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Representing the widow of a wealthy Wall Street financier, lawyer William Dysart travels to a small Long Island town with a generous offer to buy a cottage and five acres of land from what he assumes is a stubborn old farmer’s wife looking for a bargain. Instead he finds Miss Sybil Curtis, a beautiful young woman with a quiet demeanor. But when Sybil still refuses to sell, the widow threatens to use her influence with the state to seize the property.

Intrigued by Sybil’s defiance and afflicted by a growing affection for her, William develops a desire to help her. His good intentions quickly turn into an obsession he cannot define—one that tears away the façade of his marriage and presents him with the truths of his own family. But it’s not until he finds out the truth about Sybil’s life that William begins to push the boundaries between what society wants, what his family expects—and what his heart desires.


1. When we first meet William and his wife Arabella, they quickly enter into a disagreement about their living situation—William is content with their modest house, while Arabella dreams of a sprawling mansion complete with an upgraded social status. Are there other signs that their marriage isn’t the most stable? Do you think that William is happy at the beginning of the book?


2. When he first introduces himself to Sybil Curtis, William lies and says that he is interested in buying her property for himself. When he returns to the cottage a second time to ask her to reconsider, he admits that Lydia Billings is the interested buyer. Why did William lie at first? Conversely, why did he admit the truth? Do you think he realizes something is amiss with Lydia’s offer?

3. William is taken aback when he spies Sybil with Albert Penniman. Why do you think their relationship bothers him? What do you think William’s opinion of Sybil was before he learned of her relationship? Does her interaction with Albert change his opinion?

4. Arabella seems especially fond of William’s father, Charles Dysart.  In fact, she tries to sway William in her favor by using his father’s opinions to her advantage—first with building a bigger house and then with staying married. What do you think the extent of Arabella and Charles’ relationship is? How do you think Cady, Charles’ wife, feels about their relationship?

5. Arabella and Sybil are both described as exceptionally beautiful women. Discuss the differences in their beauty. What do you think defines a beautiful person?

6. After learning the truth about what Henry Billings did to Sybil,  William returns to her cottage to apologize for his previous behavior.  Was that the only reason he visits? Do you think if he had not come to see her, Sybil would not have broken down? Would her breakdown have happened if they had never met?

7. When Sybil has recovered, William makes a habit of visiting her and their relationship grows much closer. Discuss the night that William sleeps on her couch and their relationship suddenly becomes physical. Why does Sybil break away when William admits his love for her? What do you think Sybil was hoping for in her impromptu seduction?  Did she succeed?

8. There are three people that were aware of Henry Billings’ deplorable behavior: Lydia Billings, Thomas Holborn, and Dr. Keating. How did each of these characters react to the truth? Why do you think Lydia brought Sybil books and chocolates while she was being kept by Henry? Why didn’t Dr. Keating report the abuse? Do you think that Billings’ behavior would be as ignored today as it was then?

9. At a suffrage meeting William attends he is surprised to see Edith Bradford, his estranged aunt, stand up and explain why so many women—including William’s wife, Arabella—are resistant to having the right to vote: “We’re only asking men to give up some power—unpleasant, I’m sure—but we are asking women to take real power into their own hands for the first time ever and it terrifies them.” How is this pivotal time period in women’s history important to the story? How is Sybil taking power into her own hands throughout the book? Why do you think Arabella declines to be part of the suffrage movement?

10. As the story unfolds, the mystery behind William’s mother’s abandonment and subsequent death unravels. Were you surprised by Aunt Edith’s story? How do you think William felt after learning the truth about his mother?

11. Charles Dysart appears to be a rather harsh man. While it is apparent that he was never overly affectionate with his son, why do you think he is so rigid and unyielding? Do you think that he was different before William’s mother’s death? Do you think that he will reach out to William in the future?

12. At the very end of the book Sybil presents William with a poem, entitled “Incognitio”:

“Unknown and unknowing,

I assumed that disguise,

until love raised the veil,

and I could see with your eyes”

What is Sybil trying to tell William? Do you think that Sybil would have been alright if William had not entered her life? How did these two characters change each other?

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