1. What is the significance of swimming in The Next Best Thing? Why do you think it is such a cathartic activity for Ruth?
2. How does Ruth use humor to her advantage? What purpose does it serve her? What did you think about her involvement with Hellsmouth?
3. Throughout the novel, Ruth finds herself in situations where either she is disappointed by people involved in The Next Best Thing, or she knows she will be disappointing others. How does she handle these moments, and should she have handled any of them differently? What does Ruth mean when she says, “I could do it all as long as I felt like my toughness was in the service of something important; that I was protecting the essential heart of my story” (290)?
4. How does the novel depict male-female dynamics in Hollywood? For those people in positions of power, is their gender shown to be part of their success? Do you think that the outcome of The Next Best Thing would have been any different if the show had had a male show-runner, rather than a female?
5. Consider the various interiors described within the novel—Ruth and Grandma’s home in Framingham, the Two Daves’s offices, Little Dave’s home. What does each physical space convey about the individuals who inhabit it?
6. Why is television so sacred to Ruth? How do her beliefs about the power of television impact how she responds to the production process of The Next Best Thing?
7. After announcing that she and Maurice are engaged, Grandma says to Ruth, “I didn’t want to be alone, so I didn’t let you go when I should have...I should have pushed you out of the nest when it was time for you to go” (163). Do you agree with Grandma’s assessment, or do you think their living arrangements were more mutually beneficial? How does her relationship with Ruth evolve over the course of the novel?
8. Both Little Dave and Ruth have physical scars which are visibly apparent, but to what extent are they internally scarred as well? How do the ways in which they’ve been wounded shape their perspectives on the world—and how they view each other?
9. Turn to p. 299 and re-read Ruth’s description of the three major themes in literature. Which would you apply to The Next Best Thing? Is the novel more about man versus man—or man versus himself?
10. Why do you think Ruth is devastated by Cady Stratton’s weight loss? When Dave tries to console Ruth, saying, “There are pretty girls who can’t get out of their own way,” Ruth responds: “But nobody identifies with them.” With whom do you agree, and why?
11. How are traditional notions of beauty and sexuality challenged in the novel? Which couples get “happy endings” and what does that happiness look like?
12. Discuss what the words “compromise,” “collaboration,” and “concession” mean to you. Are they simply variations on the same concept, or do you think there are distinct differences between these terms? As a group, can you agree upon an example of each in the novel?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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