The Day I Almost Blew Up My Book Club
The book was not the problem. We liked it, a lot. All of us were within hailing distance of the heroine's age, and all but two of us were still single, so we sympathized with Alice's predicament, and found it amazing that Trollope did, too. As we discussed the novel, honeysuckle fluttered in the balmy air around us, wafting its sweet scent; and as we ate Meghan's pasta with pesto and heirloom tomatoes, we happily agreed that the author was ahead of his time. The problem only popped up at dessert, when we began chatting about what our next book should be. One member suggested The Portrait of a Lady, and without thinking, I blurted, "I hate that book," and began energetically explaining why its author, Henry James, was so much less fun to read than Trollope. Meghan, our hostess, emphatically disagreed.
Initially, the other members jumped into the conversation, dividing into two camps, one pro-Trollope, one pro-James, but as the battle raged on, the others gradually retreated from the fray, put off by the fierce tenor of the discussion. When Meghan said outright that I was wrong—that The Portrait of a Lady was a very interesting book, and, furthermore, that James was a better writer than Trollope—I didn't take offense; I just retorted, "Nuh-uh," and redoubled my defense of Trollope. I praised him for his strong female characters, attacked James for stuffiness and verbosity...and said I didn't understand how anyone could prefer James' stilted snobbery to Trollope's good-natured, inclusive energy. While Meghan and I (who'd each grown up in outspoken families, and were used to arguing and defending our points of view) continued heaving bombs across the table, one member of the group tried to clear plates, and several others drew themselves deeper into their seats. I imagine that, like Alice's aunt in Can You Forgive Her?—who recoiled when her niece voiced a harsh opinion—they "jumped up with a little start at the vehemence of the words, and of the tone in which they were expressed," but I admit, I didn't notice.
Finally, someone interrupted, proposing an Anne Tyler novel for our next gathering, putting an end to the debate. Quickly, we chose a less-controversial book (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant) for our next session.
But not as many members came to that one—our numbers were cut in half—and the most ladylike members had defected en masse. Had they just gone off on their summer vacations, or had I spooked them? I wasn't sure. Recalling the James-vs.-Trollope showdown, I asked myself what had gone wrong. The main reason I had started book club the previous year was to increase and strengthen my female friendships. Before book club, I'd always had one or two close woman friends, but never what you might call a circle. When, as a sisterless little girl, I had joined Brownies, I had been daunted by their solidarity and mystified by their conversation. A couple decades on, I relished small talk and was much more sociable, but I still was a novice at group friend dynamics. Was there a tacit female social rule, I wondered, that decreed that everyone had to agree with one another, always, or they couldn't stay friends? "If that's the case," I thought despairingly, "our book group is doomed."
When I turned to a friend in book club (who had lots of sisters) for advice on this question, I was relieved when she laughed. No group of women—even sisters—agrees on everything, she said; and she reminded me that our club had never been a rubber stamp. During our first year, we had not unanimously admired any of the books we chose (we had different opinions about stories by Flannery O'Connor; about the Jane Austen novel Persuasion; and about The Red Tent, which was the first—and last—recommendation of my mother's that I ever dared push on book club). We were all entitled to our own points of view, she reassured me. But just because book club wasn't like The Stepford Wives didn't mean it should be like Fight Club. And I realized: It wasn't a question of who liked Trollope versus who liked James; it was a question of who liked having her their opinion derided and outshouted...which was nobody.
We were young women then, in our 20s and 30s, in the early stages of building our careers. Our adult egos and professional reputations were still taking shape. Looking back, I remember those years as a time when we were all more porous, more vulnerable to criticism and more sensitive to influence. And I believe we judged how well the world might one day treat us—that is, how well we deserved to be treated—by how well we treated each other in our self-selected literary society. None of us, except maybe Meghan, despite her youth, had much authority in a workplace yet. But book club was a place where we got to be authorities to each other; and to have our opinions heard, because we respected each other. Or that was the idea.
In a funny way, I think an anti-authoritarian spirit had seized hold of me that day in Meghan's Brooklyn garden (and maybe a splash of class struggle, too—her lovely backyard was so much more elegant than my plebeian urban cement patch in the East Village). When I took against The Portrait of a Lady, I knew it was a favorite book of some of our members. I also knew that they had more intellectual tastes in literature than I did, and knew that James was considered more highbrow than Trollope. Yet a contrarian impulse made me want to joust. I believed in my right to my own opinion, not that it was "right," in some objective sense; but that it was worth defending if only because it was mine.
It was not, however, I reflected, worth turning book club into a boxing match, among friends who did not want to see the power struggles and insecurities of their office lives replay during their leisure hours. I realized that just because I had a thought didn't mean I had to shout it. I could think it, I could write it, I could say it; but I didn't need to express it in a way that made my friends feel attacked. And why bother to make an either-or case about any writer? Let's face it: I had liked The Turn of the Screw, and What Maisie Knew; in part, I really just preferred Trollope's characters to James'. Besides, it occurred to me, I already knew how I thought; why not listen to how the others felt, so each of us could add to the constellation of ideas all of us had on a book or author? In the book clubs that came after, I've tried to make sure every voice gets heard, that none is slighted, and that I check my tongue, a bit. We haven't had any dustups since. Well...hardly any.
Strangely, I've found that this peaceable behavioral modification works very well outside of book club, too: at the office, among friends, even with family members, improving the way all of us get along. It amounts to a lessening of the urgency of "I" and a heightening of the instinct for "us." There are still times when I feel inclined to contradict someone, or to forcefully declare a contrarian view. When that happens, I remember book club, and ruefully think of a Trollope novel I love, called, He Knew He Was Right—which, of course, is about a man who was very, very wrong. And when I see my book club around me these days—two dozen of us, still going strong after so many years, laughing, talking, hearing each other out, and disagreeing without acrimony—I feel so grateful. As Alice Vavasor said, after she won the forgiveness of her friends, following her many senseless missteps, "I am so happy. It is so much more than I have deserved."
Liesl Schillinger is a New York-based literary critic and culture writer; the author of Wordbirds, a book of 21st-century neologisms; and the translator of The Lady of the Camellias and other works of fiction.
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