Sunday, August 28, 2016
The Book that Matters Most
by Ann Hood
W. W. Norton 2016
368 pages Fiction
A book club! Most of us who read book reviews or are on Goodreads belong to a book club. Ava, a university French professor in Providence RI, had been wanting to be in a book club for several years. But when a place opens up in the library book club run by her friend Cate, the librarian, she is ill prepared to join. Her husband has just left her for a younger woman and her children are far away. However, she knows that contact with others and intellectual stimulation will be valuable for her mental health, so she accepts the invitation and meets the group. "All these faces, looking open and ready for something, she needed most of all, the comfort of people who wanted nothing more than to sit together and talk about books."
The group's theme for the year is "The Book that Matters Most", and each club member needs to choose a book that the entire group will read for discussion—one book a month. Most members of the group choose books from the American school reading lexicon—Catcher in the Rye; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; Pride and Prejudice; To Kill a Mockingbird; One Hundred Years of Solitude, and The Great Gatsby among others. Ava chooses From Clare to Here by Rosalind Arden, an obscure New England author. Ava has her own reasons for choosing that particular book, and therein lies the plot of The Book that Matters Most.
I had never read anything by Ann Hood, although she has several books in her lexicon, and she is well-reviewed. I appreciated the book's theme, structure, and character development, particularly that of Ava and her daughter Maggie. I loved that Ava didn't read Pride and Prejudice and instead watched the movie. I have to admit that there have been books that I didn't read for our book club, like Wolf Hall and Madame Bovary. (Actually nobody in the club read Madame Bovary!)
Ava is a woman struggling to regain her footing following her divorce, and when we are privy to the other baggage that she is carrying, we are very understanding of her reticence to participate fully in the book group. Maggie, the other main character, is also deeply flawed, but at the same time deeply appealing. She is ostensibly on a study abroad in Florence, but has gone to Paris without her parents' knowledge and has gotten herself into a scary situation with an older Frenchman. Drug and alcohol addled, she is struggling to come to the surface and really begin her life. The reader longs for her to come to her senses.
As the book club explores the reasons why each month's book was important to the member who chose it, we see that books have the power to aid in the recovery from all the various types of loss. Each book club member has his or her own story. I was intrigued by the concept of The Book that Matters Most and raced through the book. I spent a lot of time pondering which books mattered most to me, and why most people pick books that they read as young adults. Perhaps that is when they are the most vulnerable.
While the character development is strong, the plot suffers from the author's desire to move the story line to resolution using very obvious plot devices. A couple of times I said "Oh, for heaven's sake!" out loud, the plot twist was so obvious. The surprising thing to me was that I didn't need a "happy" ending for the book to be fully developed. Apparently that was the author's need, not mine.
I have written this book blog for six years—it has been an exercise for me—more like a diary than a review tool. I have explored more than 400 books with the purpose of finding what matters to me in each book I read. In those six years, some books have stayed with me longer than others—some I have no recollection of at all. Some books mattered a great deal; sometimes one little detail was what mattered; sometimes the author's intent was the most important thing. When reading The Book that Matters Most, all of my mental effort went into thinking about why we read, why books matter, and why some books become so important to us. If that was the author's intent, then she succeeded. If her intent was to create an illuminating plot, she didn't succeed quite so well.