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The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell
A Novel By Loraine Despres

Discussion Questions

  1. The book opens with the words: Belle Cantrell felt guilty about killing her husband and she hated that, feeling guilty, that is. You might say the theme of the book is Belle’s search for her moral center. Do you view her as moral? Rate her morality on a scale of one to ten. What do you think is most important, chastity or putting yourself on the line for a friend?
  2. I spent many, many hours in historical research. What, if anything, was the most interesting thing you learned about life in 1920? Did you learn anything you didn’t know about the day women got the vote, the Ku Klux Klan, old cars, how our morals have changed?
  3. Did you enjoy reading the historical aspects of the book or would you have preferred to skip that and concentrate on the love story or Belle’s bad behavior.
  4. In 1920 a wave of narrow-minded intolerance was sweeping the world. Do you feel that time has resonance for our time? How?
  5. Which scenes did you find the funniest? Which moved you? Was there a section you couldn’t put down? If so where? Did you put down the book and have trouble picking it up? If so where?
  6. The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell celebrates the tie between women of different generations. Discuss the relationship between Belle and Miss Effie. How did it change? What was Belle’s relationship with her own mother? How did it change? Do you think their relationship affected Belle’s relationship with her own daughter?
  7. How did you feel about Belle buying an illegal birth control device and giving it to her unmarried daughter?
  8. How does her relationship with Bourrée LeBlanc change during the course of the novel? How does her relationship with Rafe Berlin change?
  9. Do you think Belle was foolish or wise to risk so much for love?
  10. When the book opens Belle tries to follow the rules of the Primer of Propriety, with her own particular caveats, of course. Plenty of women broke these rules, but they were the standards women worthy of admiration were supposed to follow. They were the “shoulds” of 1920. What are some of the “shoulds” society, fashion magazines, parenting books, health journals, schools, churches, or bosses lay down for women today? Are they more or less onerous?
  11. Belle makes up her own rules for her Girl’s Guide to Men and Other Perils of Modern Life. If you had to pick one, which rule did you find the funniest? Appropriate for our time? Would you like to make up your own rule? Would you like to share it?
  12. What do you think happened after the book ends? Does Belle stay in Chicago? Does she marry Rafe or return to Gentry and run the farm?
The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc
Reading Book Guides
The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc
A Novel By Loraine Despres

Welcome to Gentry, a twisted southern town where the good girls follow the rules:

RULE NUMBER TWENTY SEVEN
A girl doesn’t have to give in to temptation, but she might not get another chance.

RULE NUMBER SEVENTY NINE
The best way to get a boy to follow you is to walk out on him.

RULE NUMBER ONE HUNDRED
An uppity woman, with enough research, will find a way.

About the Author

Raised in Louisiana, Loraine Despres brings her small-town magnolia-sweet charm, cynical humor, and experience growing up as a daughter of the South to this irresistible debut novel. A popular and prolific screenwriter, international writing consultant, and teacher, Despres now lives in Beverly Hills with her husband, Carleton Eastlake, who 15 years ago succumbed to the charms of this southern belle.

Introduction

More than a rip-roaring good read about a feisty Southern girl tearing up her hometown, The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc is a poignant story about innocence lost and hope regained, about the dangers of taking a risk—and playing it safe, about wresting control of your life before someone does it for you. Shifting back and forth in time, Loraine Despres limns an utterly captivating portrait of Sissy LeBlanc’s tumultuous coming of age and her struggle to break free from the loveless, stifling marriage it led her to.

Sissy’s downward spiral began in the fall of 1941. Her brother’s death was still a fresh, painful reality. As her mother’s illness worsened, Sissy’s father disappeared emotionally from his family. Her boyfriend Parker Davidson’s attention wandered to girls Sissy imagined were more “mature” than her. Desperate for affection and anxious to explore her nascent sexuality, she delves into a dangerous, obsessive affair with Bourrée LeBlanc that ends in rape and pregnancy. With one of Aunt Sarah’s dirty, back-alley abortions being Sissy’s only alternative, she bucks up and relies on her wits to create the best life she can. Fifteen years later, Sissy is married to Peewee LeBlanc—Bourrée’s son— and the mother of his three children. She’s bored, dissatisfied and scared that her life might never change. And when Parker blows back into town, she’s petrified that her life will never be the same. As the illicit couple burn up Gentry’s phone lines with devoted whisperings, readers learn that in this eccentr ic Louisiana town, nothing—including family lineage—is what it seems.

Discussion Questions

1. Which summer do you think The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc refers to—the summer she became pregnant, or the summer that Parker returned to Gentry?

2. How do you account for Sissy’s attraction to Bourrée? Did their affair shock you?

3. Compare and contrast Sissy’s relationship with her mother versus her relationship with her grandmother, Belle. Marilee, Sissy’s daughter, has a minor role in the novel as an adult. Through her interactions with Sissy, what—if anything—did you construe about their relationship?

4. Is Sissy’s Southern Belle’s Handbook merely a primer on manipulation, or is it a defensible and legitimate guide for relationships between men and women? Do you believe that game-playing is a part of most relationships?

5. How does The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc celebrate the ties that bind women across generations? Discuss the legacy Belle and her daughter left Sissy, and how each woman influenced the outcome of her life.

6. Did you feel sympathy for Peewee? Why or why not? Is it true that Sissy drove Peewee to murder?

7. Belle Cantrell is portrayed as being a liberated woman for her time. Both Sissy and Clara also stood out in Gentry as particularly strong-willed. Was it difficult to reconcile these qualities with their fixation on men and romance? Why or why not?

8. If you had to pick a rule from The Southern Belle’s Handbook that you thought was most useful, which one would it be? Why?

9. What makes a southern belle a southern belle?

An Interview with Loraine Despres

1. How did you conceive of The Southern Belle’s Handbook?

The Southern Belle’s Handbook is the culmination of generations of Southern wisdom. Growing up in the South you naturally get these messages from your mother, who got them from her mother, who got them from hers. These messages are all about how to be attractive and take your place in society, which is basically how to make those around you feel comfortable and important, and also how to take care of yourself.

My favorite rules are: “It’s OK for a woman to know her place. She just shouldn’t stay there” (Rule Number 48); “You have to take your life into your own hands, otherwise you can be damned sure, someone else will take it in theirs” (Rule Number 32); and “You can’t change the past, but a smart girl won’t let that stop her” (Rule Number 101).

2. Who are your favorite Southern writers? How have they influenced your work?

William Faulkner, of course, for his mesmerizing style and because, as he said in his Nobel Prize Speech, he writes “to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.” I was knocked-out by Harry Crews’ novel, Body. I loved his tough, bare-bones style and his looney characters as he took us into the world of female body builders. Rebecca Wells in her novels, Little Altars Everywhere and The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, created a spot-on picture of small-town Southern women of my mother’s generation.

But my real inspiration didn’t come from a Southern writer, but a French one, Gustave Flaubert, the master of precision and irony. As I agonized over The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc and wondered if anyone would care about the comic plight of a woman trapped in a bad marriage and stuck in a town too small for her, I was emboldened by the image of Emma Bovary, another small town girl who dreams of romance.

3. How do you define a southern belle? Are you a southern belle?

The days when her biggest concern was when to wear white shoes is over. A modern southern belle doesn’t even have to be southern. She’s a woman of great charm, who knows what she wants and has a strategy on how to get it. A true southern belle takes care of herself, and doesn’t let the bastards grind her down. That’s something I aspire to.

4. Having lived both in the south and on the west coast, do you find that there are in fact differences in how individuals relate to each other?

I can’t generalize for everyone, but even today my friends in Hollywood and New York are all focused on hard work and success. My southern friends tend to be a little more laid back and friendly. In Louisiana, entertaining and having a good time is a priority. The Cajuns in south Louisiana say about inordinate ambition, “Chéri, if you can’t eat it and you can’t love it, what good is it?”

5. Were there any skills you developed while writing for television that eased the challenge of writing a novel?

Television writing taught me discipline and gave me confidence in my ability to write dialogue and to shape a scene, leading the reader into the unexpected. Screen writing also taught me how to keep the story moving because before anything else, I wanted The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc to be a page-turner.


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Southern Novels by Loraine Despres