September Songs Teacher’s Guide

By Maggie Scarf

September Songs by Maggie Scarf


Questions and Topics for Discussion

“It is the awareness of mortality that makes life’s afternoon so ripely poignant and so sweet” (p. 228).

A few years after Maggie Scarf first published Intimate Partners, her groundbreaking bestseller on the new mechanics of marriage, she began to notice that the institution was again undergoing some profound changes—largely due to the fact that the normal human lifespan has increased by as much as thirty years over the course of the twentieth century. Couples today are more likely to live longer and have more time together. Scarf wanted to know how these marriages and individuals have evolved as a result.

As we all have seen, a host of issues—from infidelity to health problems to disagreements about childrearing or money—can shatter a marriage. But statistics show that divorce rates plummet after the first eight years of marriage. In September Songs, Scarf integrates frank and detailed interviews with baby boomer couples who have been married for at least two decades with the most up-to-date gerontological research to reveal the surprising, good news about marriage in “the bonus years” of age fifty and beyond.

Profoundly informative and eminently readable, September Songs offers a revolutionary and sorely needed celebration of long-term marriages. Scarf’s discoveries are both eye-opening and encouraging for anyone in a committed relationship—whatever their age.


Maggie Scarf is a journalist and the author of the bestselling Intimate Partners, among other books. A visiting fellow at the Whitney Humanities Center, Yale University, and a fellow of Jonathan Edwards College, Yale University, she is also a contributing editor for The New Republic. Scarf and her husband live in Connecticut.

  • What is your definition of the word “elderly” and how has it changed over the years?

  • What inspired your decision to read September Songs? Did you read this book on your own or with your mate? If not, would you recommend that he/she read it and why?

  • Is there a particular couple whose story held special resonance for you?

  • Were you surprised at the overall level of these couples’ contentment given their various health or financial challenges?

  • How honest did you feel the interviewees were being with Scarf? With themselves?

  • Is there a question you wished Scarf had asked the participating couples? What is it and why is its answer important to you?

  • Scarf cites research that challenges the notion that divorce makes people happier but also profiles the Donaldsons and Hamiltons who both left behind unhappy marriages to find happiness in their second marriages. Do you think that sticking it out or moving on is the best route?

  • Have you witnessed the “positivity effect” in either your own life or those of older friends and relatives?

  • If you have already reached your bonus years, what would you name this phase of your life? Explain. If you have not yet reached them, what would you hope to name this phase?

  • How much discussion and thought have you and your mate put into planning your post-retirement years? What do you anticipate your greatest challenges and joys will be?

  • How would you compare American support systems for retirement (e.g. Medicare, Social Security, retirement funds, etc…) to those in other countries?

  • In what ways will your post-retirement years be different from that of your parents? Is this a conscious change or merely circumstantial?

  • Has reading September Songs altered your expectations of life in the bonus years? In what ways?
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