It was because of a woman I met while accompanying some guests on a sailboat tour that I became anxious about the local book club visit I’d agreed to. I started to think how the noun club has two meanings. A group, yes… but also a weapon.
I’ll call her Jen: fiftyish, fit, designer spectacles, retired. She was one of those people who had something (though nothing substantial) to say about everything, and she very much enjoyed doing so. Friendly, you might say. Or then again… Her husband was quiet, and only brightened up when the conversation turned to high-performance outdoor clothing. What did everyone do, Jen wanted to know, and then to comment and pronounce upon; my nephew, a statistician, stumped her somewhat. I considered pretending to be one, too, but knew he would give me away.
“A writer?” she said. “We had a local writer visit our book club last month. Her book was awful, and she did say to be honest, so we told her so. I thought it was – well, boring. And there were just far too many adjectives!” She paused for breath, beaming at the memory, and waiting, it seemed, for congratulation. “Well, “ she continued, “I guess she got a free meal out of it! “
“Did she cry?” I asked. If she did not, I thought, the nameless local author would have had to laugh hysterically, and thank them profusely for their hospitality. Whoever she was, and however many flabby adjectives she had used, I hated to think of her just sitting there, a fake smile pinned her face.
“Oh, no,” Jen said. “We move on pretty quickly. We don’t normally get into complicated debates – after all, the main point is the food! We just score the book out of five and say whether we liked the actors – I mean, characters, then we tuck into the potluck.” Did they, I wondered, practise the same ruthless honesty regarding the food: Who made this Paella thing? Well, Sue, I have to tell you, it’s just the worst dish I’ve ever eaten. Far too much rice! And what’s with the yellow colour? One out of ten for you…
The boat was not very big, but luckily (especially for her) Jen decided to go aft and talk to the Captain.
I checked my email when I got home… Sure enough, the invite mentioned a potluck, but I stayed more or less calm by reminding myself repeatedly that the club host, who did not have a mean bone in her body, had already read The Find and told me how much she had enjoyed it. And if they did turn on me en masse, I resolved to be extremely honest in return.
I need not have worried. I stepped into a sunlit house lined with countless books, and sat down with ten articulate and intelligent women who had each given my novel some hours of quality time. It seemed that while each connected to the story in her own way, they all related very passionately to what they read. My novel, and the others they had picked (The Find was nicely sandwiched between last month’s novel, Island Below the Sea, by Isabelle Allende, and next month’s memoir, Trauma Farm, by Brian Brett) seemed to exist in the same plane as the real stories of their own and their friends’ lives which they brought into the discussion: births and miscarriages, power struggles, love affairs, diseases, deaths.
At various points at least three of the club had tears in their eyes (“I was reading it on the ferry, and I had to stop because I knew I’d make a fool of myself!”), but the evening was full of laughter, too. There were great observations: “This book is all about how power can shift…” “I think the set-up was so risky, but it worked,” and great questions: “Do you have to write, or is it a choice?” “Did you ever consider a different outcome for Anna and Scott?” “Do your characters affect your personal life? Do you construct a character deliberately, or do they just turn up and you have to serve their needs?” “Do you feel have to set yourself new artistic challenge with each novel?”The questions were not pretentious or academic, but sprang from what each reader brought to the book.
I hope to share some replies here in the next week or so.
Bookclubs – what’s not to like? Did I mention the food? Excellent.
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