I’m a writer but I’m also a reader, and every 4-6 weeks my book groups (I’m in two) meet to talk about what we’ve read. Some of the discussions are brief—a cursory talk about the book, then a diversion into discussing our kids, our careers, our dogs, our aging parents, the Washington Nationals (I live near D.C.), world politics, and the many delectable treats to be found at Trader Joe’s. Other discussions can go on, literally, for hours as we debate the pros and cons and ins and outs of a book we can’t forget and can’t ignore.
Both my book groups are always searching for stories that lead to an immersive reading experience and good conversation, the kind of books you HAVE to talk to someone about as soon as you finish them. But I approach all our book group discussions as an author, too. What makes a book the kind of book people need and want to talk about? Is it character? Plot? Setting? Or is it some unfathomable alchemy you can only grasp occasionally, like seeing the northern lights? Whatever it is, I want to know, because I want to write the books that make people want to talk about them.
The books that have sparked the most animated conversations in my book groups over the past 10 years include John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, Less, by Andrew Sean Greer, and Stoner, by John Williams. They’re wildly different books: Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) is about a young black boy in rural Mississippi on an improbable road trip with his drug-addicted mother; Rebecca (1938) is a moody Gothic romance about a young wife in Cornwall and her haunting predecessor; and Less (2018) tells the tale of a struggling middle-aged gay novelist who travels the world to avoid an awkward wedding.
In a completely unscientific study, I reached out to a few members of my book groups and stretched my own brain to remember what about these books captured us and wouldn’t let go. A few common threads:
They deal with big themes that are at the heart of human experience. Are humans born evil? Can you ever overcome the human impulse to act out of jealousy, greed, or rage? How? (Read East of Eden for more info on all that). How do you deal with the kind of grief (say, losing a beloved child) that threatens to overwhelm your very sanity? (Lincoln in the Bardo has some ideas). Insecurity, rejection, the longing for love, prejudice, cruelty, forgiveness, redemption—they’re all in those books and I mentioned and they’re all part of life. People respond to the struggles and victories that echo or even foreshadow their own experiences.
The characters are complex and fully drawn, and I mean all the characters, not just the protagonist. Jesmyn Ward’s novel is told from several points of view, and each narrator has a distinct voice, individual quirks, their own hopes and disappointments—they feel like people you know. The dark characters in these books are unnerving and haunting (that Cathy in East of Eden is as terrifying a character as has ever appeared in fiction) yet still have moments of vulnerability or redemption; the protagonists try and stumble and try again.
The setting is integral to the characters and the story. California’s Salinas Valley IS East of Eden; Rebecca couldn’t take place anywhere other than the wild moors of Cornwall; the oppressive heat and oppressive history of Mississippi are inextricably entwined with the story of Sing, Unburied, Sing. These stories don’t just happen to take place in these settings; the settings are a key element that affect everything.
They ignite controversy. Seventy-five percent of one of my book groups hated Lincoln in the Bardo, and the other 25% loved it. The ensuing impassioned discussion led to one of our best talks, and new ways of thinking about the book on both sides. The group had similar reactions to Less and Sing, Unburied, Sing, with lovers and haters of both books. Of course some of that is simply personal taste; my favorite flavor of novel will not be yours. But even when people didn’t particularly like one of these books, they felt strongly about it, they were engaged. And that’s a good thing.
What books have sparked great conversations in your life? Why? What lessons have you taken from them for your own writing?
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