Book club: A new chapter
Ten years ago, I was a 'stay-at-home' Mum to three small kids and the highlight of my life was a Wednesday-morning jaunt to the local Methodist Church, the venue for a mother and toddler group, the only social outlet for a Cork girl getting used to life in Dublin suburbia.
That is until The Book Club came along -- a decade ago this month.
I was lucky to be asked. The Book Club had been conceived in a housing estate in which I did not live. It comprised a group of girls, all in their early 30s, some working, some not, all married with small children and uniform in their need for something more.
I felt privileged at having being invited but, being an 'outsider', I felt awkward and self-conscious too. I arrived that first evening to a home I had never visited to be greeted by a host I had never met. It was a longing, however, that pushed me over the threshold and a need for decent adult company that got me over any notion of inferiority.
The rules were set down from the get-go. There were to be six of us. The host would cook a meal, with the host-in-waiting -- ie, next one up to hold The Book Club -- doing dessert. The book was not to be discussed until the main course was served, a point at which everyone could then relax and be privy to the conversation.
I thought this was fantastic. Yes, you had the pressure twice a year of hosting the thing but, let's face it, once a month for 10 months of the year you got to dress up, shut the door on the chaos behind, arrive to a tall glass of wine, a dinner that you hadn't had to plan and a company of ladies second to none.
There were more rules.
We were not allowed to talk about the children and no one got to be the boss. Everyone had equal rights to the floor. The date of each book club was of paramount importance and, once agreed, was respected, noted and, most significantly, non-transferable.
The Book Club has been a real team effort, with everyone pitching in to help the host on book club day in the guise of taking over the host's children so that the house could be cleaned and food prepared, thereby ensuring that no child would fall foul of any demented host in the process.
It is this etiquette, structure and format, however, that has been the subject of subtle criticism from our colleagues in the book club world, particularly in respect of our commitment to the serving of a full-blown, sit-down meal. Murmurs from 'outsiders' (see how my inferiority has blossomed to superiority) have cited the inevitability of competition and undue pressure to outdo those that go before you.
Not so. My motto has always been that my going to anybody's home and anybody coming to mine is doing so in the quest of good company, a lively debate and a zone free of children -- a meal is a nice addition but not the motivation. That's how I operate and, for a decade now, I have always assumed the same of the others.
For me, in the early days, The Book Club was like that moment in the morning when I used to work full-time. That time of the day before work takes over and you get to glance at the newspaper and discuss what you heard on 'Morning Ireland' during the commute. I always liked this about the working day. You get to hear everyone else's opinion, opinions you might never be privy to had you not sat in their vicinity.
When I left the workplace to rear my kids I missed this. Very much.
The Book Club gave it back to me. Yes, we choose our books carefully. [Another rule: the book you recommend is always the one discussed on the night of your hosting.]
There are some literary snobs among us and others who are not, but we balance each other out and the end result always makes for interesting discourse and a balanced menu of literature. The discussion about the book is taken very seriously, yet it is the issues thrown up that ensure the night rolls into the early hours.
When we were in our fledgling days, the whole working mother vs stay-at-home mother was a topic that raised its head repeatedly, often leading to roaring matches and bruised egos but an altogether better understanding of both sides of the coin.
We progressed from there and analysed more deeply the characters that inhabited our book choices. Again, this might have reflected the place we were all at in our own lives -- routinely attempting to maintain healthy marital relations on a diet of four hours' sleep a night with exhaustion levels to challenge an Olympic marathon runner.
Though there was great comfort in knowing you were not battling alone, our gathering was not a band of defeatists and I still managed to leave with a little more armour in the guise of cute hints and useful asides to be contemplated, brought home and applied.
Speaking of relations, twice a year, in tribute to our partners, we include the menfolk. Many's the time they facilitate The Book Club, whether it be buying wine, mopping the kitchen floor or presenting their signature dessert, so it's only right they are welcomed into the inner sanctum. This is always a highly charged night. New blood, novel thoughts and an undeniable electric current -- the gender factor.
There can be accusations of us girls being proprietorial, elitist and exclusive, so, in a bid to force us to take ourselves less seriously, they formed their own unit, 'Book Club, Me Arse'. They meet in the local on a monthly basis and run a book on whatever sporting event coincides with their chosen night.
What has been our favourite book? That would never be agreed upon. 'The Life of Pi'? 'The Poisonwood Bible'? 'The Da Vinci Code'? -- that's just a sample of what has been read, embraced, chewed upon and dissected.
Consistently when I read the chosen material, anticipation builds up inside me as I ponder what so-so will think of this. Just when I think I know what will irk some and please others, I am always surprised and never fail to treasure the ensuing exchanges.
Sometimes, I go to The Book Club itching for an argument about a particular book choice or searching for affirmation of a book I have chosen. Invariably, however, I go for the banter and for the friendship six girls gave birth to 10 years ago in an estate in Rathfarnham.
None of the girls lives in that estate any more, and life outside The Book Club has moved on. It has seen us experience many of life's ups and downs but though the knocks have made women of us all, The Book Club remains. It is a warm comfort blanket and is the greatest of equalisers.
At age 10, we are proud of our history, proud of our repertoire of reading material and proud of meeting the challenge of reading books we'd never have read had we not the pressure of presenting our take.
I am no longer dependent on The Book Club for adult company, I am no longer dependent on The Book Club for the escapism I once sought from it and I am no longer dependent on The Book Club to make alternative book choices.
Yet, I am still dependent on The Book Club. The rules have eased and the need to impose them has gone; the team effort to take over the kids has waned as children are entering their teen years, but the commitment to the agreed date and having the book read in time remains central to our ethos.
Why do we stay together when sometimes life on the outside is falling apart?
I can only speak for myself. The Book Club is my very own diamond in the rough; it has many angles and, of course, some flaws but, ultimately, it shines brighter with the years and age and time does not dull its sparkle.
Viva La Book Club, and here's to another 10 years, girls!