Let me set the scene: I'm in a warm, well-appointed home with tastefully patterned rugs and cushy couches. I'm minutes from my house, though this neighborhood is fancier, the streets windier and hillier, where people with real jobs and grown children live. There's a dining room table stacked with steaming plates — quiches, pastas, melting brie — along with fruits and a freshly baked cake. A number of women mill around in small groups. Everyone smiles at me. Many touch my arm while they introduce themselves. They laugh easily. They thank me for coming. They usher me to the steaming food. They offer me wine. They hold copies of my book — my hardcover book, published three months earlier. The turquoise book cover dots the room — there it is on a couch cushion, there it is balanced beneath a plate — and I keep getting distracted by the repeated sight of it.
This, my introduction to life on the book group circuit.
Before I continue, let me first say, I am a lover of attention. I'm the kind of person who announces my birthday a month in advance, who requests surprise parties, who reveled in standing in front of audiences and emoting into a microphone during my book tour.
But this was different. This was intimate and rife with potential vulnerability. I wasn't here to perform. I was here to listen to thoughtful, literate people discuss my book. Once the introductions ended and the line at the food table dwindled and everyone took their seats on couches and chairs, I had a moment of panic, flashing back to middle school slumber parties and slam books. (If you are lucky enough to be unfamiliar with slam books, they're a simple, sadistic invention: a few pieces of paper stapled together with a girl's name on top [the book]. These books get passed around a circle, so participants can anonymously write "honest opinions" in them [the slam]. From slam books I learned of my bad b.o., stupid hair, annoying voice, and slouch that made me look like Quasimodo).
And here I was, about to re-enter the fray as an adult. And worse, I wasn't just offering myself up, I was offering my debut novel, The Local News. I didn't want to know if my book had bad b.o. I didn't want to hear about its terrible slouch.
But the women were gentle, complimentary, downright sweet. Of course they were. They'd made quiche for the occasion. They'd baked a cake. Yet there was still something unexpectedly disconcerting about sitting among a group of readers hearing talk of my book.
First, a bit about The Local News: It's the story of bookish, awkward Lydia Pasternak, whose older, more charismatic brother, Danny, disappears one summer when Lydia is 15. Lydia and Danny had a tumultuous relationship, and much of the book deals with Lydia's ambivalent feelings about his disappearance.
So these women started discussing. The first woman said, "What about Lydia's mother? What's her deal?"
Hmmm, I thought, interesting first question. Kind of random. Lydia's mom is not exactly an insignificant character, but she's a minor one, in terms of number of pages devoted. She's most notable in her absence. I challenge any reader to come to the end of the book and remember her first name. Naturally, I hadn't expected the discussion to begin with her. But I'd spent years in creative writing workshops. I was used to random responses to my work, questions from out in left field.
Except other women began chiming in. Yes, they too had wondered about Lydia's mom. Why was she so absent? So checked out? What was wrong with her? Soon, nearly everyone joined the discussion, busily theorizing. Had Lydia always been ignored by her mother? Or was Lydia's mom nearing an emotional breakdown because of Danny's disappearance? Was Lydia's mom lost because she wasn't grounded in any religious faith?
Okay, I thought, now we're in really random territory. If anything had been given less attention in the book than Lydia's mother, it was the topic of religion. Near the start of the book, Lydia says: "My mother hadn't even been Jewish until she'd married my dad; before that, she'd been Episcopalian.... I sometimes called us Episcajews and Jewapalians, but really, we were nothing," which is the most commentary offered on religion in 368 pages.
But this faith question started a new and equally animated discussion on the religious leanings — or lack thereof — of the Pasternaks, and what this meant to the family and to the story.
First Mom and then religion? Really? This is what people wanted to talk about? These topics that I considered so near the periphery of the story?
Soon, and to my relief, the women began asking me direct questions. I explained the absent parents. I explained their religion. I explained the ending. I explained Lydia. I explained everything. As it turned out, there was an element of performance here, a lively, informative one-woman show I came to quickly think of as Miriam sets her readers straight. I did a bang-up job. I was funny. I was engaging. The women nodded. They laughed. I talked and talked.
The night ended with hugs and handshakes and thankyous — me to them, them to me. I walked to my car, buzzing with pride. In the days to come, though, whenever I thought back on the night, a feeling of discomfort simmered in me. I felt a bit sullied. Not by the group. I couldn't have started out with a smarter, warmer, more gracious one. I had, I decided, sullied myself. I'd been kind of a jerk. I'm sure none of the book group women would've described me as the least bit jerky since I'd been a nice, endearing, affable jerk. But a jerk nonetheless.
Let me explain.
Long before I was ever a writer, I was a reader. A voracious one. And nothing beat — or beats — the sense of discovery that comes from a book or a character or a story that truly resonates and speaks to me. What heartbreaking poignancy I found in watching Berie Carr stumble through adolescence in Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? What perverse delight in following Swenson's foibles in Blue Angel. What head-spinning wonder in seeing a magical, enchanted Cornell University unfurl in Fool on the Hill.
These books, as I read them, became mine. Sure, they were Lorrie Moore's, Francine Prose's and Matt Ruff's. But the characters became people I knew, the imagined worlds something I inhabited. That was — and is — the joy of reading, falling headlong into the pages, becoming absorbed and enveloped.
So what a disappointment it would be if Lorrie or Francine or Matt came to my book group simply to set me straight on the meaning of their book. I mean, I'd be delighted for any of them to show up at my book group (Just in case they're reading: I don't actually have a book group, but if you showed up at my house, I'd fill a table with steaming food and shower you with praise and let you play with my adorable infant son and nominally friendly cat and very nice husband. But back to the point...). I'd want them to provide insight and answer questions, certainly, but I'd also want them to listen. Really listen. I'd want what the book meant to me to matter to them. And I'd want them to understand how the book had become mine too, even — or maybe especially — if the book I'd read was wildly divergent from the one they'd written.
The women of that first book group, they'd been meeting once a month for nearly two decades, ever since their children had begun kindergarten together. So of course Lydia's mother was a meaningful character to them. Of course Lydia's relationship to her mother was a central preoccupation. This was a group of mothers, brought together by their motherhood. Same with the issue of religion. There were a number of Jewish women in the group, some in interfaith marriages, others who called themselves "bad Jews" for only going to synagogue once a year for High Holidays. So again, of course, Lydia's ambivalence about religion and Judaism would strike a chord.
I had not listened particularly well to them. I had wanted so badly for my book to be understood and to be loved that I missed the key — and fairly obvious — point that my book was no longer solely my book. If I was going to keep going with this book group circuit — and I did keep going, this was only the first of several — I needed to ax the one woman show. I needed to find joy in having my book explained to me. Because it was everyone's now. Their, mine, ours. Which is a pretty amazing idea, really. A cause for celebration. A lovely reason for quiche and cake.