And God Created the Au Pair
Nell Fenton and Charlotte Bailey are sisters separated by an ocean but bonded by the mutual chaos of their lives as mothers. Nell, having just moved to Canada from London, is struggling to adapt to life in North America by keeping up with the hyper-perfect SUV-driving soccer moms that surround her. Back in London, Charlotte is trying to raise her roguish brood in a house seemingly determined to break her, as it breaks into pieces around her. Their saving grace: frequent emails to one another, in which they share, with cutting humor and a healthy dose of self-deprecation, the disordered and often hilarious minutiae of their lives.
And God Created the Au Pair gives a fresh, funny, and, at times, poignant look at mothering in the new millenium. As Charlotte and Nell maneuver through the obstacles thrown at them by their unruly but intensely loveable offspring, they also must manage the lives and romances of their single friends and family members. Their nurturing natures extend well beyond those in diapersfrom their hapless singleton friend Geraldine, who consistently chooses the wrong man upon whom to lavish her affections and her finances, to Charlotte's whimsical brother-in-law Toby, an idea-man without the ambition or resources to put those ideas to good use.
Over the course of a year's correspondence, Charlotte and Nell battle bad plumbing, obnoxious neighbors, problem children and miscarriages, and still have the grace to laugh about most of it, if not all. And with their witty banter, droll descriptions, and refreshingly honest and true perspectives, we're laughing too.
Bénédicte Newland and Pascale Smets are real-life siblings and former columnists for the Times (London). Both currently live in South London with their families.
- Nell and Charlotte are extremely close sisters, and obviously closer to each other than to their three other siblings, Anna, Tom and Charlie. Discuss their dynamic, and how their bond is evident in the information that they share and the way in which they "talk" to one another over email.
- At the novel's opening, Nell has just moved to Canada and is comparing British and North American life via her mistake regarding dishwashing liquid and dishwasher liquid. What did you find apt and funny about her other observations regarding North Americans (for example: the SUV-driving, manicured soccer moms, the mall-walking senior citizens) and Canada, in particular (the "mandatory" skating lessons, the driver's license exams).
- Many of Charlotte's emails revolve around the mangled state of her house, which is under extensive renovations. Discuss how, at first, it may seem as if Charlotte is a victim of uncooperative builders and a deceptively quirky old house, but over the course of the novel it becomes apparent that perhaps Charlotte brings some of this misfortune upon herself.
- Anna and Geoffrey are depicted as rather absentminded parentsrelaxed to an extreme, artsy (read: eccentric to a fault), and slightly irresponsible when it comes to disciplining their children. Charlotte and Nell tend to talk about Anna as if she were a much younger sister. If you look at the family tree at the beginning of the novel, however, it's evident that she's older than either Nell or Charlotte. Discuss Anna's character as revealed through her sporadic interactions with Nell and Charlotte, and her children (responsible Guy and Isabel, combative and unruly Theo and Rory).
- Likewise, consider Anna's dog, Toulouse Lautrec. The pet is named after a famous Parisian painter of the late nineteenth century. Consider the ways in which the dog's behavior brings a sense of irony to his name, and discuss also what the dog's name and his behavior say about Anna and Geoffrey and their relaxed, artsy household. Compare Toulouse Lautrec's exploits with the pet-related mishaps experienced by Nell and Charlotte in their respective households. Are Nell and Charlotte entirely justified in their rather superior view of their sister Anna and her life?
- We rarely see emails from the males of the family, and if we do, it's to convey emergency news or telegram-like messages. Discuss the roles that Dan and Michael play in Charlotte and Nell's lives. How would you describe their marriages? Were there any points in the novel where you began to suspect possible subplots involving the spouses (infidelity, etc.) that didn't turn out to exist? Discuss how the authors create suspense by allowing us to see certain characters only through the emails of Nell and Charlotte (the husbands, Geraldine, Suzette, etc.)
- Discuss Nell and Charlotte as mothers, focusing in particular upon the way they deal with their children's developing personalities and problems (Rob and Hugh, in particular). What about their attitudes to child-rearing are both funny and true? As an American reading audience, how do you feel about Charlotte's employment of an au pair (a phenomenon more European than North American)? Also, consider both Nell and Charlotte's desire to have more children despite the chaos and problems their current families present.
- Consider the subplot of Rachel Lockwood and her disintegrating marriage. How early in the novel could you foresee the marriage's demise? What about the relationship of Rachel and Jack, as conveyed through her own emails (or Nell's to Charlotte, about Rachel) rang especially true? What made this relationship seem sadly authentic? Compare its somber note to the sometimes farcical antics of Charlotte and Nell's own happy families. Also, evaluate the "happy ending" that comes to Rachel and Peter at the novel's closedoes it feel appropriate and satisfying, or is it too 'neat' of a conclusion?
- What kind of themes and messages do you see conveyed in the book through its characters? What do you think of "minor" characters like Toby or Geraldine, who throw Charlotte's life into upheaval repeatedly, albeit unintentionally (or, more aptly, thoughtlessly). In what way do Lou and Will fit into the picture? What are the authors trying to convey about family and extended family? (And does extended family, in this case, include close friends?)
- As American readers of a distinctly British novel (in both setting(s) and humor), did you run into any comprehension problems because of slang or terminology? After reading this book, what words would you use to describe English humor, and what makes it noticeably different than American humor? What were the funniest parts of the book? What made you laugh out loud?
- Many novels have been written in epistolary form (through letters), but not many in which the letters have been sent via email. Discuss the structure of the novel and its form, considering in particular the insights and advantages to using email as the primary means of conveying literary conventions such as character, plot development, suspense, etc. Also, are there any drawbacks to writing the novel in this form?
- And God Created the Au Pair was written by two sisters. Discuss the phenomenon of a co-authored novel, and whether or not the book felt discordant because of its split authorship. Does the writing feel consistent throughout? What about the book's form probably helped keep the book from feeling incongruous in tone and voice?