Serious Fun – or – Not Your Mother’s Book Club

It was Henry James. That’s when I joined up. The club was reading Portrait of a Lady – for me, a rather inauspicious start. I had recently become a single woman, and my ex resembled Gilbert Osmond – the narcissistic collector (and discarder) of women at the story’s heart. But when Babs invited me she’d listed several books they’d read, and all the club’s selections seemed intelligent, provocative or both.

I went to that first meeting expecting who-knows-what: that we would chat about the book for a few minutes, then devolve into gossip? Recipe sharing? A vigorous discussion of gardening? To my surprise we stayed on point, examining the story’s plot and progress, analyzing characters as if they lay before us on a couch.

As the meeting ended, I was asked to recommend a read. Since we were looking at the lives of women in the late 19th century, I chose Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth.

So it has gone for the last 4 years. We read in great inhalations – like dogs on the scent of a concept or trend – until we’re satisfied: books about World War One and the Balkans, World War Two and Existentialism, noir detective stories, Russian, European, North and South American – each discussion informed by the ones that went before.

Just as important, we choose stories that some of us wouldn’t read on our own. Knowing there will be a discussion helps you push through. Take Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, for which I had little patience until I saw it from another point of view: Three of our seven members are Brits. (The rest are Yanks.) As a liberal Jewish Southerner, I felt chagrined by the provincialism I perceived in Gilead. My English cohorts countered with what they valued about the American Midwest, followed by a brief history of the Congregationalist Church. This totally reframed my understanding of the book.

Not my book club.

Once a year, we read a play with spouses and other guests. It’s a lavish feast with pots of food and bottles of wine. Our choice typically comes from the public domain (like The Importance of Being Earnest). Thus, we can pull our scripts off the Internet. Character names are tossed in a bowl, and when we’ve consumed enough food and wine the names are drawn. What’s fun is when the men are given women’s parts or husband and wife find themselves on opposite sides in a court. (Such happened to Mary and Chuck in Ayn Rand’s Night of January 16th.)

Given this amount of work – even in the name of fun – I never guessed how much these women would mean to me. Last summer I was diagnosed with cancer. Had surgery, and before I even got home the fridge began filling up with food. My fellow “Bookies,” as we call each other, had organized themselves into a support group that sustained my caregivers and me for over a month.

How did this happen? When did we change from Bookies to friends? What did I do to deserve this support? The only answer that makes sense to me is that we spoke our truth. While discussing Lolita, Madame Bovary or The Tiger’s Wife no one sought to please. Our diversity ensures very different points of view. Perhaps it was those differences (and how we spoke about them) that gave rise to our mutual affection and respect.

It’s been a difficult trek – from surgery through radiation and chemotherapy. Luckily, my prognosis is good. When this whole thing is over, and we’re sitting at Robin’s house – or Hilary’s, Joanna’s, Olivia’s – to discuss the latest pick, I know there will come a moment when I think, “With friends like these, who needs books?”

 How do you run your club? Do you choose all your books at once? What read inspired the best conversation your group ever had?

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