Take three book groups of smart, articulate, educated, and talkative women, most of them Jewish. Add one novel about the shared grief of an Upper West Side Jewish family and a Down East Maine family.
Carefully include the author in the conversation and stir.
That was the recipe as novelist Ayelet Waldman joined about 25 eager readers Jan. 31 at the South Orange Public Library, which won her participation as the result of a contest run by Doubleday, which issued her latest novel, Red Hook Road.
Waldman joined the conversation via telephone, as members of three South Orange discussion groups — the library’s, Aviva Hadassah’s, and Congregation Beth El’s — first hesitantly and then eagerly shared their views and questions on the novel.
Moderating the discussion was library assistant Nancy Chiller Janow, who coordinated the event.
Janow broke the initial silence and asked the first few questions that got Waldman talking. Slowly, other women joined in.
They asked about the setting, the characters, and the subject matter. Waldman — author of the Mommy-Track mystery series and some much-talked-about essays on child-rearing — responded with depth and candor about the novel, her summers in Maine, her fear of losing a child, and her personal inexperience with grief.
When readers commented on the difficulty of Red Hook Road’s subject matter, the author revealed the kernel that inspired the novel. “There was a real incident in Queens — maybe you remember it,” she said. “In that case, not only the bride and groom were killed but also the best man.” (The book opens with a bride and groom killed while driving in a limousine from their wedding to the reception.) A few members nodded, recalling the tragic occurrence.
The group members slammed into the novel’s core issues — how different people manage grief, how families negotiate different heritages, the ebb and flow of relationships. They discussed the quality of the dialogue, the authenticity of the characters, and the stories at the edges of the larger plot.
“I don’t really like reading fiction unless I really want to spend time with the characters,” said Marianne Sender of Beth El, who found Red Hook Road “really likeable.” But more to the point, she said, the book is about “how life can change in a moment, and realizing how precious it really is.”
Another participant, however, found the novel “flat” and preferred Waldman’s 2006 work, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits — a previous selection for the library’s book group — and pointed out to the author that in that novel, it is Central Park that is a main character. “Yes,” the author agreed. “I’m glad you saw that. That’s what I was trying to do.”
Waldman threw into the telephone talk tidbits about her frizzy Jewish hair, the lack of “decent” bagels in Los Angeles, where she lives, and the blossoming of flowers outside her window while the New Jerseyans could see only piles of snow through the library windows.
The conversation was satisfying, and not without depth — but the silences between questions finally led Janow to conclude the call with Waldman. The group continued its discussion for a while before breaking up.
“Having an author join with the group, even by telephone, adds such depth and dimension to the conversation,” Janow said about a week after the meeting. “You can really get to understand the characters better, see what influenced the author in their creation. It also offers the group insight into the process of writing, what the author goes through, and how he or she approaches the job of creating a ‘new world.’”