The premise of "The Reading Group" by Elizabeth Noble is clear from the title. She has built her novel around the women -- Harriet, Susan, Nicole, Polly, and Clare -- who are in a reading group. They meet, as most such groups do, monthly, with each member picking a book over the course of a year.
Each chapter begins with a synopsis of the book that is being read that month and a short "group" discussion follows. The books range from "Atonement" by Ian McEwan to "My Antonia" by Willa Cather. Often, a theme of the reading group book resonates within the lives of the characters. Susan asks at one point:
"Don't you think that maybe the whole point of 'literature,' if that's what you want to call it, is that the emotion is there, but below the surface, between the lines, hidden in the language and the action, and you put it in yourself. You personalize it with your own experience. Maybe?"
A lot happens to these women during the year. Harriet contemplates an affair. Nicole makes endless excuses for her husband's infidelities. Susan copes with the stresses and sadness that come with caring for an aging parent. Polly puts her daughter's happiness and welfare before her own. Clare learns to accept the fact that she can't have children of her own. As Noble puts it:
It had been a pretty weird year for all of them. When they'd first sat down at this table, with their carefully read copies of "Heartburn," and that strange first-day-of-term feeling, they'd all been fundamentally different. Nicole and Harriet had been unhappily married; Susan had had a mother she loved and thought she knew everything about; Clare had had no future; Polly had thought that becoming a grandmother was something in her far distant future. Everything had been turned on its head, and everything was different now for all of them. Some of their lives had become simpler, some had gone through complications they could never have imagined. And through it all, there'd been this forum where they had come together. . .
The women in the reading group are different ages. Harriet and Nicole have young children. Susan and Polly have older children -- Clare is young enough to be their daughter. Yet Noble writes with insight and good humor about the different stages that women go through -- from the flush of a new relationship to the comfort of a lasting marriage, from the exhaustion of mothering young children to the strain of becoming a parent to your own mother. Any parent of a small child can recognize the truth of this:
Chloe had had a bad night, with a bed-wetting episode at midnight followed by a more-juice session at two, and the, final straw, the bad-dream debacle at four. Permitted then, for sheer persistence, to climb into her parents' bed, she had assumed the position she reserved for Mummy and Daddy's bed -- the thrashing starfish -- and fallen into a deep, if mobile, sleep.
While "The Reading Group" is not necessarily "literature" in the grand scheme of things, it is eminently readable and entertaining -- and sure to strike a chord with readers who will be able to personalize it with their own life experiences.
"The Reading Group" is available on amazon.com and at New York bookstores.