Elizabeth Noble’s The Reading Group is a fun, complicated, emotional and often overwhelming look at the lives of five British women, all who attend a monthly reading group to discuss works ranging from Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist to Nora Ephron’s Heartburn. Harriet, Clare, Susan, Polly and Nicole are various ages, have different responsibilities and worries, look quite different and value different things, but each of them brings a unique and often comforting perspective to the club they share.
Complacent mother of two Harriet wonders if the grass really is greener on the other side — until she stumbles into that pasture. Childless Clare is watching, angrily, as her marriage to Gavin crumbles in the wake of a series of devastating miscarriages. Susan’s chief concern is for her elderly mother, Alice, who is battling late-stage Alzheimer’s. Divorcee Polly is enjoying the freedom of finally have grown children, and a steady and loving relationship with boyfriend Jack — until her daughter Cressida takes the entire family down a different path. And Nicole, once in the picture-perfect marriage with philandering husband Elliot, realizes she can no longer overlook his dalliances with countless women during their ten-year marriage — and starts to finally make some choices of her own.
Did you get all that? I know. I really liked this book — I did. I love Elizabeth Noble’s writing style, and she certainly has a flair with words! But I did have a problem with it, too. There were just too many characters. I was a bit nervous seeing we have five main characters already, but then we have to incorporate each of the five ladies’ husbands, ex-husbands, boyfriends, daughters, sons, grandchildren, elderly parents, other friends and coworkers. And I’m not really exaggerating. My copy of The Reading Group had a character map at the beginning, and I got that immediate prickly feeling in my stomach seeing just who I was going to have to get to know in this one. I love literature, and I love being inside of peoples’ heads — but to be inside the minds of twenty people? No. Too distracting — too disorganized. And it certainly felt overwhelming at points.
But I loved the interplay of the friends as they discussed all twelve of their monthly book club selections — and they really did discuss them! We get several pages of talk on themes, morals, plot points and a touch of feminism, too, so I didn’t have another copy of the very disappointing The Jane Austen Book Club in my hands. I liked the diverse material they read, and I really did feel like I’d probably pulled up a chair with my mug of tea to join them. And though I don’t really think the novels’ plots were woven into The Reading Group itself, I could certainly see characteristics of those stories woven into the novel I was actually reading.
I enjoyed the strong feelings of family loyalty, too, though several of the families seemed about to unravel at any moment. Especially in Susan’s case, the idea that blood is thicker than, well, anything was important. Particularly at the end. A surprise twist appeared in the last few pages and, though I was surprised, I didn’t think it was a ridiculous turn of events. Things were certainly happening in this book at every turn, but I didn’t find it predictable.
And the book was very well resolved in the end. Maybe everyone didn’t get the perfect, predictable happy ending they had envisioned for themselves, but I had the sense as a reader that everything was going to be okay — for everyone. And I like that. Each of the women wound up with very different lives than when we were dropped into their stories twelve months earlier, and the sense of change and growth was palpable. Each of them was stronger, wiser and better ready to tackle the very next challenges coming their way. Noble didn’t leave many loose ends by the last page, but I like that, too. A satisfying, if somewhat emotionally overwhelming, read!
3.5 out of 5!