Ali Reynolds’s longtime friend and Taser-carrying nun, Sister Anselm, rushes to the bedside of a young pregnant woman hospitalized for severe injuries after she was hit by a car on a deserted Arizona highway. The girl had been running away from The Family, a polygamous cult with no patience for those who try to leave its ranks. Something about her strikes a chord in Sister Anselm, reminding her of a case she worked years before when another young girl wasn’t so lucky.
Meanwhile, married life agrees with Ali. But any hopes that she and her husband, B. Simpson, will finally slow down and relax now that they’ve tied the knot are dashed when Ali’s new daughter-in-law approaches her, desperate for help. The girl’s grandmother, Betsy, is in danger: she’s been receiving anonymous threats, and someone even broke into her home and turned on the gas burners in the middle of the night. But the local police think the elderly woman’s just not as sharp as she used to be.
While Ali struggles to find a way to protect Betsy before it’s too late, Sister Anselm needs her help as well, and the two race the clock to uncover the secrets that The Family has hidden for so long—before someone comes back to bury them forever.
From the New York Times bestselling author hailed for her “inimitable, take-no-prisoners style” (Kirkus Reviews), Cold Betrayal forces Ali to confront the face of evil, and the women who are being hunted.
This reading group guide for Cold Betrayal includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author J.A. Jance. 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.
Ali Reynolds is no stranger to tough situations—or family drama. When her new daughter-in-law Athena approaches her about some unusual threats being made to Athena’s grandmother Betsy, Ali recognizes something fishy and agrees to help. Meanwhile, Sister Anselm enlists Ali’s aid in tracking down the identity of a pregnant Jane Doe who has come under her care—a woman who Sister Anselm believes might have escaped from a dangerous cult. As Ali works tirelessly on the two cases, it becomes obvious that unhealthy family dynamics are at play in both investigations. In Cold Betrayal, Ali and her friends learn the unfortunate truth that sometimes the family we’re given cannot be trusted.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1) Our first encounter with Betsy Peterson involves a police investigation that ends with the abrupt conclusion that Betsy is mentally unstable in her old age. Do you think that Betsy’s situation was a result of ageism? Do you think the police officer who came to investigate the gas at her home might have been more sympathetic to a younger person?
2) Bella and Princess are both miniature dachshunds beloved by their respective owners, Ali Reynolds and Betsy Peterson. In what ways do these dogs act as heroes in the novel? Do Bella and Princess share any other similarities besides their breed?
3) “She had left the pigpen then, but that conversation marked the beginning of Enid’s rebellion. She was struck by the injustice of the way The Family’s boys were treated and the way the girls were treated” (60). Discuss Enid as a symbol of rebellion in the novel. In what ways does she rebel? Are the gender injustices the sole reason for Enid’s rebellion?
4) Revisit the scene beginning on page 78 when Enid is hit by David Upton’s van. In this moment, did she make the right decision by running away from the sheriff and out onto the highway? What were her other options? Would you have made the same decision in her place?
5) Discuss the significance of water in the novel, particularly in the scene when Enid is hit by David’s van. “Enid felt something wet fall on her face. At first she thought it was a drifting snowflake, but then she realized it was a tear—a single tear” (81). Directly following this moment, her water breaks. What is the connection between snow, tears, and new life? What are these water images metaphors for?
6) When Athena confides in Ali about her difficulties with her parents, a possible theme of the novel emerges as Ali replies: “growing up in that kind of family dynamic must have been tough” (162). Discuss how tough family dynamics are relevant to many of the characters in the novel. Is “Growing up in that kind of family” to blame for all of the characters’ problems in Cold Betrayal? Why or why not?
7) Evaluate David Upton’s character. Do you like him? Why do you think that Sister Anselm and Ali trust him so completely and so immediately? Is his character something like a guardian angel?
8) What role does small-town living play in the novel? Do both Betsy and Enid suffer from living in places where “everyone knew everyone else’s business” (195)? How might Betsy’s circumstances have been different had she lived in a big city? How might Enid’s?
9) On page 201 Ali confronts the difficulty of her decision to investigate The Family: “Did she keep poking her nose into the problem or did she let it go? Do something about it or turn away? And was she prepared to deal with the consequences of both taking action and not taking action?” Briefly discuss the consequences to which Ali alludes. Ultimately, do you think the good of her decision to unravel The Family’s secrets outweighs the bad? Why or why not?
10) Consider the role of female characters in the story. How are they marginalized? How are they heroes? Consider Ali, Enid, Sister Anselm, Governor Dunham, and The Brought Back Girls in your response.
11) Is the death of Richard Lowell justified? Do you think that Ali made the ethical decision in the moment she decided to shoot him in the back? Why or why not?
12) Do you agree with Ali that the operation led by Governor Dunham “had ended in disaster” (314)? Do you think there can ever be a happy ending when family members are involved lies and betrayal?
13) In the end, to whom or what do you think the title Cold Betrayal refers? Who has been betrayed? Who has not?
Enhance Your Book Club
is part of the Ali Reynolds series. Read another book in the series, such as Moving Target or Left for Dead. Compare and contrast the novels. Which characters appear in both novels? Which characters are new? In each, does Ali Reynolds come out as the hero? Is her character different in Cold Betrayal now that she is married to B.? Why or why not?
2) The Family presents a portrait of a troubled cult where the men are not only encouraged to take many wives, but are also the only members taught to read and write, as well as the only ones permitted to vote. Of course, not all groups that practice polygamy treat women as terribly as The Family in Cold Betrayal. Have a movie night with your Book Club and watch HBO’s original television series Big Love (2006–2011). Discuss the ethical and moral dilemmas of polygamy, considering carefully the gray areas between right and wrong. In what ways are the characters in the television show similar to the wives in Enid’s “family”? In what ways are they different? Had Enid’s family been more like the family in Big Love, do you think she would have escaped?
3) Family betrayal is perhaps the most painful kind of betrayal, and the characters in Cold Betrayal understand this all too well. Over a potluck dinner, consider the ways in which the definition of “family” changed throughout the course of the novel. In the end, did the characters find new families, people in their lives they could rely on more than the ones with whom they share DNA? Share a time with your group when you or someone you know has been betrayed, either by a family member or a close friend. What about that experience hurt so badly? What took you by surprise? Did you learn anything from that experience? Would you characterize your experience as a “cold” betrayal, or was it warm, or even scalding? Do you think the characters in the novel learned any lessons, and if so, what were they?
A Conversation with J.A. Jance
What inspired you to set part of the novel in a cult like The Family? Did you have to research any real cults in order to better understand how a cult like The Family may have functioned?
I set this story in a cult in America, but the kind of marginalization the women in The Family suffer is emblematic of similar treatment in cultures around the world. I think this is something that merits serious discussion. And no, I didn’t need to research cults to know about this.
The situation with Betsy Peterson seems a commentary on our society’s tendency to dismiss the aging. Would you agree that Betsy presents an alternative point of view to this commonly held belief?
Yes, I think it’s easy to dismiss “older people.” I think there was far more life in Betsy than the people around her wanted to believe.
Suspense Magazine has referred to your Ali Reynolds series as full of “red herrings.” Do you plan these red herrings to keep readers in suspense, or is the process of writing one of discovery for you alongside the reader?
I have never knowingly installed a “red herring” in any of my books. So yes, in my case the process of discovery is the same for the writer as it is for the reader.
Do you think that Ali Reynolds has changed over the course of these novels? Now that she is married to B., do you think her character has a different point of view?
Yes. She learned to trust again. And she has found a worthy partner. I think both those things make her more capable and more interesting.
Do you agree that Sister Anselm was perhaps unethical in her decision to allow David Upton to visit Enid’s bedside alone? What is it about David’s character that made him so instantly likeable?
I guess Sister Anselm trusted him because I did. I see David Upton as the Good Samaritan. He’s all about looking out for others rather than himself—including going to collect the two Brought Back Girls.
Discuss the role of women in Cold Betrayal. For you, are the differences between the women in The Family and Ali, for example, significant? Or do you see them as more alike than dissimilar? Ali knows how to negotiate the modern world. The women from The Family have untold learning to do in order to catch up. I’m glad there is a whole cadre of caring women prepared to help them do just that.
In addition to the Ali Reynolds series, you’ve written the J.P. Beaumont series and the Joanna Brady series. What is it that attracts you to writing about the same set of characters? Do you come to know them better with each novel? I’ve come to know these people so well that writing a book about them is like receiving a holiday family update in an annual Christmas letter.
When you write, do you picture a particular kind of reader? Do you write for a certain audience, or does an imagined reader not play a role in your writing process? Would you classify your novels as female-centric, male-centric, or more universal? I wrote the Walker novels in hopes of making the Desert People and their environs come alive for the lady in upstate New York who would never travel to the Arizona desert, but most of the time I’m thinking about the story rather than potential readers. And yes, I see them as more universal.
Can we expect Ali Reynolds and Sister Anselm to team up again in the near future? I can’t imagine that they won’t.
What advice do you have for aspiring young writers? You can’t be a writer without first being a reader!
J.A. Jance is the New York Times bestselling author of the Ali Reynolds series, the J.P. Beaumont series, and the Joanna Brady series, as well as five interrelated Southwestern thrillers featuring the Walker family. Born in South Dakota and brought up in Bisbee, Arizona, Jance lives with her husband in Seattle, Washington, and Tucson, Arizona. Visit her online at JAJance.com.