by Heather Wood
What makes a good book group book choice? The answer isn’t intuitive. Far from searching for a book everyone will love, you should choose a book some people will almost assuredly hate. Why? Because a love/hate relationship with a book makes for a spirited discussion that won’t devolve into tales of parent-teacher meetings and griping about the weather.
We all know books we’ve been passionate about. There are the books we adored, but there are also those we despised. For me, that book was A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (and, no, I’m not going to tell you which side of my fence I fell on; our inbox only has room for so many comments).
So, rule number one: no “meh” books.
Don’t choose a book people are probably going to say they “liked” or “enjoyed” — in other words, no “meh” books. Nothing that’ll generate a lukewarm response. Go for “I LOVED it!” or “I wanted to throw it across the room!” Both reactions are the sign of an excellent book group selection.
Rule number two: don’t go for a book everyone is going to adore.
A perfect example is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Everyone should read Gentleman because it’s absolutely delightful in all the best possible ways, but don’t make it your book group choice. As a bookseller, I can promise you it’ll elicit a sigh of adoration, but you’ll soon turn to ranking the best playgrounds and trading car-towing stories.
So, enough with the “don’t’s” — how about some “do’s”? Here are my suggestions.
Choose a book with a unique writing style.
Perfect examples are The Milkman by Anna Burns, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, A Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart and Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy.
The Milkman by Anna Burns
Anna Burns’s novel is a story — in fact it is a rather simple story of a stalking — but the way it’s told is utterly unique. It’s a tapestry of digressions. It will either fascinate or infuriate. Perfect for a spirited discussion.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Lincoln in the Bardo is …. well, what isn’t it? Part play, part narrative, part excerpts from historical texts, George Saunders novel is a pastiche of voices and forms, infuriating to some, and absolutely magical to others.
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk
Flights is a simmering stew of voices that traverse time, space and experience. Not exactly magical realism, Flights is more a kind of artistic and spiritual mystery. Some will find it a mere mishmash, but others will soar to its striking conclusion.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
Gary Shteyngart’s novel is … wait, is it even a novel or is it a collection of assorted letters? Much like our fractured modern world, Super Sad True Love Story is a fractured narrative. Your book club compatriots will either be annoyed or enlightened.
Don’t be alarmed that Rachel Cusk’s unique style evolves over three books — they’re all short, quick reads. Their brevity is part of the point. Who is the narrator and what, exactly, is she narrating? The answers to those questions are a puzzle your people will either find frustrating or fun to assemble.
Choose a book with complex character relationships
What’s more fun than untangling messy dynamics and ferreting out unreliable narrators?
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley
Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day is about two couples and lifelong friendships that slowly become unglued after the death of the most beloved of their quartet. When the remaining three decide to live together things get deliciously tangled. Who is a “good guy”? Who is the villain? Discussion of this question will linger long into the night.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Another book with tangled relationships is Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Over the course of five tense months, a group of wealthy and influential captives slowly grow to like — and even love — their terrorist captors. Stockholm Syndrome? Or something even deeper? Also, that ending…. your group members will either hate it or love it.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Time for some classics. What relationship is more screwed-up than Cathy and Heathcliff’s? How about Charlotte, Humbert and Lolita? People still talk about Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for good reasons — the dynamics at their hearts are anything but normal. Your club will watch spellbound as these books unfold like slow motion train wrecks.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Can members of the same family be nothing more than strangers to each other? That’s the question at the heart of Everything I Never Told You. Heart wrenching and disturbing, Celeste Ng’s novel is about suicide and regret. It’ll hit close to home for some of your crew, so have the tissues handy.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Marriage is complex, and sometimes a person isn’t as one-sided as they seem. This is the premise of Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. Are Lotto and Mathilde as perfect as they seem or are there secrets buried under the surface of their relationship? As with Gone Girl, your group won’t agree on who’s the most duplicitous of the two.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Lastly, there’s the much talked-about novel by Ottessa Moshfegh. If there is one thing about My Year of Rest and Relaxation that everyone will agree on it’s that the narrator is an irredeemable jerk. Or is she? And what about her “best friend”? It’s hard to believe that a book about checking-out of life for a year could be such a page-turner, yet it is. Asking why, exactly, is the perfect place to begin your group’s discussion.
And there’s more — much more. In my next installment I’ll talk about books with ambiguous endings and endings that will …. well, you’ll just have to read to the end to find out.