A portrait of female friendship bound together with books, from the author of Walking Home (2005).
During their first meeting of the year, a reading group composed of professional women in Manhattan discovers that one of their number is leaving her husband. As the story progresses, they come to terms with this dilemma and other personal troubles as they gather to talk about books and eat. For a group that prides itself on a passion for literature and intellectual rigor, this reading sorority tends to favor the superficial over real criticism. Discussions of, say, the writer’s craft or cultural context generally lose out to chatty conversations about plot and self-referential character analysis—these women use incidents in the life of Emma Bovary to share anecdotes from their own, and they talk about how much they are like or unlike Anna Karenina. Each character’s backstory unfolds in chunks of exposition inspired by Lolita and The Bell Jar, and the connections between the story being read and the stories being relived are always facile. The impoverished graduate student, for example, always talks about money. When someone mentions jewelry, each woman touches a bracelet or an earring and considers its significance in her life. Indeed, material culture is present here always, as if things are signifiers of the people who own them. When it is revealed that they are not, this is meant to shock: Who would have guessed that someone as well-dressed as Cynthia could be unhappy? The ensemble cast offers a host of vaguely drawn types—a wealthy department-store executive, an overworked psychologist, a guidance counselor with an autistic son and an abusive husband. Reading groups who want to read about reading groups will have something to pick up after they’ve finished The Jane Austen Book Club.
Dreary, plodding and slightly pretentious—women’s fiction of the most uninspired, uninspiring kind.