THE FIRST RULE OF BOOK CLUB is you do not talk about Book Club. The second rule of Book Club is you DO NOT talk about Book Club. The final rule of Book Club is, if this is your first night at Book Club, you have to READ THE BOOK.
After the first night, the true purpose of Book Club will reveal itself. Unlike Fight Club, it is not to see Brad Pitt with his shirt off, though that is, indeed, a worthy aim. No, the real reason Book Club exists is to get together with your girlfriends, drink cheap white wine, eat snacks—both salty and sugared—and talk about old boyfriends, new diets, and whether to go with Corian or beveled granite counters in the kitchen. But most of all, Book Club exists to get you the hell out of the house with no guilt.
This no-guilt motif unites the dozens of book clubs I have visited all across America, in homes, bars, libraries, and one beauty parlor. From these clubs I’ve learned that books have become the magic pass that women use to skip out on domestic duties right around grub-rustling time. Wielding their passport to freedom—some worthy doorstop by David McCullough, maybe a Toni Morrison classic, but more than likely Girl With a Pearl Earring, The Red Tent, The Secret Life of Bees, or The Poisonwood Bible—they clump out the front door pretending that Book Club is a tedious chore, a sort of Bible-study-and-Pilates-class combo. As soon as our escapees have backed out of the driveway, however, The Song Reader gets heaved to the rear of the minivan and the pedal hits the metal. There’s a glass of chardonnay waiting, and it’s got Mama’s name on it.
“What?” you’re saying. “At my book club we always read and discuss the book.”
Oh, dear. So sorry. Clearly you didn’t have the proper guidance in selecting a book club. Try this: Which of these clubs is most likely to be fun? Quill and Swill; Wine, Women, and Diphthong; Happy Bookers; Reading Between the Wines; The Book Bags; Overreaders Anonymous; Let’s Be Friends Fun Book Club; or the East Wickinsham Literary Society? If you picked the last one, prepare to hear phrases like “underlying theme” and “character development.” Brace yourself for piercing insights into the multilayered motivation of the Ya-Ya sisters. Worst of all, be resigned to learning nothing about your friends’ old beaux.
Other tips? Try not to join any club so large that extra chairs have to be dragged into the living room. No one sitting on a metal folding chair will ever tell about her First Time. Be careful to evaluate the quality of the eats. Beware both the sit-down affair and the can of Pringles; a happy balance somewhere in the containers-of-takeout-from-Whole-Foods range is what you’ll be shooting for. Be alert as to the presence of bossy types who would turn Book Club into homework. Exasperated harangues will be the tip-off here; if a suspected martinet begins any statement to the group with the word “people,” run. Likewise, should mention be made of the “discussion questions” that publishers print at the back of their hopefully marketed book club selections, flee. I was recently barraged by a flurry of such questions tucked unbeknownst to me at the back of one of my own novels. To every general question about the “author’s intention,” I had to answer “No earthly idea.” To the more specific “What was the author thinking when…” questions, the answer, invariably, was “Is there any of that pasta left over from last night?”
Above all else, it is essential to go with the all-female group. Introduce one straight man and Book Club will turn into, well, a book club. Husbands will read and discuss dutifully. Nonfiction will be favored. Pithy comments will be made, and none of them will concern anyone’s old flames. The all-male club is an even less jolly kettle of fish. Remember that college seminar where one guy knew more than the professor and asked excruciatingly long “questions” intended to display the full extent of his knowledge? Every guy in the all-boy club will be that guy. In the one estrogen-challenged club I visited, I was told several times what an exception had been made for me. The group never read “chick” books (i.e., novels). It took only a few minutes before I cracked under their withering cross-examination and admitted that, yes, it was true, I hadn’t really written the book in question. Furthermore, I’d not only never written any book, but I’d never read one either. Case closed. Good wine, though.
This is not to say that there is no discussion of books at a Quill and Swill—style book club. In fact, I recall quite a spirited colloquy during my visit with the Readin’ ’n’ Eatin’ group. In keeping with the Far Eastern setting of my novel The Yokota Officers Club, all the members had brought Asian delicacies. So, after sake and sushi, we tackled tough topics such as the ways in which the hero was just like a guy one of the members had dated and would my heroine be doing Atkins or South Beach? This was a great club and not just because almost everyone there had bought a copy of the book. (Though I did come to cherish this aspect of Readin’ ’n’ Eatin’ after the next bunch I visited: ultraswanky neighborhood, a fleet of Range Rovers and Lexi parked outside, fifty members and guests inside. Two had actually purchased copies of my novel. Three others asked me to sign their library copies. A dozen members told me how interesting the book sounded and that they would be borrowing Ashley’s copy just as soon as Heather, then Whitney, then Jennifer finished with it.)
In general, book clubs are the last ferny growth keeping midlist dinosaurs like myself alive; authors love, love, love book-buying book clubs. As a reader, however, I don’t get them. Like my love life, reading for me