Ellen starts talking about various “badges” that she feels she should earn throughout her life, ticking them off as she goes. Besides the motherhood badge, Ellen explains, “There’s the Have a Proper Career badge, tick, Live Somewhere Smart, tick, Partner You Can Take to Dinner Parties, Not the Size of a House, Produce an Infant, tick, tick, tick” (p. 123). What badges are you hoping to earn throughout your life, in accordance with your own morals and values? Would you include any of Ellen’s?

13. While reflecting on the nosiness she faced during her pregnancy with Pearl, Jo laments, “People seem to love dissecting other people’s lives. Like most of us aren’t just doing the best we can” (p. 167). Why do you think gossip is so compelling? When is it okay to gossip about someone?

14. When Helena tries to guilt-trip Jo about using disposable diapers, Jo replies, “To be honest, I think we should sort out the big oil companies, and air travel, things that make a huge difference, before we start guilt-tripping mothers about nappies” (p. 170). Do you agree with Jo? Do small actions add up to big impacts, or are they more of a gesture than anything else?

15. Are you happy with the way things worked out for Jo with Daniel and Martin? What did you hope would happen?

A Conversation with Gil McNeil

Q: What parts of the book—settings, characters, plot points, relationships—are pulled from your own life?

A: None of them; they’re inspired by my experiences, and those of my family and friends, but not based on them. I’m not interested in writing my autobiography, but I do have an annoying habit of scribbling down snatches of dialogue I overhear, which does make you look like an undercover agent and can attract the occasional worried glance.

Q: Which character did you have the most fun writing, whether because of their kindness or their delicious menace?

A: I love so many of them, but Elsie and Annabel Morgan were fun as mini-villains, and I did get a taste of what it might be like to be a superstar with Grace. Writing the children’s voices was also always hugely entertaining.

Q: You describe the hectic-but-loving everyday existence of raising young children very convincingly. Are there any moments in the novel that are pulled from your own experience?

A: No, not least because my son would be deeply unimpressed by finding himself catapulted into one of my novels. But now I’m safely in the hinterland of parenting, with my son at university, I can remember the combination of exhaustion and constant negotiation with far more affection than I felt at the time. There are so many books out there telling us we’re doing a bad job as mothers if we don’t stay home and cook and clean until we’ve forgotten we ever had careers, and so many books that make you feel second rate if you’re not out there wearing a tiny suit and very high heels, running a multinational while simultaneously mothering six-week-old triplets and making gourmet meals every night. I write for all those women who can’t make their own mayonnaise, and don’t care, and can’t walk in high heels for more than ten minutes without falling over . . . in other words, women like me. One of the nicest things about being a writer is getting letters from readers saying you have made them laugh, and sometimes cry, too, which I always feel slightly guilty about, although I did once get a card from a reader saying I’d made her laugh so much on her journey to work she had to get off the bus because the other passengers were starting to give her odd looks.

Q: What parts of Jo Mackenzie do you see in yourself? Is she based on anyone in particular? If you could, would you trade lives with her for a year?

A: Jo is based on a mixture of friends and imagination, and I don’t think I could live her life for a week, let alone a year—I’m far too selfish now, and need my time “off duty” in the garden, cooking, writing, and lolling about on the sofa, to be able to cope with three young kids. Looking after a friend’s four-year-old for a couple of hours recently left me so exhausted I could barely speak by the time she came to collect him: I’d completely  forgotten how traumatic arts and crafts with the under-fives can be . . .

Q: In a lovely change from many mainstream, female-oriented narratives, Jo finds happiness with her kids and her work, and doesn’t feel that she needs a man to complete her. What led you to this choice?

A: I think, like millions of women around the world, Jo is happy if her kids are happy. It’s as simple as that. Whether there’s a man in her life or not, her children know they come first, second, and last. What happens in between doesn’t really matter to them, or to Jo.  She’s not on a quest for Mr. Right, or Mr. Friday Night. She’s just getting on with life, making the best of what opportunities come her way, and trying to remember where she’s put the car keys . . .

Q: Your biography says you come from a long line of champion knitters. When did you learn to knit, and from whom? What are your favorite benefits of knitting?

A: My grandmother taught me how to knit; she knew a whole range of patterns off by heart, and could knit very quickly, which seemed like magic to me. She had a tough life, with six children and very little money, so she’d unpick a sweater belonging to one of her older kids, wash the wool, and re-knit it for one of the little ones. By the time she was knitting for her grandchildren, things were a little easier, and she’d spend ages knitting clothes for my dolls with me, using bright, sparkly yarns, which I thought were terribly smart. We’d be knitting by the fire, with my mum and my aunts all swapping patterns and working out complicated stitches, and me sitting cross-legged on the floor, concentrating hard, and they’d forget I was there, so I’d get to hear all sorts of family gossip usually reserved for child-free moments. It was fabulous.

Nowadays I love to knit presents for friends, and for new babies. I knit while watching TV, and whenever I feel particularly stressed—usually when a deadline is looming . . . I find the rhythm of knitting relaxes me and helps me rediscover that slower pace that comes when you feel calm. But it has to be the right kind of knitting; soft baby wool in soothing colors, with simple patterns that you get the hang of quickly—anything fiddly, or using different stitches and colors, or delicate yarn, is something I save for summer holidays and long weekends.

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