Category Archives: Online Book Club

LONGBOURN by Jo Baker

Longbourn by Jo Baker
The October EDIWTB online book club pick was Longbourn, by Jo Baker.  Longbourn is wisely aimed at two passionate audiences: Austen-philes eager to extend Pride and Prejudice through yet another companion novel, and Downton Abbey enthusiasts interested in what happens downstairs in old, grand English estates while the aristocracy fuss and dine and needlepoint upstairs. The main characters in Longbourn are not the Bennets, but the Bennets’ servants: Mr. and Mrs. Hill, Sarah, Polly and James. Sarah and Polly were orphans taken in as young girls by the Hills to help serve the Bennets, and James is a mysterious young man who shows up with little explanation and is hired as a footman. He develops feelings for Sarah, but has a painful past that he cannot escape, threatening their relationship as well as his security in the Bennet’s employ.

Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books of all time, but I am not an Austen freak. I haven’t read any of the MANY P&P sequels, and while I did see the Keira Knightley movie version (that kiss at the end!), I most recently skipped Austenland, the latest film loosely based on the book. To me, the original was so perfect that when I am in a P&P mood, I just re-read it, rather than trying to recreate the magic elsewhere.

That said, I loved Longbourn. It felt less like a companion book to P&P than a standalone novel that was merely punctuated by the key plot developments in the original Austen work. The Bennets were relegated to a minor status in Longbourn, allowing Sarah and Mrs. Hill in particular to carry the narrative weight. The story moved along beautifully after a somewhat slow start, and I had a hard time putting the book down.

Interestingly, the key dramas from P&P – Elizabeth’s ambivalence about Darcy, Bingley’s abandonment of Jane – are not touched on at all in Longbourn. Wickham and Lydia’s elopement is addressed, as is Mr. Collins’ thwarted pursuit of Elizabeth, but the Bennet plots are largely subverted in Longbourn, playing a distant second fiddle to Sarah’s romantic yearnings and Mrs. Hill’s quiet grief. This is a grittier, sadder book than P&P, as evidenced by Mrs. Hill’s conclusion in Chapter 8: “Life was, Mrs. Hill had come to understand, a trial by endurance, which everyone, eventually, failed.” This makes sense, given the differences in quality of life between the gentry and the servants. Though while the servants often yearned for the leisure and comforts of their employers, Mrs. Hill ultimately decided that “no matter how they got [to the end of their lives], after all, the end was all the same.”

The Bennets themselves really get taken down a notch in Longbourn. They are much less sympathetic here than in the original novel. Each of them comes across as self-absorbed to an extreme, giving hardly a thought to the private lives of servants they have known most of their lives. Not even our beloved Elizabeth escapes unscathed; she may be better than the others, but she is still pretty inconsiderate at times. We see a much more inhibited, insecure Elizabeth at the end of the book as she settles into life at Pemberley and tries to live up to the ideal of a man whose opinion she once regarded as prejudiced and pretentious. And Mr. Bennet, who is mostly just cranky and derisive of his wife in the original, is a much colder, self-interested man in Longbourn.

Baker clearly did her research; there is a lot of period detail in Longbourn and many historical touches that made life at Longbourn very vivid for her readers. I had to look up a lot of words, several of which didn’t even appear in the dictionary.

I could go on and on about Longbourn, and I think that I will enjoy it even more as I go over it in my mind in the weeks ahead. But I want to hear what EDIWTB book club participants thought of Longbourn. Did it affect your feelings about the original? Did you enjoy it as much as I did? Please leave your comments below.

And thank you to Knopf for facilitating this online book club!

Online Book Club is Back!

Hi EDIWTB readers!

Exciting news: after a long hiatus, I am reviving the EDIWTB online book club! This is how it works: I choose a book, and the first 15 EDIWTB readers who want to read it get a review copy from the publisher. Once the books go out, we get about 3 weeks to read it. Then, on a pre-selected day, I post a review of the book here on EDIWTB, and the conversation around the book continues in the comments section. That’s it! Very simple.

The October online book club selection is: Longbourn by Jo Parker. Here is a synopsis from Random House:

In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.


Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Jane Austen’s classic—into the often overlooked domain of the stern housekeeper and the starry-eyed kitchen maid, into the gritty daily particulars faced by the lower classes in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars—and, in doing so, creates a vivid, fascinating, fully realized world that is wholly her own.

I am a huge Pride and Prejudice fan, and while I haven’t given any of its other “sequels” a try, this one looked great. It was reviewed by Nicole of Linus’s Blanket in the awesome October edition of Bloggers Recommend (if you’re not already signed up for this monthly email newsletter, do so now!). Nicole says of Longbourn: “Clever, moving and insightful, Baker’s diverting narrative explores the dreams and working lives of the servants at Longbourn, the fictional estate of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Charming in its own right, it’s a must read for Austen fans.”

If you’re interested in participating in this online book club, send me an email to gweiswasser@gmail.com with the following:

Name

Address

Email address

 

No need to skip lines – just send it in a block that I can cut and paste. I will submit the first 15 names to Knopf for review copies.

Looking forward to resuming this tradition! Thank you to Knopf for facilitating the book club.

DOMESTIC VIOLETS by Matthew Norman

Domestic-violets The September-October EDIWTB online book club pick was Domestic Violets, by Matthew Norman. I picked this book in part because of the stellar reviews I had read of Domestic Violets around the blogosphere by people I trust (such as this one and this one). The synopsis sounded good too: Tom Violet, a corporate copywriter in his mid-thirties, is fighting crises on many levels. His wife may be having an affiar, while he himself is having inappropriate thoughts about a young female co-worker. His father, a famous novelist, has just won a Pulitzer, while Tom, himself a novelist, has a manuscript that he has only shared with a few people. And he hates his job.

Domestic Violets is funny and insightful. Norman lampoons corporate life, especially within companies that don't actually produce anything, other than "management services". He also nicely captures a moment in time – the dark ages of the late Bush administration and the financial collapse. The Obama administration is around the corner, with the hope and optimism it promised, but those days aren't here yet and people are intensely feeling the desperation and fear of economic instability.

Norman also did a nice job with describing Tom's marriage to his wife Anna, and what childraising and years of domesticity have done to their relationship. I enjoyed his dialogue and the details with which he infuses the scenes that took place in the Violets' Georgetown home.

I found Norman's depiction of Tom's father, Curtis, and their complicated relationship, to be less successful. Curtis verged on caricature, and the chapters that focused on him weakened the book for me. I expected something a little weightier, overall, and the scenes where Curtis was totally over the top (like when he sent Tom to pick up his clothes) alienated me. Those parts reminded me that Domestic Violets was a book, rather than allowing me to lose myself in the story.

I also had an issue with the ending and what it says about artistic intergrity. It seemed very unrealistic, and also pretty out of character. For a book that was otherwise so grounded in real life, the Curtis-Tom subplot stuck out to me as being pretty inconsistent and a bit hasty.

I expected to enjoy Domestic Violets more than I did, based on the reviews I read. It was enjoyable, and certainly funny in places, but I think it fell short in the end. It could have been something more. I seem to be in the minority on this one, though.

OK, EDIWTB readers, what did you think of Domestic Violets? Did it fall short for you or were you big fans? I can't wait to read your comments. Please post below!

And a special thank you, again, to Harper Perennial for facilitating the September/October book club!

 

September EDIWTB Online Book Club: DOMESTIC VIOLETS by Matthew Norman

I am excited to announce the September online book club pick: Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman. I have heard nothing but great things about this book. From Amazon:

Norman Tom Violet always thought that by the time he turned thirty-five, he’d have everything going for him. Fame. Fortune. A beautiful wife. A satisfying career as a successful novelist. A happy dog to greet him at the end of the day.

The reality, though, is far different. He’s got a wife, but their problems are bigger than he can even imagine. And he’s written a novel, but the manuscript he’s slaved over for years is currently hidden in his desk drawer while his father, an actual famous writer, just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His career, such that it is, involves mind-numbing corporate buzzwords, his pretentious archnemesis Gregory, and a hopeless, completely inappropriate crush on his favorite coworker. Oh… and his dog, according to the vet, is suffering from acute anxiety.

Tom’s life is crushing his soul, but he’s decided to do something about it. (Really.) Domestic Violets is the brilliant and beguiling story of a man finally taking control of his own happiness—even if it means making a complete idiot of himself along the way.

Swapna from S. Krishna’s Books says that Domestic Violets “blew me away. It was so witty, so heartfelt, and so achingly honest that I couldn’t help but love it from beginning to end.” Julie from Booking Mama said, “I didn’t just read this book, I devoured it. I honestly couldn’t put it down, and I was resentful of any event that got in the way of my reading.”

I’m really excited about this one. Thanks to HarperPerennial, I have room for 20 people to read it along with me. If you’re interested, send me an email at gweiswasser@gmail.com with the following (in this format):

name

address

address

email address

We’ll pick a date in late September or early October for a discussion here on EDIWTB.

Thanks, HarperPerennial!

July Book Club: SILVER SPARROW by Tayari Jones

The July EDIWTB book club selection was Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones.

Jones Silver Sparrow is about James Witherspoon, a bigamist living in Atlanta in the 80s. He has two families – the public, legitimate one – which consists of his wife Laverne and his daughter Chaurisse, and the secret, illegitmate family – "wife" Gwen and daughter Dana. Chaurisse and Dana are the same age and often travel in the same circles, even though James' public family is better off and enjoys more luxuries than his private one.

Dana narrates the first half of the book, and we come to understand her love for both of her parents, as well as her obsession with her half-sister, for she has known about Chaurisse since she was little. Dana is pretty and smart, but she always feels inferior, like an outsider. She and her mother often stalk Chaurisse and Laverne, just to see what their lives are like, what they look like, etc. The second half of the book is told from Chaurisse's perspective. She and her mother are unaware of Dana and Gwen's existence. All they know is the middle-class life they've lived as a family of three.

James' relationships with Gwen and Laverne are very different – one is built on passion, one is built on responsibility and devotion. Similarly, James is a different father with Dana than with Chaurisse. But this is really a story of four women looking for the same thing: to be cherished, to feel special, to belong. Those universal desires are what makes the story heartbreaking, and what makes each character compelling and worthy of empathy.

About 2/3 of the way through the book, Dana and Chaurisse's lives intersect, and the story builds to the inevitable collision that the reader has expected from the beginning. Jones' writing is deceptively simple – Silver Sparrow is a smooth, easy read, but not a light one. It is full of narrative tension that propels the reader through the emotional minefields – current and inevitable – that the bigamist's life necessarily creates.

All that said, I finished the book a few days ago, and surprisingly, it hasn't really stayed with me. It didn't have the longevity that I expected it would.

Overall, I am really glad I read Silver Sparrow. I think that the attention it has received is deserved, and I am glad that I got to experience it. I'd love to read more by Tayari Jones.

Thanks so much to Algonquin for facilitating the EDIWTB book club for Silver Sparrow. And now… let's hear from you! What did you think of Silver Sparrow?

June/July Online Book Club: SILVER SPARROW by Tayari Jones

I am excited to announce the June/July EDIWTB online book club. The selection is Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones. Here is what Politics & Prose has to say about Silver Sparrow (Jones is reading there tonight, but sadly I can't go):

Jones In her third novel, [Tayari Jones] chronicles the two families of a bigamist. James’s daughters are born four months apart and despite his best efforts to prevent it, meet and become friends. While they share a biological father, their material and emotional circumstances are strikingly different, and Jones skillfully contrasts their distinct coming-of-age stories.

Color Online says, "The strength of this story lies in the complexity and ease in which the relationships are drawn. Jones has a beautiful way with words… This is one of my favorite books of 2011."

Thank you to Algonquin for facilitating this online book club. If you'd like to participate, please send an email before Friday, June 3 to gweiswasser@gmail.com with this in the body:

name

address

address

email address

I will pick a book club date once the books go out from Algonquin. Many thanks again to Algonquin!

PICTURES OF YOU by Caroline Leavitt

Leavitt The February EDIWTB book club pick was Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt. Pictures of You explores how one fatal car accident changes the lives of two women escaping from their lives on Cape Cod. April, married to Charlie and mother to Sam, mysteriously parks her car going the wrong way on a Connecticut road in deep fog. Isabelle, wife to Luke, finds herself driving down that same road on the same foggy day, and slams into April's car. The sad aftermath of that accident has ramifications for Isabelle, Charlie and Sam, for the rest of their lives, which Leavitt explores sensitively and poignantly.

Leavitt is a master storyteller. I am a slooow reader, but I had a hard time putting this book down and read it much more quickly than I usually get through 300+ plus page books. There were key elements in the story which she didn't reveal until very late in the book – elements which significantly affected my feelings about one of the characters – and I loved that plot twist. I found Pictures of You to be unpredictable – it surprised me at several turns and made me want to keep reading.

I liked Leavitt's depiction of the different kinds of love we can experience – love for a child, love for a longterm spouse, love fueled by passion or grief, forbidden love, and platonic love. I think she did a nice job of differentiating the many relationships in the book and exploring their limits and intensity.

Some reviews have mentioned that there are supernatural elements to the story. I didn't see it that way. In fact, I liked that it was grounded in realism – the messy, imperfect realism that makes our lives go in directions we don't always choose. While Sam wants desperately to believe in angels when he is processing his mother's death, I don't think Leavitt meant to suggest that April was truly present, in any form. I have a very low tolerance level for fantasy or otherworldly plot points, and I wasn't bothered at all by Leavitt's story in that respect.

However, I did find some of the coincidences to be a too convenient. No one remarked on how unlikely it was that two women from the same small Cape Cod town would collide on a remote Connecticut street hours away. I had a hard time with Isabelle happening across a flyer for a photography course in New York City that was posted in her small-town bookstore. (Um, really?) And of course, Isabelle ends up falling for the guy who owns the restaurant she just happens to walk by on her way home from a New Year's Eve party. I know that Leavitt could have found away to construct this story without these contrivances, and it would have made for a more powerful book for me.

That said, I did truly enjoy reading Pictures of You. It kept me turning those pages and eagerly absorbing the storyline and Leavitt's memorable characters.

Thank you to Algonquin for supplying the books for the EDIWTB book club.

So, EDIWTB readers - what did you think?