It's not just about books
Kim Chambers investigates the book club phenomenon and what really is discussed.
If Sir David Attenborough was sitting next to me on this comfy couch at tonight's women-only book club, he'd probably narrate this: "We're witnessing alpha females at their dominant best. Watch as they mark territory with rapid and continuous chatter, punctuated by ear-piercing shrieks and cackles.
"Emotions run high as they passionately debate a novel with great emotion. Admire their fine motor skills as they gesticulate wildly, cleverly balancing full glasses of wine and wedges of cheese in just one hand.
"Long before now, the only other male species of this house wisely retreated to the certain safety of another room. So too must I."
This particular living room in suburban Appleby belongs to tonight's book club hostess, Laura Southward. Her husband is the man hiding in the TV room. In other living rooms throughout New Zealand, at least 10,000 like-minded women gather every month for book clubs. And thousands of husbands are ousted.
I've been a privileged member of this Appleby club for about two years. It formed in 2009 for mums new to the area or to Appleby school, and who had a shared passion for reading. My new neighbour, a "founding member" of the club, invited me to join. She recognised in me all the required attributes: a love of books and a desire for friendship. But what really got me in was probably a fondness for wine and desperation for a child-free night.
Yes, okay. My Book Club is also my ticket to fun. "Enjoy your wine club," my husband shouts out sarcastically as I high-tail it out of the house.
We all whirl into Laura's in an overwhelming mass twister of womanliness - chatter, laughter, lipstick stains smudging on each other's cheeks and big, embracing bear hugs.
The great thing about our club is it's the host's responsibility to turn on the food and wine. So we fuss over Laura's lovingly-arranged retro table displaying floral china saucers and cups, loads of pretty chocolate and deliciously boozy prune cake. We drool like a St Bernard eyeing a pork chop. "Ooh it's like being Alice in Wonderland," coos Sian.
But we're all gagging for wine. So off we trot to fill our glasses.
More milling around and much admiring of Laura's tasteful home interiors and sculpture art continues. This lasts a good half hour. Whereas men gathering to watch rugby leave chit chat to a minimum and get straight to the game, us women find comfort in lingering and talking fluff and nonsense.
Our book club runs loosely. No set agenda here nor arranged questions for discussion time, unlike some other clubs. We're proudly ad hoc but passionate about a good story. We've all done our homework (a first for our club) and tonight everyone here has actually read our chosen book for June, the tear-jerking The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman.
"Right. Who's got a copy of the book?" I ask. We've all settled into Laura's comfy cream couches, slurping white wine and stuffing our gobs with nibbles. Before we begin I swipe my second salmon, cucumber and cream cheese thingy on a spoon and send it down the hatch. Discussion will require stamina.
The Light Between Oceans is an acclaimed New York Times Bestseller. It's the story of a young Australian couple, Tom and Isabel, who discover a living baby and a dead man, washed onshore in a boat. It follows the choices the couple make that will lead to devastating consequences. A warning now that the next bit does contain spoilers.
Set in post World War 1, Tom and Isabel live in a lighthouse on an isolated island and decide to keep the baby as their own, after failed attempts at starting their own family. But the guilt eventually overwhelms Tom.
A good book divides opinion and ignites debate. This one certainly does that tonight. Sides are staked early with three ladies here immediately declaring they'd never have kept the child.
"Nope. There's no way I would've kept the baby," says Fran resolutely. "Me neither," chimes in Sheryl. "It was never hers to keep."
"But you don't know until you're in that situation," I challenge. "Their isolation and their environment just would've made it easier for them to make that decision, surely."
Adds Sian: "At the beginning I thought it'd be such a temptation to wipe out the rest of world and keep the baby, but towards the end I thought to myself ‘of course, you could never do that because it's just wrong'."
Then, like churchgoers hearing a reverend deliver a popular truth, we nod vigorously, shout "Yes!" and loudly exhale as Katrina observes Isabel's raging hormones following the miscarriages and recent stillbirth most likely clouded her controversial decision. "God, she (Isabel) was even lactating and everything," says Laura. I glance sideways at the closed TV room door. I hope her husband has that TV volume cranked high.
Laura, Sian and I were all angry with Tom's righteous stance and ultimate decision to come clean. We just wanted a happy ending, not necessarily a realistic one. Nevertheless we agree his horrific war experiences and his opinion that without rules men become savages, explained his actions. "And she (Isabel) was so selfish asking him to cover it (baby) up in the first place," says Sheryl.
Wine glasses clink and cheese knives thunk rhythmically against the cheese board as we each refuel.
Partway through the story it becomes clear Tom and Isabel's secret will be exposed. A seemingly innocent silver baby rattle is their undoing. "That bloody rattle," fumes Sian. "They should've chucked it into the ocean as soon as they got it."
In a spooky manifestation of Sian's outrage smoke suddenly fills the kitchen. Noses twitch and jerk towards the oven where a forgotten loaf of chilli ciabatta is burning. Glasses are deftly refilled and slices of burnt bun are handed around.
We discuss Lucy's harrowing reunion with her birth mother. "What was best for that kid was that she stayed with her family (Isabel and Tom). She was already four by then. They're her foundation and she was ripped away from them," I mumble through lips burning from chili.
"I disagree," says Janey. "It showed really early on that that her birth family was going to love her, that they were capable of building those bonds. Especially the grandfather who was orphaned himself early on."
"But I just think what if that was my daughter who I raised, then had to give back?," I reply. My eyes are now watering, but it's actually from the chili.
And so we go on. Back and forth. Nearly an hour of us volleying shots on the characters' decisions and actions. But we've agreed on one thing: The Light Between Oceans rates in our club's top five books from the past year.
Earlier that day I interviewed Barbara Brown who runs Christchurch-based Book Discussion Scheme, which has 60 clubs in Nelson.
She says there are no secrets when clubs discuss a book. People's views reveal a lot about themselves.
"It's fascinating to see what others take from a book and what you may have missed. You can get a good knowledge of each other and friendships can become stronger."
Certainly our Appleby book club is not afraid to speak up. Katrina and Janey, founding members of our club, say robust debate is important. "Some of us always play devil's advocate which is really good because it always brings about great debate," says Katrina. Adds Janey: "Even tonight we had such staunch views, I was quite surprised by that."
Debate aside, the ladies in our club share more than a love of books.
We've supported and advised one another on everything from kid-wrangling, career conundrums, shared fitness goals and through some deeply personal struggles. The books have acted as a kind of portal to growing strong friendships and bonds. Last year we even holidayed together in the Marlborough Sounds - no kids, no husbands.
"During the month it's our time to enjoy just the book, and even stretch ourselves with a title we might not normally choose. But when we get together for book club it's totally social and great fun," says Katrina.
Janey wryly observes that most club nights cover all manner of "crazy and intimate things". Though tonight was unusually tame it did include one lady demonstrating in detail to an entranced audience how to humanely kill a chicken using a broom handle. As the evening winds down we gulp our last drops of wine, others drain tea cups, and we begrudgingly shrug on our jackets for home. We agree on July's book - Sheryl's recommended a true story about a World Wwar 2 heroine who became a famous spy. "It's not going to be depressing though, is it?" I ask.
We all leave Laura's as we began, in another overwhelming display of Girl: "Goodbye Gorgeous!", big hugs and flurries of kisses.
And I quietly notice the TV room door is now ajar.
The Nelson Mail