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.
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 →
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 →
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 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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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?