Reading Group: A Novel

( 26 )

Overview

The Reading Group follows the trials and tribulations of a group of women who meet regularly to read and discuss books.Over the course of a year, each of these women become intertwined, both in the books they read and within each other's lives.

Inspired by a shared desire for conversation, a good book and a glass of wine-Clare, Harriet, Nicole, Polly, and Susan undergo startling revelations and transformations despite their differences in ...

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Overview

The Reading Group follows the trials and tribulations of a group of women who meet regularly to read and discuss books.Over the course of a year, each of these women become intertwined, both in the books they read and within each other's lives.

Inspired by a shared desire for conversation, a good book and a glass of wine-Clare, Harriet, Nicole, Polly, and Susan undergo startling revelations and transformations despite their differences in background, age and respective dilemmas.

What starts as a reading group gradually evolves into a forum where the women may express their views through the books they read and grow to become increasingly more open as the bonds of friendship cement.

In The Reading Group, Noble reveals the many complicated paths in life we all face as well as the power and importance of friendship.

This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

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Editorial Reviews

Carole Matthews
“A thoroughly accomplished debut novel which embraces a wide range of contemporary issues. Fresh and sharp. Funny and sad.”
—Choice (London)
“A lively, witty novel that touches on themes of friendship and redemptive power of art”.
--Choice (London)
“A lively, witty novel that touches on themes of friendship and redemptive power of art”.
Entertainment Weekly
“A hot, soapy bubble bath of a novel. Go ahead and sink in.”
Seattle Times
“Tremendous amounts of female bonding, some witty byplay and very well-considered characters.”
Booklist
“Noble keeps engagement high as her characters connect and interconnect...this entertaining read is very accessible.”
Choice (London)
"A lively, witty novel that touches on themes of friendship and redemptive power of art".
St. Paul Pioneer Press
“[Elizabeth Noble is a] reading club goddess.”
Publishers Weekly
Perfect indulgence for the eponymous set-or pandering to an anticipated audience? Or maybe both? As the London Evening Standard put it, "The blurb has [the author] down as a simple Surrey housewife who knocked this out between the Hoovering and the hot sex, but further investigation reveals her to be a veteran of book marketing married to the head of Time Warner UK." Go figure! Well, either way, this U.K. bestseller is a frothy page-turner that dissects the relationships, desires and discoveries of five English women, all members of a book club. Over the course of a year, the women read 12 novels (including Atonement, Rebecca and The Alchemist) and, through their playful but intimate discussions (few of which revolve around the books), they bond closely while coping with such matters as a philandering husband, a mother with dementia, a pregnant but unmarried daughter, an infertility crisis, a wedding and a funeral. It's a testament to Noble's characterizations and plotting that the novel is not overwhelming, despite its numerous (perhaps too many) points of view, complicated backstories and interweaving contemporary crises. Light but never flip, this is funny, contemplative and touching reading, and the group's familiar book choices allow readers to feel as if they're part of the gang, too, as they race to the end, eager to find out what happens, why it does and what it all means. Agent, Stephanie Cabot. (Jan.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
When five women get together to start a book group, they never envision how their lives will change, become intertwined, and be reflected in their books of choice. Their meetings draw them into a surprising sisterhood as they work through a year of caring for an aging parent, unexpectedly becoming a grandmother, marital infidelity, a marriage gone stale, and infertility. Each chapter opens with the group's reading pick and uses it to frame the chapter, mirroring the plot and character development along a particular theme. Fast paced and funny, this is women's fiction worth staying up past your bedtime for. Noble's portrayal of each character remains steady throughout, and readers will readily relate to these women. Highly recommended for all public libraries.-Amy Brozio-Andrews, Albany P.L., NY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
British chick-lit bestseller hits all the right marketing buttons. Uplifting, interconnected stories of women in a reading club overcoming crises? Check. Twelve months' worth of mini book reviews? Check. And first-novelist Noble packages it so neatly, outlining the books and characters for reference before her story even begins. Harriet and Nicole are stay-at-home moms in their 30s whose husbands work "in the City." Harriet doubts she still loves sweet, upright Tim; Nicole loves philandering Gavin too much. Polly and Susan are a decade older. Polly, a divorced paralegal with a teenaged son and a college-aged daughter, has just accepted a marriage proposal from dashing lawyer Jack. Susan runs a soft-goods business; she and perfect husband Roger, a doctor, are dealing with her beloved mother's suddenly failing health. The club's fifth and most expendable member is Claire, the deeply depressed daughter of Susan's employee. A midwife who can't have children, Claire has withdrawn from long-suffering husband Elliot. Each month's chapter begins with a club meeting at which lightweight intellectual discussion takes place (hot for Heartburn, cool to Atonement), then follows the women's evolving situations. Harriet pulls back from the brink of adultery and wakes up to her real love for Tim once he threatens to walk. Catching Gavin in the act, Nicole finally finds the gumption to throw him out. When Polly's daughter Cressida announces that she's pregnant and doesn't want to marry the father, Polly decides to keep the child for her so that Cressida can finish her education. Jack balks at first, but the baby's charms win him over. Their mother's death brings together Susan and her bitter, long-absentolder sister after they realize that Susan was actually adopted. Shocked to learn that Elliot is the father of Cressida's child, Claire finds her calling as a nurse in Romania. Bound to be a hit, but depressingly adept at perfecting the formula. Agent: Shana Kelly/William Morris
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060760441
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/4/2005
  • Series: P.S. Series
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 602,407
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Noble

Elizabeth Noble is the author of the internationally bestselling novels The Reading Group, The Friendship Test, and Alphabet Weekends. She lives with her husband and their two daughters in New York City.

Biography

Elizabeth Noble was born in December 1968, in Buckinghamshire, England. She was educated in England and Canada, where the family lived for several years in Toronto.

In 1990 she graduated from St. Edmund Hall, Oxford University, with a B.A. (Honors) in English language and literature. But it was the diploma (Intensive Secretarial) that she was awarded by the typing school above the Italian café in Covent Garden that got her into her chosen career -- publishing. Over a six year period she worked in the editorial, marketing, publicity, and sales departments of several big publishing houses -- moving every couple of years, once she had made a big enough mess in the filing (note to bewildered successors: check under "m" for miscellaneous). This makes her a tricky author. She speaks fluent publishing.

She took a career break -- she called it "retired" -- to have her two daughters, after her marriage in 1996. When her youngest daughter was ready to go to nursery school, and real work beckoned, she decided to try what she had been threatening to do for years, and wrote a hundred pages of The Reading Group.

Then it took her nine months to work up the courage to send it to an agent. The Reading Group was published in the UK in January 2004 and went straight to the number-one position in The Sunday Times's Fiction Bestseller list. She was supposed to be signing stock in London bookshops the day the chart was announced, but she had grown bored and was trying on trousers -- they didn't fit -- in a ladies' clothing store when the call came. So she was literally caught with her pants down.

The book has since sold almost a quarter of a million copies in the UK. But the other day her elder daughter, Tallulah, told her she would rather she got a job in a chicken plucking factory because then she would be at home more, so she doesn't think there is much danger of her getting conceited.

She has recently finished her second novel -- there were no vacancies at the chicken plucking factory -- and begun her third.

She lives with her husband and their ungrateful children in a haunted vicarage in "the safest village in Surrey," England. They obviously don't know about the ghost.

Biography courtesy of the author's official web site.

Good To Know

Some outtakes from our interview with Elizabeth Noble:

"Researching my novels has changed my life. This year alone, in the name of research, I have abseiled 100 feet off of a viaduct, learnt how to gamble, and danced on stage in a Las Vegas show. At the ripe old age of 36, I've finally realized that you are only here once, and I'm never going to say no to a new experience again (so long as its legal!)."

"I am perpetually engaged in a quest to be thinner, fitter, have better hair, and look more stylish. I'm usually losing."

"Each morning, I pump up the volume on the stereo and dance about the living room with my five- and seven-year-old daughters. It's the best ten minutes of every day."

"I am incredibly close to my parents and siblings. We have gone in very different directions -- my brother teaches mathematics in France, and my sister is a midwife -- but we all have a strong sense of family."

"My friends are hugely important to me, and spending time with them is a precious part of my life."

"I like chocolate, floral white wines, cinema, and being lazy. I love U.S. import TV -- Sex and the City, The West Wing, Desperate Housewives, and Six Feet Under (God bless HBO!)."

"I dislike almost all politicians, pushy parents, and bad manners. And I hate, hate, hate cell phones, and the fact that they mean you can never be ‘unavailable.' "

"I unwind in a hot bath with a big glass of wine, and my ultimate luxury would be 12 hours sleep a night (but my children do not agree)."

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    1. Hometown:
      Wonersh, Guildford, Surrey, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 22, 1968
    2. Place of Birth:
      High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England
    1. Education:
      B.A., St. Edmund Hall, Oxford University, 1990
    2. Website:

First Chapter

7:15 P.M.

Clare watched as the young woman passed her in the corridor. First-timer, definitely: excitement and panic were etched on her pale face as she made her way slowly down the hall, dragging the IV on its wheels beside her, legs bent and shoulders hunched, shuffling in girlish slippers bought for this special day. Her glance at Clare said, "Help me. When will this be finished? When will he be here?" Probably came in half a centimeter dilated -- when she'd fiddled with her TENS machine at home for a while, then called her mother and repacked the holdall with all the impossibly small, impossibly white sleep suits, scratch mittens and hats like egg cozies.

The double doors behind the woman swung open, and a big, dark man went to her, put one hand in hers, the other round her shoulder. He handled her gingerly. He was paler than she was. A Type X, Clare thought. They were copers, the strong ones. Type Ys barely made it through the epidurals without crying. They were a few decades too late -- would have been happier pacing the corridor with a cigar behind each ear. Clare liked the Type Ys better.

Elliot was probably an X. Or maybe the hybrid: Y masquerading as X. They were okay unless things got scary. Who was she kidding? She had no idea which type he'd be. Not that it mattered. Not anymore. The girl moaned, leant forward. Clare answered his imploring look. She never felt detached. Still, each story that played out, each life that started within these walls pulled her in. Still.

"Okay, hold on, let's give you a hand. What's your name?"

"Lynne."

"Okay, Lynne. We'll get you back to your room. You probably need a bit of a rest. Who's looking after you?"

A colleague appeared from behind the same double doors. "Sorry, Clare. Hang on, Lynne. We've got you. Got it from here, Clare. You're off, aren't you?"

"Yes."

"Have a good night, then."

"Cheers."

Tonight, thank God, she had a reason not to be at home, not to see Elliot. She'd probably be out again before he got back from college, and he'd be asleep by the time she made herself climb into bed beside him.

And that girl, Lynne, would be holding her baby in her arms.


7:20 P.M.

As usual Harriet climbed the stairs with a teetering pile of single socks, discarded sweaters, stray toys -- the flotsam and jetsam of the day. Down was usually a mug or two, plastic cups found under beds, read newspapers and sticky plastic medicine spoons. Up, the aforementioned. Still, she supposed, with a fairly twisted smile, variety was the spice of life. Ha, ha. Domestic bliss reminded her of that silly film she'd seen once, Groundhog Day, where this guy was compelled to repeat the same day over and over again, never quite getting the girl because he couldn't change what happened. And slightly higher up the cultural scale, wasn't there that guy in mythology -- Sissy something . . . Sisyphus, was it? -- sentenced by the gods for some transgression to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a big hill only to watch it fall straight down again, and on, and on. At least pushing a big boulder up a hill would soon sort out these bat wings she was developing beneath her upper arms, Harriet thought. Sweeping the flipping kitchen floor four times, loading and unloading the washing machine three times and answering forty-two questions about why there aren't any more dinosaurs, and if there were, how big their poos would be, wasn't doing much for hers.

Upstairs, all was quiet for the first time since 6:00 a.m. Harriet followed the sound of Tim's voice to their bedroom. He was sitting on the sofa under the window, having been allowed by his kidnappers to remove his shoes and jacket, and loosen his tie. The children, damp and clean from their bath, were huddled, one under each arm, listening to their story. Tim was reading slowly, ascribing to each character his or her own voice, occasionally making animated gestures. Harriet felt a twinge of habitual guilt. She usually chose the shortest story and speedread it: her children might be forgiven for thinking that every character in literature had been raised in the middle-class South, for all the effort she made with her inflection. Still, it was easier, wasn't it? Coming in at the end of the day, when the snot and the pasta sauce and the tears had been wiped away, and the fight over the toothbrushing, and the frantic shoving of toys into too-small cupboards had all been done. Easy to reward the exuberant greeting with warmth and affection and a story reading fit for Radio 4. The kids had spent their energy through the long day, and Harriet had absorbed it. Now the fight had gone out of them: they were passive, gentle. And she was catatonic.

Harriet hovered at the doorway, not wanting to go in and disturb the perfect tableau, the circle of love. Somehow, she didn't fit into these moments. Instead, she deposited her bundle on the guest bed and went into the bathroom. Studiously ignoring the bubble scum around the bath, the toothpaste squeezed carelessly across the washbasin tap, she poked ineffectually at her mad hair in the mirror and flicked some powder across her nose and chin. She hastily drew a line of lipstick on her upper lip, then rolled her lips together in concentration. (Not for her the liner-brush-blot prescribed by glossies she only saw every three months in the hairdresser's.)

Tim appeared in the doorway, carrying a slumped, sleepy Chloe. "Say 'Night-night, Mummy.'" Thumb firmly plugged in, Chloe waved her plastic beaker of warm milk vaguely in Harriet's direction.

"Night-night, sleep tight, darling." Harriet smiled.

Behind Tim, Josh asked, "Are you going out, Mummy?"

"Yes, I am, sweetheart. Daddy's going to look after you. I'll be home again later, though."


From The Reading Group by Elizabeth Noble. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.

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Reading Group Guide

Introduction

What starts out as a good idea born from a glass of wine and the need to socialize, turns into much more. Over the span of a year, Clare, Harriet, Nicole, Polly, and Susan -- five women of different ages, backgrounds and contrasting dilemmas -- transform themselves through the shared community of a book group.

Through the years, The Reading Group gradually evolves into a forum where the women may express their views through the books they read and grow to become increasingly more open as the bonds of friendship cement. In The Reading Group, Noble reveals the many complicated paths in life we all face, as well as the power and importance of friendship.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Consider the epigraph by Margaret Atwood: "the real, hidden subject of a book group discussion is the book members themselves." What does each member reveal by her book selection and contribution to the discussion every month? Is it possible to read a novel objectively, without filtering it through the prism of one's own life experiences?

  2. As a reader, Harriet says, "I care so much more about the characters women create. And if I don't care, really care, by about page fifty, forget it." If Harriet judges a book by the emotional bonds she forms with the characters, what criteria do the other reading group members use in evaluating a good book? Consider the Harriet-led conversations on male authors, and on discerning a novel's timelessness. Do you agree with Harriet that, when reading classic literature, "you have to be able to apply what you call modern values to it and still find something relevant and pertinent in it?"

  3. At the meeting to discuss The Alchemist, Harriet critiques the book saying, "I've heard the same points made more succinctly by Hallmark." As the women argue and analyze the book's relevance to their own lives, do they convince Harriet of the profundity inherent in simple truths?

  4. When Polly, Susan, Harriet, and Nicole discuss Clare's infertility, what do they reveal about changing cultural attitudes toward pregnancy?

  5. Compare Tim and Harriet's marriage to Jack and Polly's relationship. Are the crises that arise in each pairing similar? What happens when Tim acts on the lyrics, "If you love someone, set them free?" Does Polly do the same? How is Tim and Polly's situation different from Nicole's? How is it possible to differentiate between a love that needs to be set free, and a love that has to end?

  6. Why does Susan think of motherhood as, "the steel ribbons that bind us -- Mary and Clare, me and Mum, Polly and Cressida, Cressida and her unborn baby?" How is the strength of each woman's bond tested? What does Susan mean when she says, "we're all mothers, aren't we? Different stages maybe, different problems, but the love is the same. The instinct for self-sacrifice is the same." Do you agree that motherhood is intrinsic to each stage of womanhood?

  7. Why does Rob become uncomfortable and embarrassed when Tim reveals the details of his marriage? Why does he think, "It might be okay for women to talk about that stuff?" What seems to be missing from the male characters' relationships with each other? As a "man's woman" with not a "single girlfriend left from school or university," do you think Nicole was handicapped in her relationship with Gavin? How has the "feminine cocoon" of The Reading Group strengthened Nicole? Where, do you suppose, the author might stand on the nature vs. nurture debate on gender and emotional bonding?

  8. How would you describe Susan's relationship with her sister Margaret? Are the ties that bind real sisters more prone to jealousy and misunderstanding of female friendship? How does the revelation of Alice's enormous act of generosity and sister-love affect Susan and Margaret?

  9. When Jack picks up baby Spencer for the first time, he felt, "something instinctive, quite beyond his control." And when Spencer smiles, Jack "felt as if he'd won first prize. He wanted to make him smile again." Cressida's pregnancy seriously jeopardized her future, almost destroyed Polly's chance for marriage and love a second time around, and leaves Polly with a baby to raise during her retirement years. But in the face of these massive complications what simple, powerful truth does baby Spencer represent? Conversely, was Nicole's decision to deny the truth an act of courage or selfishness, given her changed circumstances?

  10. As a member of the "sandwich generation," Susan cares for her children as well as for her Alzheimers afflicted mother. Polly raised her daughter Cressida to maturity, but now cares for her daughter's child, as well. Alice rescues her sister, and keeps her secret to her grave. Are all the women in The Reading Group caretakers, of one sort or another? Where does their unhesitating instinct for self-sacrifice come from? How does The Reading Group help the women sort through their complicated lives?

  11. How does Elizabeth Noble's fictional reading group resemble your own? Has your group become more friendly over book discussions?

About the Author

Elizabeth Noble lives in Guildford, Surrey with her husband and two daughters. The Reading Group is her first novel.

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