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The Book That Matters Most: A Novel
by Ann Hood

Published: 2016-08-09
Hardcover : 368 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 10 of 14 members

An enthralling novel about love, loss, secrets, friendship, and the healing power of literature, by the bestselling author of The Knitting Circle.

Ava’s twenty-five-year marriage has fallen apart, and her two grown children are pursuing their own lives outside of the country. Ava joins ...
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Introduction

An enthralling novel about love, loss, secrets, friendship, and the healing power of literature, by the bestselling author of The Knitting Circle.

Ava’s twenty-five-year marriage has fallen apart, and her two grown children are pursuing their own lives outside of the country. Ava joins a book group, not only for her love of reading but also out of sheer desperation for companionship. The group’s goal throughout the year is for each member to present the book that matters most to them. Ava rediscovers a mysterious book from her childhood?one that helped her through the traumas of the untimely deaths of her sister and mother. Alternating with Ava’s story is that of her troubled daughter Maggie, who, living in Paris, descends into a destructive relationship with an older man. Ava’s mission to find that book and its enigmatic author takes her on a quest that unravels the secrets of her past and offers her and Maggie the chance to remake their lives.

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Excerpt

Ava

Ava saw it as soon as she turned the corner. She stopped, squinting as if that would change what she was looking at. It was a week before Christmas on Weybosset Street in downtown Providence. The Christmas lights already shone, even at five o’clock, because the day was so dark and gray. The air had that festive holiday feeling that came from people bustling about with oversized shopping bags, cold air, tired decorations, a guy selling Christmas trees on the corner.

But Ava felt anything but festive.

She stood staring at the Providence Performing Arts Center marquee. She knew it was backlit in white with black letters announcing The Lion King, because she’d come here just last night, the tickets given to her by a colleague from the French department trying to cheer her up. But she couldn’t actually see the marquee. No. The marquee was covered in red and green cable knit yarn, almost like it was wearing a sweater. Except Ava knew that it wasn’t wearing a sweater. The PPAC marquee had been yarn bombed.

Beneath it, her best friend and neighbor, Cate, stood looking miserable in a matching hat and scarf and gloves the color of Christmas trees. Her gloved hands flailed about nervously.

“I didn’t know,” she was saying into the cold air, her breath coming out in puffs. “I’m sorry!”

Ava had come to hate those words. I’m sorry. How many times had she heard them in the past year? A thousand? Ten thousand? What had her kids thought was the biggest number when they were young? A gazillion. That was right. A gazillion. Had she heard I’m sorry a gazillion times?

Cate was moving toward her now. But Ava stayed put, as if she were stuck in place. Unlike Cate, she had forgotten gloves and a hat, and she was cold. Really cold. She was always forgetting things these days. She’d go to the bank without her debit card. Walk out to her car without her keys. Find herself at the grocery store without any idea what she’d come for.

“I’m sorry,” Cate said again, standing right in front of Ava and clutching Ava’s cold bare hands in her warm gloved ones. “If I’d known,” she began, but didn’t finish because she didn’t have to. It was clear what she meant. If she’d known the PPAC marquee had been yarn bombed, she would have had them meet somewhere else. But she hadn’t known and here they were.

“It’s all right,” Ava said, even though it was anything but all right.

Ava was looking up at the marquee again. The stitches were so perfect, the colors so vivid against the gray afternoon, those cables twisting defiantly upward.

“Why don’t they arrest her?” Cate said, turning to look.

A small crowd was forming, everyone staring at the marquee. Everyone amused, impressed. Impressed by what? The woman’s audacity? Ava had seen that firsthand and was anything but impressed. By her talent? Even Ava had to admit that it must be hard, seemingly impossible, to knit such huge objects. And to knit them so well. But was that really impressive? Curing cancer was impressive. Scoring a ten in the Olympics was impressive. Making a soufflé that didn’t fall. Saving people from a sinking ship. Even getting 800s on your SATs was impressive. But this? This was ridiculous.

Cate had Ava by the elbow, and was leading her back in the direction from which she’d come.

“I had no idea,” Cate kept saying.

“It’s okay,” Ava said, even though nothing had really been okay since the day Jim left her. Left her for that yarn bomber, Ava added silently as she glanced back over her shoulder where the flashes of dozens of cameras looked like something hopeful—fireflies or shooting stars.

Cate smiled and said, “I’ve heard this place down here has good martinis. Pomegranate, maybe?”

“Uh huh,” Ava said.

“I’m going to try one,” Cate said, opening the door of a bar.

Inside it was dim and noisy and crowded.

“Cozy,” Cate said cheerfully.

Ava followed her friend, watching her sturdy back and broad shoulders. Even in winter, Cate woke early every day and went to the Y to swim. She was a bike rider, a touch football player, someone always ready to pick up a racket or throw a ball. Since Jim had moved out, Cate had convinced Ava to join her at the pool or a yoga class. But Ava had never been good at things like that. When she and Jim went to the beach, they lolled together on striped chaise lounges instead of riding the waves. Or walked slowly along the shore at low tide searching for shells and sea glass, which still filled various bowls and vases around the house.

Remembering these things—the coconut smell of sunscreen and the feel of her hand in Jim’s large warm one—sent a sharp stab of pain through her as Ava squeezed in at the crowded bar.

Cate was trying to get the bartender’s attention. “So crowded,” she murmured, and Ava agreed, looking around at the tattooed and pierced people.

How had she and Jim got from there to here? Ava thought. She pictured him bending to pick up a sand dollar, intact but fragile. He’d held it out to her in the palm of his hand. “See the star in the center?” he told her. “That’s the star that led the Wise Men to the manger. And the holes represent the nails on the Cross.” Gently, he turned it over. “On this side, there’s a poinsettia.” She’d stood on tiptoe to kiss him on the lips. “My own personal encyclopedia,” she’d said. And he was. Or had been, she corrected herself. A lover of arcane information and strange facts that she never tired of hearing. That sand dollar crumbled when she picked it up at home later that day, Ava remembered, as if it were an omen of what was to come just a few months later when, one night, unable to sleep, Ava wandered downstairs and found a text message blinking on her husband’s cell phone: Miss u babe.

She’d stared at it, struggling to make sense of what she saw. The use of u instead of you, the word babe, all of it confusing and mysterious, until she went upstairs to the man she’d thought she could trust, whose trust she had never even doubted, and shook him awake, and waved his cellphone in his sleepy face, and screamed for an explanation. And then came the awful explanation—“I love her. I’m in love with her.” Even that terrible night she had heard herself saying, “We can get through this. We can fix this.” But Jim, all bedhead and sleepy eyes, shook his head slowly and said, “I think I want to be with her,” as if he had just discovered something too.

Cate was nudging her gently now, the bartender looming impatiently in front of Ava.

She ordered a Grey Goose martini, up, with a twist.

“I’ll try the pomegranate one,” Cate told the bartender. “Frozen,” she added.

That was the special holiday cocktail. Ava saw it handwritten in red chalk on a board above the bar: FROZEN POMEGRANATE MARTINI!!!!!

It arrived, all slushy and pink, garnished with cranberries on a bamboo skewer. Cate lifted her drink and clinked her glass against Ava’s.

“Here’s to tonight,” Cate said.

“Yes!” Ava said, clinking her glass to Cate’s.

Ever since Cate had announced to Ava that Paula Merino was moving to Cleveland and a spot had opened in the book group Cate ran at the library, Ava had been looking forward to this night. Due to space at the library and a desire to keep the group at just ten members so that everyone had a chance to choose a book selection and have a voice in the discussion, getting a spot was difficult. For over twenty years Ava had listened to Cate describe the book group and how special it was. They went to one another’s weddings and brought casseroles when someone lost a loved one and threw baby showers. From time to time, if someone moved away or dropped out—which was rare—Cate asked Ava if she’d like to join. But Ava had never felt the need. Until Jim left.

In fact, Ava had been the one to ask Cate—beg, practically—that if anyone dropped out, could she please, please take that spot. She’d tried not to sound desperate, though of course she was. Desperate for company, desperate for conversation, for a way to pass the empty hours that had appeared suddenly when Jim moved out. She was surprised by how much she longed for company. No, she thought as she sipped her drink. Not just for company, but for something more, a deeper connection to people. How easily she’d come to rely on Jim for that. And how woefully she longed for it with others now.

Years ago, before her little sister Lily and her mother died within a year, books had been Ava’s refuge. “There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book,” her mother used to quote when she’d discover Ava lost in Narnia or on the prairie or at the March household. She would say it with pride. It was the one thing Ava had that Lily didn’t. Lily had the lovely blonde blue-eyed looks of their mother, the kind of sweet temperament and charm that made people stop in the street to admire her. But Ava, with her unruly brown hair and blue spectacles, her tendency toward pouting and sarcasm and a generally sour personality, only pleased her mother by being a voracious reader.

There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book. Who said that? Ava wondered. Her mother had been gone long enough now for Ava to have forgotten its source.

“We’ve changed over the years,” Cate was saying. “It used to be all young mothers, desperate to talk about something other than potty training and temper tantrums. We’d meet in the afternoon, during naptime. Then we went through a phase of meeting at each other’s houses in the evening, and cooking food that was in the books. It’s evolved nicely, I think. I still try to make the snacks fit with the books we read. And sometimes I dress from the time period of the novel, just for fun. It’s really a good mix of people of different ages now.” Cate smiled at Ava and added, “You’re going to love everyone. You’ll see.”

Ava wasn’t worried about that. She worried the group wasn’t going to love her. She was not a group person. Had never been. She was thrown out of Girl Scouts when she was ten because she couldn’t make a curler bag out of a Clorox bottle and therefore earn the sewing merit badge. Lily, a year younger, filled her green sash with merit badge after merit badge, for sewing and cooking and botany. She’d even received a special one for selling more cookies than anyone else in New England. When Ava refused to go to the award ceremony, the Girl Scout leader, Mrs. V, had told her she was a bad sport and that Girl Scouts were good sports, easy to work with, and cheerful. Like Lily. “You possess none of these traits, Ava,” Mrs. V had said. If Mrs. V could see her now, she would feel vindicated. I told you so, Ava!

A string of lights twinkled across the mirror, alternating pineapples and palm trees blinking back at her. Above the bar a small television played silently, and a familiar face came on the screen. Ava recognized everything: the PPAC marquee covered in red and green cable knit yarn; Hayley Morrow, the News Team 10 anchor, shivering in a too thin pink coat, wearing the wrong color lipstick for her pale skin; and beside her, in full color, a woman with her hair in a messy tumble down her shoulders, wrapped in a fake leopard coat and over-the-knee boots, her kohl-lined eyes smirking at the camera through her oversized thick black librarian glasses. Her name flashed across the screen, but Ava didn’t need to read it. She knew exactly who she was looking at. DELIA LINDSTROM, YARN BOMBER. Husband stealer, Ava added silently.

“Oh, sweetie,” Cate said. “Don’t look. In fact, let’s just leave. Okay? What do you say?” She motioned to the bartender, writing with an invisible pen in the air.

But Ava couldn’t stop looking. Because there, right behind Delia Lindstrom, Yarn Bomber, stood her husband—her soon-to-be ex-husband—Jim, grinning like the idiot he was. Proud of his yarn bombing, home-wrecking girlfriend. He even had his hand on her shoulder. Possessively, Ava thought with a sickening feeling. And that hand was in a leather glove that she had given him last Christmas, when Ava was blissfully ignorant, and happy.

“Check? Please?” Cate was saying desperately.

Or if not exactly happy, happier, Ava amended. Was it possible to be really happy after so many years together?

“Bartender!” Cate shouted.

Ava finished her martini in one swig. Then she rested her forehead on the brass railing of the bar, and cried.

The Athenaeum in Providence had sat perched high on Benefit Street since 1838. These days it overlooked the comings and goings of Brown and RISD students, lawyers and criminals at the courthouse across the street, museum docents, hipster fathers escorting kids dressed in leather or tulle, harried mothers pushing double strollers, and the eclectic array of filmmakers, artists, writers, and professors who populated the neighborhood. Below, colonial Providence with its lopsided eighteenth-century houses painted in the blues and reds and yellows of that era; above, the grand Victorians of the city’s industrialists and bank presidents. The street was all cobblestones and bricks and faux gas streetlamps.

Ava followed Cate into the library’s side entrance, across from the Hope Club, one of the two private clubs on Benefit Street. Cars for an event there crowded the streets. As they sidestepped BMWs and Mercedes and the occasional Porsche, Ava vowed silently to be good-natured, amiable, positive. She would not drink too much wine, another vice she’d acquired post-Jim. She would make friends, or at least not offend anyone.

“O-kay,” Cate said, shifting from best friend role to head librarian. She opened the door into the room where the book group met, and said, pleased, “It looks like everyone is here!”

Cate’s assistant, Emma, pierced and plump, with colorful tattoos of scenes from Winnie the Pooh blazoned across her arms and chest and back, hurried to Cate. Every time Ava saw Emma, the girl had a different color hair. Tonight: an ice blue that brought to mind fjords and icebergs. Despite the cold—they were calling this frigid weather the polar vortex, a new weather term that Ava and Jim would have delighted over; they had shared a love for all things meteorological—Emma had on a black tank top, maybe to show off those tattoos. Or her large, soft breasts that seemed about to tumble out.

“Hi Ava,” Emma said. “How are you?”

Before Ava could answer, Emma had already turned her attention away from Ava and back to Cate, talking in her flat tone about the wine and cheese laid out on the white linen tablecloth with the Christmassy centerpiece—holly, red berries, red and white flowers, lots of greenery.

The book group ladies were at that table, plastic glasses of wine in their hands, munching on Camembert and grapes.

Relax, Ava told herself. She took a deep breath and went to join them.

As soon as Ava got a glass of wine, a slender, ancient blonde in a beige Chanel suit came up to her and said, “Are you the one taking Paula’s spot? Cate’s friend?”

“I am,” Ava said.

“Glad to have you. I’m Penny Frost, the grande dame here. Which just means I’m older than everyone else.”

Penny shook Ava’s hand, surprising her with its firm grip.

“I’m Ava—” Ava began.

“Ava! You’re Maggie’s mom, aren’t you?” a young woman exclaimed. “I’m Honor! Honor Platt? I used to babysit for Maggie and Will, remember?”

A vague image from a decade ago of a serious Brown student toting an impossibly large backpack floated across Ava’s mind.

“Honor,” Ava said. “How are you? It’s been—”

Honor interrupted again. “Maggie was like seven or eight? And Will was maybe eleven? I always liked coming to your house,” she added softly.

“You did?” Ava said, feeling that ache of loss creeping in. Damn you, Jim. See? People liked us. They liked coming into our home.

“There was always good food in the fridge and you guys were so fun. You and Mr. Tucker.” Honor smiled as if remembering. “Will was the sweetest boy. And Maggie?.?.?. well, let’s just say she kept me on my toes.”

“Honor Platt,” Ava said softly. In college, Honor had worn baggy jeans and loose sweatshirts, her hair tied up in a ponytail. She’d played Ultimate Frisbee, and taught Will and Maggie how to throw a Frisbee in a perfect arc. But here she was, a grown woman with soft auburn hair grazing her collarbone and a small blue stone glistening on her left nostril.

“How are they?” Honor said, grinning. “Maggie and Will?”

“Great, great,” Ava said, trying to ignore the feeling of worry that always accompanied that question. No, she told herself, they were great. Or at least Will was. Maggie—Ava pushed away the doubt that kept threatening to take over. Maggie was fine, she reminded herself, or they wouldn’t have sent her to Florence for this school year.

“Grown up,” she added.

“I can’t believe it,” Honor said. “Maggie’s almost as old as I was when I babysat her.”

Ava nodded and sipped her wine, trying not to let concern about her daughter intrude, which was difficult considering how many times she’d let herself believe that her troubled child was finally on track, only to get surprised or disappointed. This time Maggie was on track. Finally. Blessedly.

“What are you doing these days?” Ava asked, happy to change the subject.

“I’m teaching at Brown now. English department. Women’s studies. Tenure track.”

“What? That’s impressive.”

“I’m so glad you joined the book group,” Honor said. “When I moved back here after grad school, it was a godsend. A way to connect with people, and get out of my apartment and away from my thesis.”

She gave Ava’s arm a quick squeeze before moving away from her.

“It’s going to be hard to fill Paula’s shoes,” Penny said.

Ava had forgotten Penny was still standing there.

“Last year our theme was ‘The Classics,’ and Paula’s pick was Remembrance of Things Past. Can you believe that?”

Ah, Proust, Ava thought, remembering that he was the writer whose words her mother had repeated. There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book. She considered reciting the quote to the woman staring up at her to prove herself worthy to be here, in Paula’s shoes.

“I think she’s the only one who read it,” the woman continued. “All three volumes.”

Suddenly, this book group sounded like more than Ava was up for. Three volumes of Proust?

“Yikes,” Ava said.

“You know what I say?” Penny said. “Mark Twain claims a classic is a book people have heard of but never read. Well then, Mr. Mark Twain, you’ve never met Paula Merino.”

Ava attempted a laugh, but it came out as more of a grunt.

Had she even forgotten how to laugh? Ava chastised herself. That did it. She would finish her wine and then apologize to Cate, to all of them, and go home. She thought almost longingly of her new sheets, pink flowered ones. The kind a single woman would have. That’s what she’d thought when she bought them. When Jim moved out, she’d thrown out the pewter ones that had covered their marital bed. Marital bed! She sounded positively Victorian. It was Jim who liked serious linens, pewter and charcoal and taupe. If he knew she’d stuffed the sheets in the trash instead of donating them to Travelers Aid or some other worthy cause, he’d be furious. He was the kind of person who actually went through their garbage and rescued stale bread—“What about the birds?”—and broken appliances—“What about the tech school?”—and scraps of cardboard—“What about recycling, Ava?” She used to find it endearing, this need of his to make the planet a better place. When the children were little they’d all four go off armed with buckets and clean up the little beach on the bay or the rundown park on the corner. And Ava had to admit that it had felt good, her small family doing these small things together. But then his good deeds got larger and more time-consuming, and Ava often felt left behind.

Ava lifted the plastic glass—it really was tiny, wasn’t it?—and discovered it was already empty. One more, she thought as she refilled it again, and then home to my own bed. Just as quickly as that thought came to her, she refuted it. The last thing she needed was to be in bed, alone. No, goddamn it. She’d begged to be here. She was desperate for it. Even the smell of books that permeated the room felt familiar and comforting. And all these faces, looking open and ready for something. She needed most of all, the comfort of people who wanted nothing more than to sit together and talk about books.

Cate was asking everyone to find a seat, reminding them that there would be a chance to socialize after the meeting. Her eyes landed on Ava, and Cate looked so pleased that Ava was here that Ava had no choice but to smile back at her, shove a cracker with a slab of Havarti on it into her mouth, and take a seat.

“Welcome,” Penny said, and she patted Ava’s arm with her liver--spotted hand.

To her surprise, Ava saw that there were two men in the group. One had on a flannel shirt and one of those porkpie hats every man under thirty wore these days. He also had long sideburns, something Ava hadn’t seen since her college days. The other was older, Ava’s age, wearing a lime green fleece vest and worn Topsiders without socks despite the winter weather. His hair was blond turning to gray, and he had an aging boyish face that had probably melted hearts once. He sat twirling the wedding band on his ring finger, looking down at it, then away.

Ava sighed and ate her Havarti, a cheese she’d always thought tasted like absolutely nothing.

“We’d like to welcome two new members to our group,” Cate was saying. “John and Ava.”

Heads seemed to swivel in unison to look at them.

“John?” Cate said. “Do you want to tell us a little about yourself?”

The man in the lime green fleece vest shot to his feet, like he’d been called on in school.

“Sure, sure,” he said, and he really did sound affable, like a nice guy. “I live in that building that used to be a school? Over on John Street?” He smiled ruefully. “Moved there just a couple of months ago, from East Greenwich. See?.?.?. uh?.?.?. well, my wife died last year and I’m trying to get out more, you know. Try new things. Meet new people.”

Everyone nodded sympathetically.

“So here I am,” he said with a laugh. “Nervous,” he added, and sat down.

“We are so happy to have you here,” Cate said in her super nice person voice. “Ava?”

“What?” Ava said, caught off guard.

“Can you tell us a little about yourself?” Cate prompted.

Ava stood because John had, sending her small paper plate onto the floor. She felt a slight whoosh of nervousness in her stomach.

“Well, so, I’m Cate’s friend Ava and Cate is one of those friends, a true friend, a real friend. I mean, my life has fallen apart and Cate?.?.?. Cate?.?.?.” Ava felt herself struggling to hold back tears. Her humiliation at being left by her husband loomed enormous.

Someone cleared her throat. Ava took a breath, told herself to move along, pull it together.

“And Paula moved to Cincinnati—” she began.

“Cleveland,” someone corrected.

“Cleveland,” Ava said. Come on, she told herself, you know how to do this. “So here I am, in an effort to move on. Try new things. Meet new people.”

Wait. Wasn’t that exactly what John had said?

“Like John,” she added.

John looked up, surprised.

Ava laughed, nervously.

“I don’t mean I’m here to meet John, though I’m happy to meet him. I mean you,” she said, shooting a smile in his direction. John went back to staring at his lap.

Ava took another breath. She talked to her students all the time, standing in front of the classroom, confident and in charge. Why was she so nervous here?

“I love to read,” Ava continued. “Or at least, I used to. I mean, my mother and my aunt owned a bookstore. Orlando’s? On Thayer Street?”

Not one flicker of recognition passed over anyone’s face. Why should it? Orlando’s had been gone for over forty years.

Ava took another breath and continued, “And my mother even used to write. She had a couple stories in Redbook back in the early seventies. Domestic stories, nothing very literary, but still.”

She searched for where she was going with this. Why had she brought up her mother? Cate looked somewhat horrified, and the guy in the porkpie hat was smirking at her.

“I love to read,” Ava said again, weakly.

“Well, good!” Cate said. “Because this is a book group!”

Everyone, thankfully, turned their attention back to Cate. The guy in the hat smiled at Ava, but it seemed like a smile of pity, a you poor thing smile. She decided she hated him.

“Here we are,” Cate said, “at our December meeting, which is the one in which we choose our reading list for next year. John and Ava—”

She frowned. “Ava, you can sit down now,” she said in her schoolmarm voice.

Ava hadn’t even realized she was still standing. She sat quickly, kicking over her plastic glass. Luckily, it was empty.

“Anyway,” Cate said, taking a calming breath like they did in yoga, another activity she forced Ava to do with her. Yoga will help you feel better, she’d promised, but it didn’t. “John and Ava, I gave you both next year’s theme?.?.?.”

She had? Ava tried to remember a theme, or even a conversation about a theme. But all she could remember were her own persistent inquiries about joining the group. Couldn’t Cate bend the membership limit just this once? she’d kept asking, and Cate would patiently explain how too big a group prevented everyone from getting to choose a book, and that the room wasn’t big enough to accommodate more people, and this way all the members had ample time to contribute their thoughts. When she got the email from Cate with the subject line A spot has opened in the book group!, she’d felt such relief and gratitude that it was possible she never actually read the entire email.

Honor turned in her seat in the row in front of Ava.

“You okay?” Honor whispered. “You’re kind of flushed.” She swept her hands over her own cheeks as if Ava didn’t understand the word “flushed.”

“I’m fine,” Ava said. “Thanks.”

Honor shrugged and turned back around. She had on layers and layers of clothes. An enormous, vaguely ethnic scarf, several blouses, and lots of bracelets.

“I have to say,” Cate said, “I love next year’s theme.”

Her cheeks were flushed too, Ava saw, either from a hot flash or real excitement about next year’s theme.

“Of course I loved reading the classics last year,” she continued. “The Odyssey and Canterbury Tales and even Proust.”

She paused so that everyone could nod and smile and laugh a little.

“God bless Paula,” Penny said.

Cate continued. “And the year before, most of you were here then, I loved reading nineteenth-century American literature, all that Twain and Poe. But this year’s theme really allows us to reveal something about ourselves, to learn more about each other, doesn’t it? It’s more personal, and I like that.”

Again, she waited for everyone to agree with her. Ava eyed the wine and cheese table. Tattooed, ice-blue-haired Emma was standing guard over it, but surely she wouldn’t stop Ava from getting a little more wine, would she? As if she’d read her mind, Emma frowned at her.

“Just a reminder,” Cate was saying, “and I think I emailed this to Ava and John too, but we take August off. And we don’t read a book for our December meeting. That’s when we choose the books, like we’re doing tonight.”

Ava walked as quietly as she could over to the table. Cate was saying they had to choose ten books for next year, and that she didn’t choose one but she did read all the books—even Proust!—and led the discussions.

Ava remembered she’d knocked over her glass and it was somewhere under her seat, so she took a fresh one and reached for the red wine.

Emma whispered, “I’ll get it,” and picked up the bottle and poured. Her arm was close enough that Ava could see on her tattoo the lines around Tigger’s feet indicating he was jumping.

“Thanks,” Ava said.

She sensed someone behind her and looked up to see Mr. Porkpie Hat also getting more wine. He had one of those ridiculous short goatees running from his bottom lip to his chin. He smiled, showing beautiful teeth. She didn’t smile back, but returned to her seat, noisily crushing her dropped cup under her boot as she did. Someone sighed.

“Our theme, of course, is ‘The Book That Matters Most,’” Cate said happily, and the group applauded. “Everyone chooses a book that mattered the most to you in your life and each month we read that one book. John? Ava? I thought you two could go last, if that’s okay?”

Ava straightened. That’s what she was supposed to do? Choose a book? Not any book, but the book that mattered the most to her? She couldn’t even remember the last book she’d read that mattered at all. In fact, she purposely chose books that didn’t matter. In summer she enjoyed sitting on the beach with a paperback while Jim worked his way steadily though Robert Caro’s thick biographies of LBJ. But those paperbacks she read—mysteries and travel stories and novels with banal, forgettable plots—did not stay with her. She’d plucked a few off the shelf at this very library, read them, and forgot about them. They didn’t matter.

Around her, everyone was taking pens out of their pockets or purses and opening those expensive Moleskine notebooks. Was that another thing she had missed? Bring a Moleskine notebook and the book that matters most to you? She thought of when Maggie and Will were young and she made a trip every September to buy their school supplies, the lists long and detailed, requiring three ring binders of various sizes, and all kinds of pens and markers and pencils. She missed the rituals of her young family, of slicing cucumbers and carrots, checking homework, folding the warm laundry, making hospital corners on the beds—all of it. And for the tenth or hundredth or thousandth time that day she thought, Damn you, Jim.

Sounds of everyone settling in and Cate’s voice announcing yet something else brought Ava back to attention. Who knew book groups were so complicated? Cate had a big bronze urn that reminded Ava of the kind that held a dead person’s ashes.

Cate stuck her hand inside, pulled out a folded piece of paper, and grinned.

“Penny,” she said, “you get to choose our January book.”

The elderly blonde in the Chanel suit stood.

“As many of you know, I was Radcliffe, class of ’47,” Penny said proudly. “And while there I fell in love with a certain Miss Jane Austen. I read her novels in order, Sense and Sensibility first, which was published in 1811, then?.?.?.”

Ava couldn’t concentrate on what Penny was saying. All she could think about was that she had one month to read a Jane Austen novel. To date, she’d never read even one.

“Which of her novels is the book that matters most to you, Penny?” Cate was asking.

“The book which the contemporary writer Anna Quindlen said is the first great novel to teach us that the search for self is as surely undertaken while making small talk in the drawing room as it is while pursuing a great white whale.”

As Penny paused for dramatic effect, Ava watched several people, including Mr. Porkpie Hat, writing down the quote by Anna Quindlen. To her relief, John looked confused.

Penny announced, “Pride and Prejudice.”

A few people clapped and at least one murmured with delight. Not having a Moleskine notebook, Ava scribbled the title on the palm of her hand.

Cate reached into the urn and pulled out the next name.

“Luke, you’ve got February.”

Mr. Porkpie Hat stood and faced the group.

“The Great American Novel,” he said matter-of-factly. “The Great Gatsby.”

He seemed to say it directly to Ava, who immediately looked down and wrote the title on her palm. Someone tapped her on the shoulder and thrust a piece of paper at her. Emma. Ava mouthed a thank you, but Emma was too busy awaiting the next name to notice.

“March,” Cate said. “What book matters the most to you, Diana?”

A woman about Ava’s age stood. She looked vaguely familiar. Dressed in black cigarette pants and an oversized black turtleneck sweater, she had dramatically lined eyes and dark red lipstick. On her head she wore a brightly colored scarf, tied with a big knot in front. Ava could see that Diana was bald beneath the scarf, and she remembered Cate telling her that someone in the book group had breast cancer. They were taking turns bringing her to chemo, Cate had said.

In a deep smooth voice, Diana said, “I asked Cate if I could choose a play. Something by Shakespeare. He is, after all, the writer who matters most to me. But she said no, it had to be a novel. So the book that matters most to me has to be Anna Karenina.”

At this point, John looked terrified.

“You were a magnificent Anna,” Penny said.

Diana took a dramatic bow, reminding Ava where she’d seen her. Diana was one of the actresses at the local repertory theater. For years Jim and Ava had had a subscription, never missing a play. They’d enjoyed those Friday nights, often with Cate and her husband, Gray. Why had they stopped? Ava wondered. When had they stopped?

Cate was already onto April, calling out the name Ruth.

As soon as Ruth stood, Ava recognized her. She was a mother from Maggie’s elementary school, one of the ones always in charge of things. Ruth had seemed to be a fixture in the classroom, helping the kids with projects, assisting with school plays, monitoring the lunchroom. Ava could picture her happily running off copies at the printer, checklists and reminders and permission slips and programs. Once, when the music teacher got food poisoning, Ruth even played the piano in her place at the holiday concert.

“I know it’s a fat one,” Ruth said, “but the book that matters most to me is One Hundred Years of Solitude. Sorry,” she added playfully. She still had the same soft round body, cheerful face, and neat blond bob that Ava remembered. In her corduroy jumper and clogs, she looked just like a sitcom mom. In fact, Ava thought, Ruth had four kids. Or was it five?

“No, no, that’s a wonderful book,” Cate assured her.

“Very interesting,” a woman said, nodding with approval. “I actually met Márquez once, when I was in Chile.” She pronounced it Chee-lay.

“I want your life, Jen,” Ruth said with a sigh. She laughed and pointed at Jen, who had long straight brown hair and a long serious face with a strong jaw and sharp cheekbones. “And don’t say you want my life! No one wants all these kids I have.”

Turning to Ava, Honor said, “She actually made a quilt by hand for each one of them, while she was pregnant.”

“Oh, I know. I only had to get two kids to school on time,” Ava said, “and I would get there right before the bell rang to find Ruth on her way out already, all five of her kids delivered to their classrooms. Early.”

“Guilty as charged,” Ruth said.

“I guess you haven’t seen Ruth in a while,” Jen said. “She actually has six kids now.”

Ruth nodded. “Cameron. Our oops. He’s almost eight.”

“God bless you,” Penny said, shaking her head. “Three was more than enough for me.”

Cate reached into the urn and picked the name for May. “Honor?”

Honor stood and said, “This took me a very long time. Should I choose the book that made me fall in love with reading, and led me to my life’s work? Should I choose the book that challenged me to think the most?”

Silently Ava prayed that Honor did not choose that one.

“Ultimately, though, one book truly is the one that matters most to me. Thank you, Cate, for giving us this theme. It’s been a difficult but enormously rewarding exercise.” Her eyes sparkled, and her hands fluttered over her heart.

“To Kill a Mockingbird,” Honor said.

“I’ve read that one!” Ava blurted in surprise.

John shouted, “So have I!”

“You have to reread it,” Cate teased them.

She reached into the urn and selected the name for June.

“Monique,” she announced. “And welcome back, by the way.”

“One of our original group,” Penny explained to Ava. “But she got married and moved to France—”

“I know her,” Ava said as Monique got to her feet. Her once jet-black hair was now salt-and-pepper, but she still wore it in the same asymmetrical haircut, and her low-cut silky blouse revealed the impressive cleavage she’d boasted years ago. “She taught French with me.” One of the best and worst things about Providence was that it was impossible not to run into people you knew.

Without any fanfare, Monique said, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the book that mattered most to me,” and sat back down.

The next name Cate called was Kiki.

Kiki looked young, maybe the same age as Ava’s son Will, who was twenty-three. She reminded Ava of Ava’s students, which gave Ava a soft spot for her immediately.

Kiki chose Catcher in the Rye, another novel Ava had read years ago. Maybe this wasn’t going to be impossible after all.

Jennifer, who had met Márquez in Chee-lay, had the September book.

“When I was in the Peace Corps in Guatemala,” she began, “there were, of course, limited books available.”

Jim had been in the Peace Corps too, in Honduras, long before Ava ever met him. He still returned once a year with school supplies or eyeglasses, flying into San Pedro Sula and then driving hours on unpaved roads to the neediest villages. He came back with photographs of grinning children, newly planted avocado trees, chickens in newly built chicken coops. Sitting here now, Ava wondered if she should have accompanied him. Would that have made a difference? Would Delia Lindstrom go to Honduras with him and yarn bomb the avocado trees?

“There was one book that I read over and over,” Jennifer was saying, “and that book was The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.”

“I love that book,” Kiki said.

Luke nodded. “Good choice.”

“And that brings us to our newcomers,” Cate said. “John?”

John got awkwardly to his feet, rocking slightly in his Topsiders.

“My wife was the reader in our family,” John said. “So this was kind of hard. But one book does matter to me. A lot. Slaughterhouse-Five? By Kurt Vonnegut?”

“That’s a wonderful choice, John,” Cate said.

“Good one, man,” Luke said.

“I’ve never read Mr. Vonnegut,” Penny said as she carefully wrote the title in her notebook. “It’s about time I did.”

As soon as John sat down, Cate said gently, “Ava?”

“Last but not least,” Ava said, stalling.

She felt everyone’s eyes on her. She did not have a book that mattered to her, she thought, suddenly having to fight back tears. Her life mattered to her, her heartache, her losses, piling up with resounding thuds.

Then she heard herself say, “From Clare to Here.”

She hadn’t thought about that book since the summer after Lily died, when Ava read it over and over again, as if it had been written just for her. Someone had delivered it to their house, Ava remembered now, shortly after the first anniversary of Lily’s death and just two weeks after her mother left them to jump off the Jamestown Bridge. A woman drove up in a big black Cadillac and handed the book to Ava. “This is for you,” she’d said.

“Isn’t ‘From Clare to Here’ a song?” Kiki asked Ava, who was grateful to stop the onslaught of memories threatening to be released.

“Nancy Griffith sings it, doesn’t she?” Honor asked. “‘From Clare to Here’?”

“A lot of people have recorded it,” Ava said, the song reverberating in her mind. It almost breaks my heart when I think of my family?.?.?.

Ava swallowed hard, thinking of Jim and the family she’d lost this year. And thinking too of those other long-ago losses—her sister and mother—that still sat like rocks in her gut.

“But there was a book with the same title,” she said softly. “By Rosalind Arden. That’s the one,” she said, her voice stronger now. “That’s the book that matters most to me.” view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. Do you have a " book that matters most" to you? What is it, and why does/did it matter to you?

2. How does the varying ages of the members of the book club affect the different perspectives in the club's monthly discussions? Does having both male and female change the dynamic of a book club and how.

3. How do you think Ava and Maggie's search for purpose and joy are alike and different?

4. Ava & Maggie's relationship was so complicated and complex. Why?

5. By giving us an ending without loose ends what is the author saying to us about the nature of grief and guilt? Is this the ending you would write for this story?

Suggested by Members

What is the book that matters most to you?
by [email protected] (see profile) 03/25/17

What are your books that matter most?
How is that list different than your favorite books?
by Littlepage (see profile) 03/13/17

What is the significance of the two primary cities where the story takes place-Providence and Paris?
Why did Charlotte fake a suicide? Was it to escape her past or self-punishment?
Did you think Maggie was going to make it, or was she too far gone?
by Ttundidor826 (see profile) 11/13/16

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

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  "Contrived"by Bonnie S. (see profile) 04/15/18

I had difficulty relating to the protagonist and her daughter.

 
by Jill M. (see profile) 03/05/18

 
  "Not for everyone"by Vivian T. (see profile) 03/01/18

I was excited to read a book about a book club as a book club read. The book club aspect of the book was, perhaps, the best part of the book for me. I found the portions dealing with drug addiction to... (read more)

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