Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Finishing Touches includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Hester Browne. 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.
Following the success of The Little Lady Agency series, Hester Browne introduces us to the charming and lovable Betsy Phillimore in her delightful new book, The Finishing Touches. As a baby, Betsy was left in a box on the steps of a prestigious London finishing school. Nearly three decades later, she is mourning not only the loss of her adoptive mother, the owner of the Phillimore Academy, but also the poor condition she finds the school in upon her return. Betsy is shocked to see only four students are enrolled. From the dusty drapes to the dusty ideas being taught, nothing at the Academy seems to have been updated in years! With the very real possibility of shutting down and selling, the responsibility falls to Betsy to bring The Phillimore Academy back to life and give it a 21st century touch.
Questions for Discussion
1. Betsy can be at once insecure and socially confident. How do these two aspects of her personality complement and contradict each other? Do you believe in the power of good manners to overcome awkward situations and painful emotions?
2. Discuss Betsy’s relationship with Lord Phillimore. There are a few very poignant moments between them, but there is also a sense of distance. How does her relationship with Lord Phillimore differ from her relationship with Franny? How does it change throughout the book?
3. Why do you think Betsy feels she has to lie about her real career? Do you think she would have been given the opportunity to transform the academy if everyone knew she worked in a shoe shop?
4. Although Betsy has a serious crush on Jamie, she is hesitant to jump at any opportunities that may make her fantasy of a relationship with him come true. Why does she hold herself back so many times?
5. Liv and Betsy are constantly teasing Jamie for his playboy reputation. Based on his interactions with Betsy throughout the book, how much of that reputation do you think is really deserved? How does that image play into Betsy’s feelings toward him?
6. Betsy wants to teach life skills that vary from serious undertakings such as getting a job and finding a home, to walking in heels and looking good in photographs. How important do you think the more frivolous-seeming skills really are? How does Betsy explain the need for them? Do you agree with her reasoning?
7. What makes Adele the perfect antagonist? Why is she so easy to hate? Do you think her character represents the image most people have of finishing school girls?
8. While Betsy swoons over Jamie, she also has a mild flirtation building with Mark. Who do you think is best for her? Do you agree with Liv’s insistence that Betsy give it a try with Jamie?
9. Do opposites really attract? Discuss the ways in which that idea fuels the relationships in this story.
10. Despite Hector's bad reputation and irresponsible behavior, Betsy hopes beyond hope that he is her real father. Why is a blood relation to Franny and Lord Phillimore so important to her? How does she think it will make a difference in her life?
11. Part of Betsy's curiosity about her birth mother stems from the feeling that she doesn't really know who she is. Do you think finding her birth mother is the key to finding herself? What role, if any, does learning the truth about where she came from play in her self-understanding?
Enhance Your Book Club
Turn your book club meeting into a classic English tea party! Make yummy sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and follow Franny’s strict guidelines for making tea.
Share your own words of wisdom: what manners and mantras were you brought up with? What are some of the rules you live by?
Have everyone in your book club bring their most challenging pair of heels and put your skills to the test!
A Conversation with Hester Browne
Why did you decide to branch off from the The Little Lady Agency series? Do you see yourself returning to it at any point?
I love writing about Melissa (and Honey, Nelson, Allegra, Roger…) but I think it’s good to take a break now and again, if only to give the characters a chance to do new outrageous things. Since they’re all so “alive” in my head, they never really go away; I often find myself thinking about what they’re up to, what outrageous schemes Daddy’s concocted to beat the credit crunch, how Jonathan’s Paris office is doing, whether Melissa and Nelson have agreed on the right dog to get – plus, of course, the various oddball clients Melissa would be tackling at work!
How did this experience of writing your first stand-alone title differ from The Little Lady Agency series? Is it hard to let your characters go at the end?
It differed in that I was starting again with a whole new set of characters, with completely fresh backgrounds and motivations and quirks – that was exciting and a little daunting. But by the time I came to the end of The Finishing Touches, I felt as if I’d lived with Betsy and Jamie too. Yes, it’s quite hard to let them go, even when they’ve worked out their knots and dilemmas, because by then they’re like friends, and I’m curious to know what they do next. If I didn’t wonder about that, I don’t think I’d have done a good job in making them come alive for the readers.
How did you come up with the idea of a modern day finishing school for the subject of The Finishing Touches? Do such educational institutions really exist? Do you have any personal experience of them?
The modern finishing school idea grew sideways from The Little Lady Agency – quite a few people joked to me that they’d have loved to have had whatever lessons Melissa had had in coping with sticky situations. Belinda, Melissa’s mother, would definitely have done her time at an old-style finishing school, folding napkins and planning dinner parties, but Melissa learned her social prowess a different way: it’s her real life experience of working in an office, coping with mortifying parents, and recovering from romantic disappointments that forms the basis of her great capability.
That started me thinking about the sorts of skills I wish I’d been taught, rather than had to acquire by trial and error, and it formed quite a list! As Betsy eventually realizes, there are some things in life that you can only learn by experience, but we could all do with some coaching in the old-fashioned social cushions that simply help people feel better, like writing a letter of condolence, for example. Then there are the modern dilemmas that Emily Post never had to worry about – when to use a cell phone, how to deal with an office romance, the ever-lurking nightmare of the Reply All button on computers.
Social grace really boils down to self-confidence, and not being scared of what comes next in any situation. There are a surprising number of modern finishing schools, although they brand themselves more as life coaching classes, with the emphasis on good business manners and polished presentation. But I must confess that from what I’ve heard about the older finishing establishments, they did seem to be preparing you for more fun – making life fun for other people and looking gracious yourself while having a good time! Easily the best hostess I know is a glamorous alumna of the famous Lucie Clayton school in London – her house parties are fabulous, everyone is introduced very clearly right at the start, and then mixed up as perfectly as her drinks. She was also expelled from a finishing school in Switzerland, which is a chic addition to any CV. If I were setting up a Finishing Touches school of my own, she would definitely be my principal!
Jamie charms his way right off the page! Is it difficult to write a man that can work his way into readers' hearts? Did you have any real-life inspiration for his character?
I do hope Jamie’s charming – I rather fell for him myself! I think the secret of any romantic hero is to let him do his own sweet-talking. I try not to be too prescriptive when I’m plotting those scenes, and let the interaction between the hero and heroine unfold as naturally as possible, so the flirting happens in the same spontaneous manner you’d hope it would in real life. I try not to base my romantic heroes on real people – my own lovely man aside! – because that can lead to all sorts of trouble…
Are Franny’s tips tried and true? How were you able to come up with so much sound advice? Did your own upbringing play a role in the construction of this novel?
Franny’s tips are a mixture of smart things my own mother told me, household hints I’ve picked up over the years, and practical bits of advice that I’ve gleaned from friends. I do love those old-fashioned etiquette books that guide you sternly around all manner of formal events, like a duchess with her gloved hand in the small of your back, steering you away from a faux pas with the canapes.
Nancy and Kathleen’s enigmatic nannyisms were inspired by my own nanny, Nanny Lockyer, who probably got them straight from some Official Bureau of Nannying. She was a very traditional London nanny who had retired to the Lake District after decades of pushing enormous prams around Regent’s Park, but once there, found she couldn’t quite kick the habit, and made me her last charge. Over the years, she’d developed a knack for delivering mysterious pronouncements in her broad Cockney accent that made it very hard for anyone to demand an explanation as to what she actually meant – even my mother. That is the secret of a good nanny, I think: no debating.
Did you feel it was important that Betsy find out who her birth mother was? How did you decide who it was going to be?
That’s a very good question because I think Betsy’s reasons for wanting to find her mother change over the course of the book. When her story opens, despite her achievements, Betsy’s still insecure about who she is, to the point where her biggest secret fear is that her parents will turn out to be worthless, making her worthless too. She’s also yearning to discover some real connection to Franny, the woman who’s been so much more than just a guardian to her throughout her life, which she hopes, might bring her closer to Lord P, who’s always been somewhat distant.
But as Betsy grows and starts to see her life from a different perspective, she finally understands why Franny insisted to her that origins aren’t worth much on their own. It’s being true to who you are now that’s important, not trumpeting your ancestors (or in Adele’s case, trying to cover them up with artificial manners). By the time Betsy does find out the truth, she almost doesn’t need to know. In every way that matters, Franny is her “real” mother, and always will be. But everyone gets second chances: Betsy and her birth mother, and also Betsy and Lord P, who’s now free of the awful secret he’s been carrying all these years. In a sad sense, it’s his desire to be a “good father,” protecting her and Franny from the scandal around her arrival, that has stood in the way of their relationship growing closer. With that finally out of the way, I think they all deserve a happy ending!
If you were going to attend a modern finishing school, what skill would you be most interested in acquiring?
I’d love to know how to extract my foot from my mouth, once that chilling dinner table silence has fallen and everyone’s staring at me! I have a terrible habit of cracking the obvious joke, even if it’s wildly inappropriate, and I probably need some firm instruction to nip that in the bud. And I’d definitely benefit from Mark Montgomery’s brisk budgeting advice.
Do you have any future projects in the works? Could there be a sequel to The Finishing Touches?
I’m currently falling in love with some new romantic heroes for a novel set in Scotland, but who knows? I’m rather curious to see inside some more of Betsy’s classrooms, and to know what kind of challenging new pupils – male and female - might end up taking her courses in stylish modern living. I think at a school like Betsy’s, the staff probably learn as much as the students in the course of an eventful term!