Once a month I wake up with booze on my breath, guacamole in my hair and an ill-defined sense of shame. If I were 21, this might indicate a cracking night out. As I’m 43, it means I got drunk again discussing Jodi Picoult on a near-stranger’s couch. Because like 99.9 per cent of middle-class, middle-aged women, I belong to a book club – and I know it’s no place for lightweights (frequently, in fact, it’s no place for books). Wherever debate ranges – from old classics to new husbands – the gloves come off quicker than you can say, “I’m not drinking tonight … oh, perhaps just a glass?”.
Obviously, I can’t dish the dirt on my own literary combatants. (First rule of Book Club? You don’t talk about Book Club). But it’s time that someone exposed the dark side of this sitting-room sport. Because one day you, too, might find yourself in fierce discussion with a nodding acquaintance – only to find, suddenly, they’re not nodding anymore.
Though the evening starts with a book, this is just a cover for competitive parenting. “After a couple of glasses of wine, it’s all about how brilliantly little Finbar’s doing on the flute.”
My cousin Theresa, who lives in Ealing, West London, is a book club survivor and bears many scars from a debating arena that’s as intimate as its adversarial. “All women,” she says shaking her head, “always bad.” Though the evening starts with a book, this is just a “cover,” she insists, for competitive parenting. “After a couple of glasses of wine, it’s all about how brilliantly little Finbar’s doing on the flute.”
At least Finbar’s not picking a fight. After prolonged chit-chat with other school mums, my friend Kate plucked up the courage to join their very highbrow-sounding book club and attended her first meeting on the night of the general election last May. Discussion soon veered from the page to politics – as the swingometer went from Sober to Trashed.
“It all got a bit feisty,” recalls Kate. She found herself a lone Tory beset by liberals, and was only rescued when their host jumped up and started loading the dishwasher rather violently.
Far worse than your politics being called into question, however, is your personality. Book clubs are convened to pass judgment, and when you stand up to say, “Like my book”, what you’re really saying is, “Like me”.
Keen to make new friends when she retired, my mother launched herself on her village book club in Devon with James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love, a novel that reflected her passion for Russian history, with its inevitable adjuncts of cannibalism, horsemeat and castration.
“It went down like a lead balloon,” she recalls. Future efforts to stoke debate fared no better, and she was eventually sacked from the club “for talking too much”.
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