By Amy Brown
Writers are readers—usually voracious and eclectic readers. It’s the best way to improve your craft. Book clubs therefore hold a strong appeal for writers. I’ve founded several and been in many, in all the places I’ve lived in the world. Most often over wine and cheese, we vigorously debate the merits of the novel, if we can manage to prevent the inevitable creep into tangential conversations. So Ann Hood’s latest novel, The Book That Matters Most, intrigued me.
In the novel, the central character Ava’s twenty-five-year marriage has fallen apart, and her two grown children are pursuing their own lives outside of the country. Ava joins a book group, not only for her love of reading but also out of sheer desperation for companionship. The group’s goal throughout the year is for each member to present the book that matters most to them. Ava rediscovers a mysterious book from her childhood—one that helped her through the traumas of the untimely deaths of her sister and mother. Alternating with Ava’s story is that of her troubled daughter Maggie, who, living in Paris, descends into a destructive relationship with an older man. Ava’s mission to find that book and its enigmatic author takes her on a quest that unravels the secrets of her past and offers her and Maggie the chance to remake their lives.
When I learned that Ann was appearing at the wonderful independent bookstore, Bookstore 1 in Sarasota, I leaped at the chance to meet her and brought my mom. Ann is originally from
Rhode Island, where both my mom and I used to live. Ann was a delightful speaker. Kicking off her shoes, she curled her feet under her on a chair and faced the audience comfortably, as if we were in her living room, ready to talk books. And we were. She informed us that she had pledged to her editor to take photos of 60 book clubs before her upcoming 60th birthday. Were there any book club members in attendance? Hands shot up and she snapped their photo on her smart phone.
“I feel like I’ve been writing this book for years”, she told us, acknowledging the novel took five years to write. “Books are quite magical. They are bold, they have such power.” Many in the audience nod in agreement. “I firmly believe that the books we need find us.”
Ann started reading at age four “I wanted to live in a book; the seed was planted then. I grew up in a town with no libraryin an Italian-American family. My mother thought books were a waste of time. From the newspaper, though, I Iiked Dear Abby and especially hints from Eloise.”
Ann wrote her first story at age eight, about her overbearing grandmother, who lived with the family. “In the story, the girl’s grandmother vanishes and the little girl’s life gets better. And after I wrote it, and went back downstairs, life seemed better. I realized just writing a story could make me feel better.”
Reading and writing became Ann’s comfort, especially when, in 2000, she lost her five-year-old daughter to a virulent form of strep throat. After the tragedy, she said, “I lost the ability to read and write.” Instead, she said, “I knit my way through grief.” That led, in 2008, to her novel, The Knitting Circle, in which, after the sudden loss of her only child, Mary Baxter joins a knitting circle in Providence, Rhode Island, as a way to fill the empty hours and lonely days.
Two years after her daughter died, Ann returned to reading, and the first book she picked up was The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Returning to writing took longer. “When I’m writing, I go to a deep, dark emotional place.”
During the time she was dealing with the loss of her daughter, she found a book club in Westerly Rhode Island that had been meeting for 30 years. “I liked them so much and their food was so good. I am terrible in groups. I do not play well with others. But I said to myself, I want to join a book club. And their theme, that year, was to choose the book that mattered most to each member. The idea stayed with me.”
“Choosing just one book is hard. I think we get five: the book that matteredto us as children, which for me, was Little Women. For many it’s Heidi. As a young adolescent, it was Marjorie Morningstar,” she said (and here my mother nudged me. “Me, too!” she whispered. My mother has now given this wonderful coming-of-age novel to my eldest daughter, the third generation enjoying this timeless story).
“In high school,” Ann continued, “It was The Great Gatsby.” And then there’s always a book that lifts you up at your lowest. For me, that was the Ladies Detective Agency. She also said Ann Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant mattered most as a beginning novelist. “That helped me write my first novel, Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine.”
Reading and writing will forever be entwined for Ann Hood. I’m still pondering my list of the books that mattered most. But one novel that is definitely on the list, for me, is Unless, by the late Canadian novelist Carol Shields. I read it in 2002 as a beginning novelist and young mother. This beautifully written, poignant, heart rending novel (leavened with just the right amount of humor) captured everything I understood to be true about being a mother and a writer.
What is the book that mattered most to you? Can you choose just one? Or are there five, as Ann suggested, for critical junctures of your life? I’d love to hear what they are.