Living on the 19th floor of a high-rise apartment building in downtown Minneapolis has its ups and downs — literally. Doing laundry, for example, means riding the elevator down to the laundry room and back up to my apartment several times, occasionally while holding a bunch of my damp bras that need to be air-dried. Riding the elevator isn’t too bad, though (except for when some guy gets on who has been liberal with the musky cologne.) It gives me time to pause during a hectic day, and plus I can read the elevator notices.
This past Friday, one of the notices was about the upcoming building book club on Monday night. I perked up. A book club in the building? I could make friends without having to go outside into the cold and snow! (OK, so there’s no cold and snow yet, but it’s coming, my friends, it’s coming.)
The book was The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones and Lucky, both of which I have read and enjoyed. So I went back to my apartment, hung up those damp bras, and obtained the ebook of The Almost Moon from the Seattle Library. (Shh– don’t tell!)
I spent the weekend speed-reading the novel so I’d be ready for Monday book club. Unfortunately, I sort of hated it. In the first chapter, middle-aged Helen Knightly suffocates her old, ailing mother. That didn’t bother me. That’s a good premise for a novel. What bothered me was that after the attention-grabbing start, most of the book consisted of sort-of-boring, poorly-woven-in flashbacks of Helen’s life that were supposed to shed light on her character but to me only dragged out the novel in uninteresting ways. The characters felt flat to me, Helen was really unlikeable, and the ending was unsatisfying. I couldn’t wait to get to book club and tear the book apart with my criticisms.
Plus, I was excited about making some new friends. Paul and I have been living in Minneapolis for a month, and so far the only people we have hung out with are ourselves.
So I prepared a veggie platter with baba ganoush and rode the elevator up to floor 26.
Unsurprisingly, I was the youngest person at book club by a good thirty years. I could feel the old folks wondering about me. She’s not even retired yet. What’s SHE doing at a book club? But I didn’t care that they thought I was weird. (You moved here from Seattle? Now where are you from — Virginia? Wait, you’re a writer — that’s your actual job?) I smiled cheerfully as I answered their questions and got myself a beer and snacks. I was just excited to be around people who were not Paul. (I love him, but sometimes a girl needs a break).
I was about to burst out with, “did everybody hate this book as much as I did?” but I’m glad I held my tongue because it didn’t seem to matter whether or not people liked the book. What the members of the book club really wanted to do was use the novel as a jumping off point to talk about their own experiences caring for an elderly mother or dealing with mentally-ill family members.
“So what did you guys think of Helen?” I asked, finishing my beer and getting up for another, along with seconds of food. These old people weren’t eating much, so I decided to do my part. “Did you think the author meant for her to be a likeable character, or not?”
The members of book club entertained my literary question, but pretty soon, they were moving on to apartment building gossip. “The couple next door to us, I think they’re trust fund babies,” a woman with shoulder-length gray hair confided. “They don’t seem to work, and they’re always either exercising or smoking pot. We can smell it coming through our vents.”
“I heard the couple next to me having a fight,” an owlish woman with short hair and pink lipstick piped up. “ It sounded like they were arguing about their wedding.”
I wondered, if I hadn’t been there, would Paul and I be on the gossip menu? (What about that new couple on the 19th floor… The girl is always carrying her bras around on the elevator.)
“I actually have some gossip,” I said. I was starting to feel tipsy from the beer and the fact that my dinner had been nothing but baby carrots, pretzels, and a few scoopfuls of crap dip.
All heads turned in my direction, bespectacled eyes eager. I told the story of how the couple next to us was canning last weekend, and all of a sudden their pickled tomato sludge starting coming up into our sink. “And I don’t know what’s going on with them,” I said. “It seems like two girls and one guy live there… and it’s a one bedroom apartment!”
Everyone gasped and giggled appreciatively.
Around 8:45, book club started to wind down, so I said goodnight, grabbed my plate, and headed back down to my apartment. When I got home, I was giddy with excitement.
“Oh my gosh, babe,” I said to Paul, who was sprawled on the floor doing math. “You should have seen how much stuff these old people crammed into their apartment. They had a bookshelf here, and a couch here, and another bookshelf over here.” I was dancing around our comparatively-sparse apartment, waving my arms wildly.
“You seem excited,” Paul noted.
“You would have loved it,” I said. “After we talked about the book, we had gossip time. It was so fun! Did you know that Charlize Theron lived in this building while she was here filming Young Adult?”
“Are you drunk?” Paul asked.
“Maybe a little,” I admitted. “I got to go to a party with beer and food and people and gossip! Yay!”
“Wow,” Paul said. “This is what our lives has become. You’re treating old-people book club like it was the social event of the month.”
Thing is, it sort of was.
And that’s when I finally understood something about book clubs that I’ve never really grasped before. Most of the time, it’s not about the book at all. It’s about people (perhaps introverted book-lover people) finding an excuse to get together. It’s not about tearing the book apart or delving into MFA-level literary analysis. It’s about using the book as a way to start conversations and relate to people. Reading is a solitary hobby, but every now and again, a person wants to put down their book, leave their apartment, and be around other people.