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: [Read more…]