This reading group guide for Breathe In, Cash Out includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Madeleine Henry. 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.Introduction In this sizzling debut for fans of The Devil Wears Prada, Wall Street banking analyst Allegra Cobb plans to quit the minute her year-end bonus hits her account, finally pursuing her yoga career full-time. But when she forms an intense relationship with the #InstaFamous guru who may hold the ticket to the life Allegra's always wanted—she's not sure if she'll be able to keep her sanity intact (and her chakras aligned) until bonus day. Topics & Questions for Discussion
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1. The novel starts with Skylar asking the question “Are you okay?” (p. 1). Why do you think Madeleine Henry chose to begin the novel this way? What does this scene accomplish?
2. Allegra’s dispassionate night with Mark leads to an uncomfortable morning. What does this sequence of events tell us about Allegra?
3. Allegra’s colleagues Chloe and Puja are described as “the emotionless fake blonde” and “the heiress,” respectively (p. 11). They play a large role in the book. Do you think they serve as foils? If so, how do they enhance the various aspects of Allegra’s story?
4. How does the banking lifestyle—the grueling hours and the high pressure—come across in this novel? Does it match what you believed about the financial world before you began the book?
5. Allegra and her colleagues spend a lot of their time concerned about Bonus Day. Do you think this incentivizes them to work harder? Or is it just a reality of the job that they expect?
6. Of her dad, Allegra discloses, “When I was young it made him happy whenever I talked like him or won anything. In general, he thinks the world is way too politically correct and way too sensitive: he wasn’t going to raise a wimp” (p. 17). He equates her prestigious job with success. Do you think he will come to accept another metric for success as Allegra strikes out on her own?
7. The book includes nontraditional narrative forms like emails and Instagram comments. Why do you think Madeleine chose to include these? How do they enhance the story?
8. Skylar’s pseudo-mentor relationship with Allegra is a huge part of the book. How does Skylar earn Allegra’s trust?
9. Tripp is introduced as “the devil-may-care associate known for keeping an earbud in his right ear and watching Netflix on one of his two computer screens all day” (p. 11). How does he change throughout the novel? What do you consider the turning point in Tripp and Allegra’s friendship?
10. Different characters have distinct views on money and income. How is the meaning of money different for Mark, Tripp, and Allegra?
11. Vivienne and Allegra have a tense relationship, although it softens by the end of the novel. What do you think Vivienne represents?
12. The novel leaves the reader with the impression that the yoga world can be as cutthroat as the banking world. How does this contrast with the idea of yoga as a stress-reducing activity?
13. At Anderson Shaw, Allegra technically works on a “team.” In the end, Allegra becomes a free agent. How does this novel portray working in groups in a corporate setting?
14. The book explores a common tension between one’s desire to fulfill personal dreams and the reality of having to earn a living. Is the novel optimistic about resolving this challenge?
15. At the end of the novel, Allegra succeeds in manifesting her vision for her life. What personal limitations did she have to overcome in order to accomplish this?Enhance Your Book Club
1. Think back to your first job. Did you love it? Hate it? Wa
s it in an industry entirely different from your current job? Discuss these experiences with your group.
2. In the novel, Allegra and her coworkers play a game, Whose Life Sucks Most. Try playing a round with your book club. Or try the opposite game, Whose Life Doesn’t Suck Most.
3. Allegra says her dad “supplied me with a steady stream of quotes to keep me in a ‘winner’s mind-set,’ including, ‘Winners do what losers won’t’” (p. 24). In your own experience, are mantras useful devices? Discuss whether there are any mind-set phrases that members of the book club try to live by?
4. The novel depicts Instagram as a tool that can sometimes be deceiving. Have members of the group had any notable positive or negative experiences with the app?
5. Visit author Madeleine Henry’s Instagram @MadeleineHenryYoga
for more information about her yoga practice and the book.A Conversation with Madeleine HenryYou worked in finance right out of college. How did that job inform this novel? How does Allegra’s experience differ from your own?
This book—its setting at Anderson Shaw, the lifestyles of its characters, the conversations they have at the pod—paints a realistic picture of working on Wall Street today.
I worked at Goldman Sachs and then in investment management primarily in healthcare in New York City. Almost all of my friends worked in finance or consulting right after college. Those experiences gave me a feel for what can reasonably happen in that environment. I wanted the Wall Street backdrop of this story to feel authentic, and my history allowed me to create that. Now, anyone who’s worked in finance can read this book and enjoy amusing moments of Yep, that nails it
, and That happened to me.
That being said, Allegra’s story is not my personal story. For example, I didn’t start practicing yoga until after
I left investment banking, so I never had to try and reconcile the two worlds at the same time. Also, how many f-bombs do I drop on a daily basis? Way fewer than Allegra. Like, wayyy fewer.So much of this novel focuses on Allegra’s relationships with her colleagues—both at Anderson Shaw and in the yoga world—instead of on romantic relationships. Was that something you were particularly sensitive to as you wrote the novel?
I wasn’t trying to avoid romantic relationships as a subject. My book reflects the reality that Wall Street isn’t a very romantic place. I believe the phrase “it takes time to fall in love,” and people in these all-consuming, fast-track professions are time-poor. They often don’t have enough time to fall in love. So, you can end up with long-term relationships on pause (e.g., Chloe and Charles) or random flings (e.g., Allegra’s with Mark and Hillary). Yes, Allegra’s relationship with Tripp deepens, but her primary focus is work, as it is for most people in her shoes.What was your favorite scene to write? Were there any scenes that were particularly difficult?
I loved writing the scene at Yoga Cyclone where Allegra teaches a class to her coworkers. That sequence is hysterical because it encapsulates the clash of worlds at the heart of this book: yoga versus finance. In this studio devoted to health, aparigraha
(non-possessiveness), and humility, enters a squad of investment bankers trying to make as much money as possible so they can buy Ferraris and big Hamptons houses. I took an English class in college where the teacher taught us that “humor is incongruity.” The incongruity of this book is at a peak in that scene.
On the other hand, I found all intimacy between Allegra and Mark (her married boss) hard to write because it feels so wrong. It’s hard to write about things I personally find immoral.This novel satirizes the banking and yoga worlds. Is satire a genre that you’re often drawn to?
I choose genres that relate to what I’m currently writing about, so I can learn from how others approached the topic. My second book is a love story, and it’s more heartfelt and tender, so right now I’m drawn to delicate, emotional stories and poems . . . More about that in the last question. JYoga and finance are seemingly disparate worlds. How did you balance your interest in both while writing this book?
I believe we need to feed our souls in order to feel happy. While I was working in finance, yoga and writing were the outlets I needed to do that. So, yes, it was hard to make time for everything, but it would have been a lot harder without them in my life.This novel paints an unhealthy portrait of life as an investment banking analyst. How true to life do you think this is? As more companies try to invest in wellness initiatives, do you see any change happening?Breathe In, Cash Out
is realistic. The fact is that investment banking is a strenuous job and so banks have rolled wellness initiatives (e.g., forbidding bankers from being in the office on weekends) to improve the lifestyle. In my own social circle, however, I don’t know anyone who has had a dramatic change in his or her life as a result.Do you have any favorite books that inspired you in the writing of this one?
There is a little bit of The Catcher in the Rye
in here, in the sense that both books involve an “I” narrator who dismisses virtually everyone else. Where Holden Caulfield calls people “phonies,” Allegra might call them “assholes.”
There is also a little bit of Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success
, as both satirize the financial world. Ben Stiller joins Shteyngart to ask in the book trailer, “Hey are you white? Are you a male? Did you play lacrosse at one of these fourteen schools [Harvard, Cornell, Duke, Brown, Georgetown, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Notre Dame, Princeton University, UPenn, Stanford, Yale, Dartmouth]? Then the exciting world of hedge funds might be right for you.”
But what made Breathe In, Cash Out
so exciting to work on was that I thought that it was unlike anything I’d read before. To me, it’s a very brave book. Allegra speaks truth to finance power, and it’s very cool to see someone serve up real talk to a Goliath in our society.Yoga is a very personal practice and yet so much of this novel illuminates the social media (mostly Instagram) component that has become so huge. How do you think we (and Allegra) can balance the very personal with the very public?
It’s hard for me to view any intentionally shared content as personal. There can be an illusion of voyeurism, but everyone who posts chose
to do so. They’ve invited you into that moment with them. So, I have to believe that the only really personal moments are the unshared ones. Everyone has their own formula to dictate which those should be.
Aside from personal/public, another interesting contrast on Instagram is introvert/extrovert. I’ve noticed the app can be an emboldening tool, where introverts can act more extroverted than they do in real life. I’m friends with another yogi Instagrammer who has a million followers and, despite her omnipresence online, she describes herself as a quiet loner. I think this is because the app allows you to share information about yourself without ever putting you on the spot and, in a way, no one else is really there. So, introverts can feel more comfortable.We’ve spent the last several years reckoning with toxic work cultures for women. Where, if at all, do you see this novel and Allegra’s experience fitting into that?
I know there’s been a wave of “Me Too” novels, but I didn’t intend this novel to be one of them.Where did the game of Whose Life Sucks Most come from?
Bankers love to hate their jobs. For some reason, banking culture grants you more social status the more overworked and miserable you are. So, at the junior level, everyone is always complaining—so much so that, one day, it occurred to me that people were already playing this game. I just gave it a name.We’ve outlined several differences between banking and yoga. Do you think they share any similarities?
Counterintuitively, in New York City, both tend to involve affluent people. Yoga is free, but urbanites have turned it into an expensive hobby: each class can cost forty dollars, special outfits up to two hundred dollars each, and retreats can cost thousands.What do you hope readers take away from this novel?
First: entertainment. I hope people enjoy the audacity of Allegra’s inner monologue which speaks truth to power. Second: education. For people who want to know what investment banking feels like, Breathe In, Cash Out
is it.What’s next for you?
My second novel, which has the working title The Love Proof
, is part love story, part exploration of space and time. I imagine it for fans of The Notebook
, The Secret
, and The Alchemist
I’m excited about the transition from Breathe In, Cash Out
to The Love Proof
because it reflects a duality that’s often taught in yoga: head and heart. The head symbolizes ego, fear, and selfishness bred from a false sense of scarcity. Breathe In, Cash Out
is very head. It takes place entirely in Allegra’s mind. It’s about Wall Street. Most characters are just trying to get rich. But the heart involves intuition, sharing, and the human potential to do good and be good to each other. The Love Proof
is more heart. It’s full of soul and very visceral.
I’m really excited to share both. J