The staff at Brookhaven in Lexington (slogan: “Life Care Living at its Finest”) prints the date, time, and selection of each meeting of its book club on a weekly and monthly calendar of events and on a flier that it posts to the activities board in the lobby of the main building, which sits at the center of a complex of residences named for Massachusetts worthies. (The smallest model, the Alcott, is 550 square feet (one bedroom), while the largest, is the Munroe at 1,700 square feet (two bedrooms and a den.)
In May, the book club gathered in Brookhaven’s formal dining room, a space replete with white tablecloths and a maître d’, where 11 women enjoyed a postprandial indulgence of bananas Foster and coffee and geared up to discuss Louise Erdrich’s “The Round House,” the tale of an Ojibwe boy’s hunt for justice on a North Dakota reservation. All were dressed very neatly. Some wore pantsuits. Two had once owned small bookstores. Men sometimes attend the meetings, but typically only for nonfiction titles.
“I was delighted to analyze this book, ‘The Round House,’ because I’ve been attracted to Native American people,” Norine Casey said once the meeting began, gesturing to her Navajo necklace, which she had worn in honor of the event.
“The Round House,” like all of the book club’s selections, had been chosen by vote. The group considers titles based on reviews, word-of-mouth, and fond recollections: When they reconvene this fall after a warm-weather hiatus, they’ll read “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd, Megan Marshall’s biography of Margaret Fuller, and “Charlotte’s Web.”
Erdrich’s novel was a natural choice, as most of the ladies were familiar with her work, and many had already read this book upon its publication last year. Some had reread it for the meeting, some didn’t bother, and two hadn’t read it at all.
“Please don’t comment if you haven’t read it,” Casey warned.
Casey was that evening’s facilitator, a role that required her to start the discussion and keep it moving along. Like a few of the other members, she had armed herself with notes.
“I have a new iPad, and I’m getting experimental with it,” she said, laughing. “I got information about Louise Erdrich, but I couldn’t figure out how to print it.”
Casey outlined Erdrich’s biography — one that involved several children, several more novels, and her husband’s suicide — as well as her own experiences traveling to the Navajo Nation. “The Navajo wouldn’t allow casinos on their premises, but it was very easy for them to go north just a few miles to Ute, which is a reservation with plenty of gambling and plenty of liquor,” she said, relating her observations to Erdrich’s 1994 novel, “Bingo Palace,” as well as Massachusetts’s current casino disputes.
“At first I went through and wrote down what happened on just about every page, but I knew that would make this evening a very boring evening,” Casey said, ceding discussion to the table.
The members delivered their remarks in turn, going counterclockwise. “The Round Room” had its problems: “too spread out,” “hard to get into,” and “too many characters.”
While it’s impossible to reach a solid consensus on any title, the Brookhaven club seems leagues more agreeable than most. One key to harmony: Keep selections under 350 pages. They all loved Sonia Sotomayor’s “My Beloved World,” but they’ve never universally hated any book — though some found Per Petterson’s “Out Stealing Horses” to be something of a pain.
As for “The Round House,” views were mixed.
“It had everything — sex, injustice, mystery. That’s what sells. But not that much real romance,” said Polly Gardner, dismissively. “We were just talking about books that would make a good movie, and this would be too hard to do.”
“Having raised three boys, you understand what teenagers are like about sex, but I thought they treated it sort of crassly,” said Lora Lee Buchta, one of the group’s organizers.
“I read it two and a half times, but it didn’t get any clearer,” said Cynthia Mead, one of the bookstore owners. “I think she’s far too political. I know she’s all for justice, but I’ve just read too many books about this subject.”
“It’s a big subject,” Casey retorted, marking the first outright disagreement of the night.
But by then it was almost nine, and before it could escalate, it was time to adjourn.
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Eugenia Williamson is a contributing editor to The Baffler. She can be reached at email@example.com