It’s hard to say goodbye to a book group, even for a short time. But this month I was reminded that it’s harder to go out discussing a book that you feel a little too close to.
I knew that September would be my last book group discussion before my maternity leave began, and was disappointed when my library’s furlough closure came in the week my group meets. Luckily, the group agreed to meet the following week–to give me a chance to say goodbye, introduce my wonderful colleague, Linda, who will take over while I am away and to discuss Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster.
Both Linda and myself love Last Night at the Lobster. When it came out in 2007, we and many of our colleagues sang its praises. O’Nan’s slim book is a subtle, winning homage to the men and women who work hard and put their all into places as nondescript as the Red Lobster. The novel brings to life quite vivdly the world of such American eateries, the ones that are upscale fast food, the places that populate our strip malls and call to us when we are in need of some comfort or just a place to rest during long-distance travels.
Before we met with the group, Linda and I met to discuss some of the details and the finer points of the novel. It didn’t escape our notice that the book might not be adored by everyone, but that scarely interfered with our rhapsodizing as we opened pages at random to read lines and reflect on characters and incidences.
So it was a bit of a surprise to come up for air, and have one of the first comments in discussion be that the reader just didn’t care about or connect with the characters. Others chimed in to support this, while a voice or two said they found the characters and the setting compelling as well as educational.
For some, the world that O’Nan creates, the closing Red Lobster in question, was too far from their experience. We opened the discussion by asking who among us had worked in the food industry, and only a few in the group could claim familiarity with fry-o-lators and hairnets. But is that required to appreciate the book? Are the characters, as some complained, mere stereotypes?
We did touch upon the fact that our current economy dated the book somewhat. Many of the characters in the book were losing their jobs, but didn’t seem concerned about finding work. Jump ahead to 2009, and those same characters would have been fighting harder to get transferred to the Olive Garden or been less nonchalant.
What it came down to is that you either responded to the world that O’Nan creates and its flawed yet honorable central character, Manny, or you were left out in the cold. You either felt you wanted to peer into these windows during the snowstorm, or you would rather keep driving.
I will miss my group when I am away. And when I return I will think harder about how to prepare to discuss the books nearest and dearest to me.