Friday, June 8, 2007

Book Groups

Last night my friend Julie and I got together for one of our more-or-less monthly dinners, followed by an event at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Massachusetts, a multifaceted place that offers a rich tapestry of books and community to readers and writers alike. Last night's event was their annual celebration of book groups, complete with "flash" readings by authors Elinor Lipman, Jacqueline Sheehan and Lawrence Douglas; equally rapid recommendations of a four-foot stack of books from Random House reps; and food and conversation with an eclectic group of readers who belong to book groups already or who were looking to find a compatible one.

The evening prompted my reflection on the book groups that have invited me to speak after choosing my book, Dancing on Sunday Afternoons, as their selection. My first experience with a book group was two years ago, when Dancing was still a manuscript. The members of the group worked at the prep school where I taught and they offered me their insights and questions in exchange for a home-cooked Italian meal. It was a fruitful discussion for me, especially in understanding how readers came to my work and what they took from it.
In the last several months I've visited with book groups both small and large, most filled with complete strangers who heard about me through word-of-mouth. Some of the questions they raised were the same. "How much of it is true?" everyone wants to know. "How long did it take you to write it?" is another that closet novelists seem to hunger after.

But each of the groups had its own identity, forged by the needs and experiences of the women sitting around the living room or the community center table. For one group, my book was the launching pad for discussion of relationships with grandparents and family histories that had been hidden or cherished or lost. There seemed to be a lot of regret in the room that night, of opportunities missed or denied. Another group was intensely focused on the personal meaning of the book to each of them--the passion in Giulia and Paolo's relationship, the stillborn babies, the entanglement of family. Yet another group, the largest, most raucous and most free with the pouring of wine, erupted with memories--both hilarious and excruciating--of growing up Italian in America. Words flew across the room that night; nerves were touched; it was hard to stop. My last group so far was with a group of mothers of boys in a Benedictine high school (the same high school my now 28-year-old son had attended). I don't think there was an Italian at the table, but their interest in the story and their understanding of Giulia's life was palpable and real.

I love doing the book groups. I learn so much about what my words mean for my readers. They teach me, and they help me to see my stories in a different light.

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