What makes a great book club novel?

What makes a great book club novel?

Sad but true: great books don’t always make great book club novels.

When it comes to choosing a great book club novel, you don’t necessarily need an amazing book (although that doesn’t hurt). You need fodder for discussion.

I’ve read some book club books where everyone loved the novel. Great Expectations was one of them. (It’s a great book; you should think about reading it.) We went around the room saying things like “It was fabulous! Wonderful! I can’t believe I’ve never read Dickens before!”

And then the conversation was over.

What’s the fun in that?

Sometimes bad books—or at least seriously flawed ones—make for much better book club discussions. They may be far from greatness, but golly, is there a lot to talk about.

My list of favorite book club books is different from my list of favorite books. In book club, I want to unpack controversial books with odd characters and strange endings. I want to talk through books that are relatable, even if they’re not great literature. I want to muse about why the author made the choices she did, and discuss whether or not they worked.

In book club, I want to talk about books that frustrated me, the characters that shone and the ones that fell flat, the plot choices that were zany but believable and the ones that just felt off. I want to talk about the books I related to, the ones I could see myself in, and find out if I was the only one who saw it that way.

With those characteristics in mind, these are books I would love to discuss in book club. There are quite a few books here I didn’t actually like, but there’s plenty to talk about.

BOOKS THAT MESS WITH THE CLASSICS

Longbourn

Longbourn

Author:
Pride and Prejudice meets Downton Abbey: this is Austen's classic story, retold from the servant's perspective. You'll love it or you'll hate it. (But hey, polarizing books make for great discussion.) Book club discussion highlight: what Baker did with Mr. Wickham. (Shudder.) More info →
Death Comes to Pemberley

Death Comes to Pemberley

Author:
This mystery is set on the grounds of Pemberley, five years or so after the marriages of Darcy and Elizabeth, Bingley and Jane. The plot revolves around Wickham this time. Book club highlight: how James paints the Darcys marriage, 5 years later. More info →

BOOKS WITH MAGICAL REALISM

Peace Like a River

Peace Like a River

Author:
First off: I loved this book, even though the description didn’t sound particularly interesting to me. File under fathers and sons, tight-knit communities, and outlaws. Book club highlight: the miracles that happen in the novel, and that happen (or not) in our everyday lives. More info →
The Secret Place

The Secret Place

Author:
The setting: a private girls’ boarding girl. The mission: to pursue the latest clue in a case that’s gone cold. The themes: trust, friendship, and class warfare. (Warning: f-bombs galore, like all French’s books.) Book club highlight: the supernatural. Does it strengthen the plot or not? More info →

RELATABLE MODERN NOVELS

Everyone Is Beautiful

Everyone Is Beautiful

Woman has kids, woman pours herself into kids, woman feels like she’s lost herself because her life feels like it’s all about the kids. It’s a story we usually encounter in real life, not fiction. But not this time. Book club highlight: how Center does (or doesn’t) do justice to the stay-at-home mom. More info →
Lizzy & Jane

Lizzy & Jane

Author:
The title sisters are named after the heroines of Pride and Prejudice, but that’s where the similarities end. This modern novel adroitly covers books, breast cancer, fancy cookery, and sisterhood. Book club highlight: It’s a toss-up between the food and family relationships. More info →

BOOKS THAT GET CREATIVE WITH HISTORY

The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife

Author:
This is the fictionalized account of Hemingway’s first marriage to Hadley Richardson. The setting—mostly Jazz-Age Paris—is dreamy; the marriage, less so. We all know how this ends: badly. And yet, towards the end of his life Hemingway said, “I wished I had died before I loved anyone but her.” Book club highlight: Hemingway, that dirty dog. More info →
Zelda: a Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Zelda: a Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

An intimate look at the life Zelda Fitzgerald may have lived with Scott Fitzgerald and the rest of the Lost Generation. Though she’s often known as nothing more than Fitzgerald’s crazy wife (thanks largely to Hemingway), this fascinating and heartbreaking novel casts Zelda in a more sympathetic light. Book club highlight: what is truth, and what is fiction? More info →

BOOKS THAT DON’T RESOLVE

In the Woods

In the Woods

Author:
It’s no coincidence there are two Tana French books on this list: she writes a great book club novel. This is her first book in the Dublin Murder Squad, and it’s seriously disturbing. But if your book club can stomach it, you can talk about psychopaths and supernatural disturbances. Book club highlight: the ending. More info →
The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese

The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese

I have recommended this one in Books You'll Just Have to Talk To Someone About, What Makes a Great Book Club Novel, and other places. I picked this one up when Michael Pollan raved about it, saying it “embodied the spirit of slow food and life.” Paterniti had me from the words Zingerman’s Delicatessen. The story artfully weaves itself right into the heart of Catelonian Spain, but then it becomes muddled and confused. The reader can decide if this is weakness, or metaphor. Book club highlight: the ending. Is it altogether unsatisfying, or completely perfect? More info →

What books have prompted YOUR best book club discussions? What books would you love to discuss in book club? 

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54 comments

  1. Jeannie says:

    I’m part of a book club that’s been meeting for 19 years, so I could immediately relate to your title! In our group, we always have a leader (usually the person who wanted to do a certain book leads the discussion of that book); the leader prepares questions, and we trust that person to draw something interesting out of whatever book he or she has suggested we do. So I think even Great Ex could be a wonderful discussion if prepared for well. The “Let’s read a book and talk about it” approach won’t work so well in those cases. But I agree with all your points about what makes a good discussion about a book. Books we’ve found extremely fruitful for discussion: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (b/c of its controversial ending and its portrayal of religion), Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (relationships, the ending), Peace Like a River (YES!!), Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Achidie (themes of grace, freedom, family) … I could go on and on but there are a few!

  2. Emily says:

    I work in a church, so my mind actually first goes to Bible study. Much of the same holds true: the best discussions we have usually have a controversial or difficult text as the starting off point. When we read some of the “warm and fuzzy” passages in the Pauline Epistles, for instance, there’s little said beyond “I love that!” But the texts that disturb us and challenge us encourage us deeply to engage (e.g., the Genesis stories about God playing favorites, Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, understandings of gender roles in early church leadership). We feel more willing to explore and experiment, to try out interpretations and possibilities.

  3. Jamie says:

    I have never had much luck with book clubs, but I liked the premise of your list!

    I should think that anything by Barbara Kingsolver would do well to prompt wide ranging book club discussions, as there tend to be so many different angles to pursue and larger social issues woven in just on the edges to pick up on and tease out.

    One Second After would also be a powerful option. Again, lots of nuances for discussion and “what if”/”what would I have done” situations.

    Thanks for the great topic!

  4. Ana says:

    The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell–I loved it, but hated that I had no one to discuss it with when I finished! Set in 1920’s New York, has an unreliable narrator and unresolved ending–lots of opportunity for each reader’s interpretation!

    • Anne says:

      I haven’t read it but now I’m totally intrigued! I’m considering a theory: books with unreliable narrators make excellent book club picks.

  5. I’m not in a book club currently. I have attended a few over the years, and perhaps it’s a result of too many literature classes taken in college, but I tend to get frustrated very quickly because people don’t argue points using passages from the text. It goes very quickly from “the author has brought this social issue up” to “here is my particular opinion on that social issue, and that of my neighbors and…” so forth. People aren’t talking about the book at all. So why did we read it and read it closely? If you want to get together to have conversation over wine about any topic in the world, do it! You don’t need a book club for that. I realize I may be approaching this from a completely warped perspective 🙂

    • liz n. says:

      Been in the very same boat….along with the people who just don’t read the book, or stop after a few chapters. I’ve wandered into good book discussions at the bookstore or seeing someone carrying a book in public, but book clubs don’t seem to work for me. Although Anne’s blog is an excellent home for those of us wandering in search of fellow book lovers!

  6. I have been in the same book club for five years (so nothing compared to Jeannie above, but still respectable), and we have had our fair share of good and bad discussion books. Nonfiction always seems to be an immediate win (Unbroken, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, All Joy and No Fun were all great for discussion material).

    One of our best discussions was actually about a book I hated (because of the ending): State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. I think the fact that it was so polarizing (because there were women adamantly defending both sides) is what made the discussion so great.

    But the worst? Was definitely “The Lace Reader” by Brunonia Barry. You would think that a book that confusing would lead to lots of things to talk about but mainly we were just all . . . confused. 🙂

    I’m going to share this list with my book club for future selections!

    • Anne says:

      ” I think the fact that it was so polarizing (because there were women adamantly defending both sides) is what made the discussion so great.”

      A giant YES to this. (I liked State of Wonder. But I totally get what you’re saying about the ending!)

      I haven’t read The Lace Reader, but I’m giggling at your description of it. 🙂

    • I’ve found that bad books limit discussion too. Not bad like “everyone hated it” (my one book club took our time picking apart what we didn’t like about Rabbit, Run), but bad as in badly written. Another of my book clubs read a book called Blackout and the “discussion” was just a list of “This didn’t make sense…” “Yeah, this didn’t make sense either…”

  7. I was briefly a part of one bookclub and I loved it, but haven’t made time for one in years.

    I just mainly wanted to say that I wish I had been part of a bookclub when I read Into the Woods because that ending…. I was at a total loss. I keep reading her other books hoping I can somehow get closure, but no dice. Sigh.

    • Anne says:

      Right?? I am very conflicted (okay, honestly, I’m mostly indignant) and would really like to unpack that over a nice 90-minute book club session with other readers.

      • Indignant is quite the word for it. It just seemed like blatant disregard for readers. I’m sure there is another side to it that I’m not considering, hence the wish for a bookclub discussion.

        Sometimes I pretend like Goodreads is my bookclub and go read reader reviews of whatever I’ve just finished, bit it’s not the SAME.

      • Leigh Kramer says:

        Oh, but I liked that the ending remained unresolved! More true to life. Some things happen and we never get to know the reason why. Maybe French will give us an Easter egg in a future novel but I’m not holding my breath.

  8. I love my book club! And I think you’re onto something with your list. I may have told you that I’ve written a novel and I confess to sometimes dreaming about a book club (esp mine) reading it! 🙂

      • Sometimes people will suggest inviting an author to the book club discussion if they’re local, and I generally think it’s a bad idea. I think if you get together and you all love the book but have questions about it, then invite the author to the next one or have a special meeting to talk with the author. But trying to have an honest conversation about a book with the author right there? That’s even worse than trying to discuss someone’s “very favorite it means so much to me I hope you all loved it too” book they nominated.

  9. Deborah says:

    The book club that I’m a part of had a fantastic discussion about The Help. I think it’s because many of the families in our expat community have live-in nannies or maids. We saw a LOT of parallels between The Help and our little community, both the good stories and the bad.

  10. Charlotte says:

    I was just thinking about this topic the other day! I just finished reading Me Before You and was dying to discuss it with someone. (And I felt the same way after finishing The Secret Keeper!) Some books are just meant to be talked about.

    I wish I had a good book club where I live. I don’t have many friends who just love reading, and I think the people in your book club matter just as much as what you read. Maybe that’s snobby of me, but I need to be in a book club that could read The Road and find some value in it, even though it’s a dark story. You know what I mean?

    • Anne says:

      I don’t think you’re being snobby! If the fun is in the conversation, it matters very much who’s doing the conversing. (I didn’t like The Road, but I did think there was plenty to appreciate in it, and TONS to discuss, even if it was pretty depressing. We can talk about it together in our fictional book club. 🙂 )

    • There’s a bunch of different book clubs in the city where I live, and I tried out several of them over the course of a year before settling on the ones I wanted to be a part of regularly (which are 1 local one, 1 online one, 1 that’s connected to a regional organization I’m part of, and another local one I attend only when I like what they’re reading). It’s totally reasonable to be picky about book clubs — like I never went back to the one where we discussed the book for maybe 5 minutes out of the 2 hours we were there 😛

  11. I’m in four book clubs (yeah, I know… I’m a little obsessed), so I’ve seen a lot of different ways a discussion can go. Some of my book clubs use discussion questions as prompts, which can help a lot when the discussion is flagging, but a good leader/organizer will be able to draw out the conversation even without pre-made questions. So if everyone says, “I loved the book!” the leader will say, “What did you love about it?” “What surprised you most?” etc.

    What I’ve found shuts down conversation the quickest is when someone nominates their favorite book and then opens conversation by saying, “I love this book so much! It’s my very favorite! It means so much to me! I hope everyone liked it!” No one wants to say anything bad after that! When my favorite book was chosen recently, I tried to start by naming specific things I liked about the book without gushing too much, and people seemed to feel free to name the things they liked and didn’t like about the book (and I refrained from defending it!).

    • فعلا هیچ کسی نمی تواند از لندن درخواست دهد پرونده های لندن هم به به سیدنی کانادا رفته استهر دوباید از یک کشور درخواست دهید همسر شما نمی تواند جداگانه درخواست بدهد اگر همسر قانونی شما است در غیر این صورت تقاضای ایشان رد می شود

  12. Beth says:

    What do you think about Dear Mr. Knightley for a book club pick? I need to read that one regardless; it’s on my nightstand (along with another dozen I need to get to!).

    Some books we’ve had good discussions on: Same Kind of Different As Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore; The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom; The Colour of Water by James McBride — I just realized these are all nonfiction, biography-types! There’s just something about a true story, I guess.

    We’ve also had a lot of luck with classics: Jane Eyre, Gone With the Wind, Les Miserables. (We read these ones over the summer and don’t meet in July, so we have an extra month to get through these tomes!)

    A good polarizing fictional one was A Light Between Oceans. And polarizing nonfiction: Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother.

    This month we are reading The Blue Castle by LM Montgomery. Even though I can’t imagine anyone not loving this book, I think it make for a good discussion, just because the themes are universal. (Maybe I’m committing the sin mentioned above, of talking about the issues in the book more than the book itself! That’s how our book club rolls, though, and I’m good with it.)

    One thing I love about book clubs is that I almost always go away from them liking the book a little more, having seen it through someone else’s eyes. The other thing I love: it introduces me to books I’d never pick up otherwise. (I’ve had friends in the past who pick and choose which book club books they read, based on the genre they prefer … and I think, “why are you even in a book club??”)

  13. kim s. says:

    Like you, I love a book club book that is controversial, sparking disagreement & debate. Really, you need a book that some love & others dislike, and one that can be interpreted in different ways. My favorite book for this is The Hours by Michael Cunningham…it touches on many of the difficult phases & issues of a woman’s life, to me in a beautiful & thought-provoking way. Some book clubbers could not overlook the homosexual aspects of the novel…their loss!

  14. Lynn K says:

    My all-time favorite book club discussion was reading Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett – a memoir chronicling her friendship with Lucy Grealy who suffered through multiple surgeries to reconstruct her face, ravaged from cancer when she was a child. We found the book SO intriguing that the following month we read Lucy Grealy’s Diary of a Face which really amped up the discussion from the previous month.

    Other books that lead to spirited discussion: Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Piccoult, Little Children by Tom Perotta, Five Days at Memorial by Sherri Fink and Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (most of us had already fead Gone Girl which lead to very interesting comparisons).

  15. Heather Karl says:

    Here are some books that have yielded good discussion in my book club:

    Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
    The Color of Water by James McBride
    Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth
    My Stubborn Heart by Becky Wade
    Sarah’s Key by Tatiana De Rosnay

  16. Hubby and I listened to The Telling Room several years ago. My husband doesn’t read anything but computer geek books, but we added it to my Audible when we were on a long road trip. Then we spent the rest of the summer listening to The Telling Room as we fell asleep. We both love, food, wine, cheese, travel, and people so this was a gone one for us to share.

    One of the best discussions our book club had was over “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”

  17. Irene Carrick says:

    The best discussion my bookclub has ever had about a book was after we read “Never Let me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro….but the best advice I can say is DO NOT READ the inside cover, or anything about this book, otherwise it will be boring. it needs to unfold in the way that it does if you know nothing about what it is about. Just trust me on this!!
    I conviced the AP LIT teacher at my school to use it for a summer read – and he agreed about how much there is to discuss!!

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