The central conceit of Ann Hood’s seventh novel should be as irresistible to book groups as wine and cheese: An empty-nester, at loose ends after her husband of twenty-five years leaves her for another woman, joins a local book club, looking for “the comfort of people who wanted nothing more than to sit together and talk about books.” The group’s theme-of-the-year requires each of its ten members to pick the book that matters most to them. Naturally, we expect their choices to reveal something profound about these characters, but in fact The Book That Matters Most is mainly about Ava North’s rediscovery of the power of literature to heal not just her latest heartache but a childhood trauma she’s long tried to ignore.
The book group, run with firm control by Ava’s friend and neighbor, a librarian who takes her role very seriously, is a motley mix, including a grieving widower; a local Providence, Rhode Island, actress who’s fighting breast cancer; and a young hipster in a porkpie hat. Even here Ava must navigate rueful reminders of her former, fuller life: She immediately recognizes the hyper-efficient mother who had made her feel inadequate at her daughter Maggie’s elementary school, and a young woman who used to babysit for Maggie — already a tenure-track professor teaching women’s studies in the English Department at Brown University. (Ava teaches French at an unnamed, presumably less prestigious local school.)
Hood is adept at creating vivid, sympathetic characters with a few quick strokes, but this is not an ensemble novel in which each group member’s story is explored in turn. What matter most in The Book That Matters Most are Ava’s family drama (past and present) and the chosen books, which add up to a sort of Literary Hit Parade: Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Anna Karenina, One Hundred Years of Solitude. All familiar, all fiction, all stellar classics worth reading and rereading, and all selected by Hood with an eye toward extracting nuggets relevant to Ava’s particular situation.
As for Ava, she finds the assignment challenging: “She couldn’t even remember the last book she’d read that mattered at all. In fact, she purposely chose books that didn’t matter.” She comes up with the sole outlier on the list, a book in which she found consolation when she was eleven, after her sister and mother died within a year of each other: From Clare to Here, by Rosalind Arden, an author no one has heard of. It’s a fictional out-of-print novel created for Hood’s narrative, about a mother who loses one of her two daughters and decides to stay with her in the underworld, rather than return to earth with her living daughter. Part of Hood’s plot revolves around tracking down the book’s provenance.
Another, more effective strand involves Ava’s wayward twenty-year-old daughter, who after some rough teen years is supposedly “finally on track,” studying art history in Florence for the year. Alas, unbeknownst to her distracted parents, she ditches the program for Paris, with the vague idea of following in Hemingway’s footsteps and becoming a writer. Alternating chapters highlight the contrast between Ava’s gradual emergence from her post-split funk and Maggie’s harrowing journey into heroin addiction.
Hood, who has written movingly about losing her only sibling, a brother, in a household accident in 1982 and her five-year-old daughter to a virulent strain of strep twenty years later, is clearly no stranger to trauma. Loss and grief have been recurring themes in her novels, along with women struggling in stifling marriages to discover their own sense of self. Her 2014 novel, An Italian Wife, follows an Italian-born woman from the arranged marriage that takes her to America through the next seven decades. She bears seven children — the last of whom, the result of a passionate affair, she gives up for adoption but then spends the rest of her life trying to find. In The Obituary Writer (2013), the story of a 1960s suburban housewife chafing at the confines of her life converges with a parallel narrative about an early-twentieth-century obituary writer who lives in denial for years after the loss of her married lover in the San Francisco fire of 1906.
By comparison, the action of The Book That Matters Most is tidily compressed into a single year, excepting flashbacks to “That Morning” in 1970 when Ava’s sister Lily died in a freak accident for which her mother, aunt, Ava, and the police detective who failed to determine exactly what happened all blamed themselves. As in her earlier works, several plotlines converge neatly — though in this case, rather predictably.
Hood’s novel is meant to be a heartfelt paean to the power of literature to enlighten, soothe, and resonate personally. After reading The Great Gatsby, Ava says, “I had forgotten how a book can affect you.” She draws parallels between each classic and what’s going on in her own life. For example, the theme of “A return after long wanderings” in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being mirrors her husband’s awkward attempt to patch things up between them. Later, reading Slaughterhouse-Five while trying to track down Rosalind Arden, Ava realizes that she’s becoming as “unstuck in time” as Kurt Vonnegut’s character Billy Pilgrim. And of course there’s plenty about Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each unhappy in its own way.
As these rather too-precise correspondences suggest, the impact of Hood’s unabashedly sentimental novel is repeatedly undercut by a lack of subtlety. She describes Ava’s response to From Clare to Here with typical mawkishness: “Could a writer understand how her book had saved someone long ago, when the world was a fragile, scary place and the people she loved weren’t in it anymore?”
Even before the pat, schmaltzy ending, everything is spelled out. The group’s literary discussions are often painful to read — stilted, simplistic, and didactic. Typical is the cancer patient’s defense of her choice of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn: “The novel shows us that strong values help us triumph over adversity.”
As I write this, there’s a part of me that asks how I, who love books and reading so much, can beef about a novel that makes a case for how much books matter. The answer is that I wish Hood had made a less cloying case.