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April 30, 2008

Jacqueline Winspear: The Ideal Book Club Read

Posted by carol
Our focus on crime fiction continues this week with Jacqueline Winspear, the author of the Maisie Dobbs series, who ruminates on the nature of book clubs --- and how one particular encounter she had with several reading group members illustrates the power of story. Jacqueline's novels featuring Maisie Dobbs, a Psychologist and Investigator in post-World War I London, are Maisie Dobbs, Birds of a Feather, Pardonable Lies, Messenger of Truth and, most recently, An Incomplete Revenge.

Since my first novel, Maisie Dobbs, was published in 2003, I have spoken to many book clubs, large and small, established and new --- in fact, I was recently at an event where a group of women had just met and decided over lunch to organize a book club and planned to start their new venture with the Maisie Dobbs series.

In his book The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg says that every person needs a "third place." What's a third place? Well, home is the first place, work is the second place, and the third place is "where everyone knows your name." Society once had lots of third places --- pubs, community centers, evening classes, sports halls, etc. --- but as the individual became all-important, so we thought we could lose the third place because we had everything we needed at home, from a bar to a movie. In the past few years we've seen people struggling to build community, that thing we once had but didn't need to think about. As I've traveled across the country on book tours and speaking engagements, I have come to see the book club as a great third place, even if the location is a different house each month.

It would seem that the ideal book club read is one that resonates on different levels, a book that inspires personal sharing of experiences, a dialogue about current events, or spirited conversation on an issue that moves people. Since people first began connecting through the myths and legends that still enchant us today, we have reached out to each other with our stories. A book club is a latter-day version of our ancestors around the crackling camp fire. As we discuss the characters, the plot, the language, the pace and our response to a chosen book, we celebrate our individuality, our diversity and the reflection of ourselves we see in each other.

A couple of years ago I was signing copies following a bookstore presentation on my series of novels, when I noticed three women waiting on the sidelines for everyone to leave. It was clear they wanted to talk to me alone. After the audience had left, I waved them over and we sat down around the table together and they unfolded their story. The women belonged to a local book club and did not know each other well when the group was formed. Each month they would meet in the house of one neighbor or another, and though there might be a little back and forth personal talk over a glass of wine, they would soon get down to talking about their chosen book of the month.

They wanted to tell me about the Maisie Dobbs discussion. As readers will know, a significant part of the main character's history is her experience as a nurse in the Great War, on the battlefields of northern France in 1916. As the discussion progressed, one of the women told the group that the book had impacted her deeply because she had been a nurse in Vietnam. She had never talked about what she had seen and experienced, and had never acknowledged the impact of wartime service on her life. Another woman began speaking, sharing the same experience, then another said, "I was also a nurse in Vietnam..." As the women reached out to each other, so they were held by the other members of their book club. Coming to that "third place" had changed their lives.

That is the power of story, and it also shows the possibility for connection within a book group, and the catalyst for deeper conversation inspired by a love of literature.

It bears saying that a mystery lends itself to book club discussion, not least because some of the best literary fiction today is mystery fiction. In the storytelling tradition, a mystery represents the archetypal journey through chaos to resolution --- or not, as the case may be. With that as a framework and a guide, a mystery is the perfect vehicle for literary insight into the experience of ordinary people in extraordinary times or situations, into the social challenges of our day, and into the fragile human condition itself. The mystery novel offers another lens through which to view history, and can help us make sense of the present --- a rich dish to serve along with that book club beverage of choice!

---Jacqueline Winspear