comments 27

In which I join a book group

Brave by Sara Bareilles is my favourite chart song at the moment:


Every time it comes on the radio, it makes me think about the way I’ve recently learned to enjoy “saying what I want to say”.

On Friday I went to the first meeting of my friend Rachel’s new book group. She’s set this up with the remit that we are going to actually discuss the book, and I’d suggested Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, as people wanted something short, and I figured this would be a good short book with lots of material for discussion.

There six of us there on Friday, a lovely group of people, all intelligent and articulate.  Everyone had done their homework and not only read the book, but come with background information on the Barnes/Amis feud, listened to Barnes interviews from the radio etc.

With my recent newfound love of discussion would stand up, I’d really been looking forward to the evening, so was surprised by my reaction. While I enjoyed myself, I couldn’t help feeling a tiny bit tense and guarded. It was strangely akin to the scene where the young Tony in Sense goes to stay with his girlfriend Veronica’s family for the weekend and feels so repressed by the atmosphere that he get constipation.

I felt particularly tense when everyone talked about how much they disliked the characters in the novel. I didn’t know what to say. Not knowing what to say used to be my default feeling about discussion in the past, but it was a shock to be in that position again. I thought that those days had gone.

My other default setting used to be thinking of the thing I wanted to say after the event. I used to think that I was a slow thinker, that I needed time to digest things, but it was really that I was so afraid of hearing my voice and opinions that my brain seized up.

It was on the way home that what I wanted to say finally came to me: the likeability of characters was not as important to me as the presentation of their motives. I had not said that I think it is easy to write a book where the characters are likeable, but it is more difficult to make a book readable without a likeable central character. I think that it is braver to attempt this, and to me, the process of an author exploring concepts is of greater interest than the overall aesthetic of the finished piece of work.

I woke up on Saturday morning with a sense of crushing failure. I thought all the discoveries I had thought I’d made about myself counted for nothing, when it came to the crunch, and that to think that I was “brave” was nothing but self-deception. I felt totally depressed, and went back to sleep.

In the afternoon, I went for a walk and cleared my head. I looked properly at my reactions and realised that the key thing I felt unable to say was that I write a lot and have read a lot on structure and technique of writing, which affects everything about what I want to get out of reading fiction. I had been afraid of coming across as being pretentious, and also of being dry. I also realised that I am particularly uncomfortable with appearing too assertive or knowledgeable when there are a lot of men in the group. This last sentiment makes me feel terrible, but at least I have realised what the problem is and can do something about it.

Next month, I will say what I want to say.

In the meantime, I have decided that walks are good for me.  This is one of the walks I like to take (pictured on a good day – not like this weekend!):

The path behind my house

The path behind my house

Over the bridge

Over the bridge

A view from the bridge!

A view from the bridge!

A horse

Unwittingly switch to square pictures – a horse

Turf field being harvested

Turf field being harvested

Accidentally turn camera round!

Accidentally turn camera round!

Far end of field - my house in top left hand corner

Far end of field – my house in top left hand corner

Gets scrubby and boggy for a bit

Gets scrubby and boggy for a bit

Before emerging behind someone's beautiful garden

Before emerging behind someone’s beautiful garden

And the path up towards the church

And the path up towards the church

Not home, but imagine if it were!

Not home, but imagine if it were!







  1. Thanks for sharing your walk with us! Wish I had someplace as lovely to walk! We do have a nice park here, with a pretty huge lake, but that still requires a 5-10 minute drive to get there. And the paths are always full of geese droppings!

  2. Gwen Stephens

    Oh, Denise I’m so sorry to hear your book group made you so uncomfortable! It can be a great experience when you’re not the salmon swimming upstream. I agree completely with your sentiments, though. A good story does not need likable characters! Take Gone Girl, for example, which was my favorite read of 2012. The two lead characters were psychopathic, and I absolutely loved to hate them! I hope you’ll have a better experience with your next group meeting. My favorite song at the moment is also Brave — such a wonderful message, along with a catchy tune.

    • It was all in me and my reaction – everyone there was totally saying what they thought, which was great. I can’t be doing with book groups where people don’t bother reading the book, but everyone took it really seriously, which I liked.

      As a writer, it’s also fascinating seeing the way most people see fiction – I think that’s essential when judging how far it’s comfortable to push your own writing.

  3. Your neck of the woods is so beautiful!

    I like that your book club actually talks about the book. We always mean to, and sometimes we manage it for 30 minutes or so but it always devolves into a life catch up. Which isn’t a bad thing.

    I SO relate to this post. I too am afraid of sounding like a know-it-all. Especially when there are men present. Which is completely ridiculous but there we are. At least we know it and can work on it right!?!

    • Knowing it and working on it is the key. It’s funny the insecurities we have in common, and how others see it. For example, the way you express your opinions in a very definite, knowledgeable but also accessible way is what makes all your reviews so good!

  4. I think you’re being too hard on yourself. You can still be brave enough to voice your opinion but on occasion, keep quiet because you don’t feel comfortable or you’re not in the right mood that day or maybe just feeling a bit apprehensive. I don’t think changes like these mean you can’t sometimes still feel a bit nervous about speaking out. You might even find one day that you feel you spoke too much! This is my problem. I often reflect on conversations I’ve had where I didn’t stop talking and probably didn’t give other people enough of a chance to express their views as well.

    • Your enthusiasm for expressing your views makes you particularly lovable 🙂 But you do it in a well reasoned, reaonable, thoughtful way. I’ve been slightly put off talking by my professional training – letting other people have their say, supporting other people, etc – and used it as a substitute for dealing with my own fear of it. Talking is good!

  5. Maybe it’s a matter of you getting used to these new folk. I find that pushy type talkers annoy me and that kinda silences me. For some reason, I think the other party will be more confrontational than respectful when hearing an opinion different from their own and I’m not one to change anybody’s mind, just putting a different perspective out there.

    • Lucky no-one was pushy on the night, but I know what you mean, there is a certain boorish type that grates on me, the type you know it makes no difference what you say, they will not be changing their minds any time soon. even when their opinions seem to be based on rather dubious “facts” in the first place! 


  6. Jennifer

    Love the song – DS plays it all the time and it leaks around the headphones! I didn’t know what it was but I LOVE IT! You’ve come a long way darlin’ so don’t worry about the group. You’ll be able to speak your mind once you’re more comfortable with the group dynamic. I come across as way too opinionated and assertive, alas I always have ….. I run from confrontation, but I say what I mean. Sometimes that doesn’t get me REAL far!

    • I love it when people aren’t afraid to speak their mind – but only when they display thoughtfulness as well, like you do.  I find it reassuring.  

      Thank you for your comments and you are sounding more positive at the moment – hope you are in a good place.


  7. Oh Denise – you are a dear – you DO have something of worth to say – never be afraid of that – your reviews here on this blog are testament to that. I reckon your input to that book group evening would have ben very valuable. If the others there have any merit at all they would have listened graciously. OK, they may not all have agreed with your POV but you would’ve given them something fresh to think about.
    Sense of an Ending is an amazing book. I read it twice (I think I told you this before) the first time I thought yes, ok and then I read it again when it was a choice at my book group. I got so much more from it the second time around – there are so many layers and clues you miss on first reading. Julian Barnes is a very clever writer and that is probably what you recognised. We don’t have to like the characters – I’m sure that wasn’t the author’s intention but we keep reading because we want to know how they meet their demise.
    Be brave my friend and speak your mind. And keep walking – I find it does wonders to clear my head and re-appreciate our wonderful area.

    • Oh, Jenny, thank you for your comment.  It reminds me of something we were talking about at school, confidence.  And some people thought that confidence led to joining in.  Although for me I incline towards the thought that if you love something for its own sake first and foremost, then you will lose your sense of inhibitions and that is what has happened to me recently.  This was a reminder that lack of confidence can distort how you perceive things – I suddenly worried about how I was coming across, which I haven’t done for ages.  

      Reading a second time was a bit like revisiting an old mystery story.  And just as Agatha Christie was a genius plotter, Barnes is a genius of structure and all the little resonances that are so easily missed on the first reading.  I do remember you recommending that I re-read Sense of an Ending!


  8. Firstly Denise, you live in a beautiful part of the world, what a wonderful walk this is! Love your pics, and how lovely to have this so close to your home. But my favourite is the one of you with the wind blowing your hair and you smiling and looking so free and happy. Keep that alive in your mind and heart. This is you!

    As for how you felt the next day after your group, I really do understand. I’ve felt like this many times. Yet, maybe it wasn’t the right time for you to speak up. I’ve found that when I feel like that sometimes it’s better not to speak up as you will probably end up saying the things you don’t want to say and then you’ll feel even worse. I say this because probably you felt a bit nervous since it was your first time but as you get used to everyone, it will become easier for you to share your thoughts, I’m sure.

    But remember this – you have SO much to say that is valuable, knowledgeable, intelligent and extremely well informed. You KNOW what you are talking about and so it was very frustrating for you. BTW, I really must read this book, I know I keep saying it. I don’t have an e-reader and have been a bit skint so can’t really afford to keep buying books. Library maybe?

    Anyway, there is always next week and I have a sneaky suspicion that this time the group will be in for a very pleasant surprise!

    • I think you are right, new situations are something I have struggled with and although I have improved a lot over the last year with being able to cope with them (with a little help from my friends!!) it’s still something for me to bear in mind.

  9. Accidental selfy of a beautiful view is always pleasure not that the rest of the pictures fall apart. We often involve in a conversation and say what we feel only to find later some strength and better words to make our views even better. But I love spontanueity and initial comments before any cosmetics take place. Thanks for sharing have a good Sunday x

    • I struggle with spontaneity, to be honest.  I need encouragement!  Lovely to hear your words of it, hope you are well.


  10. Yes, yes–do say what you want to say! (Go prepared with what you want to say, and then say it–I always prepare ahead of time, because otherwise I get overwhelmed by what everyone else is saying and forget my own opinion–I write down notes to myself).

    I belong to a book group in which there are always multiple and various views presented. We don’t try to convince each other to agree. (Perhaps it has to do with age–I’m the youngest, many are in their 70’s). The one thing we agree on is that we appreciate hearing points of view that are different from our own.

    Or, as Maya Angelou said at Carleton College Chapel when I heard her speak there–(I’ll paraphrase, I don’t remember the exact words, as that was over 20 years ago) the world needs the gift that you, and therefore needs to hear your observations and opinions: speak up.

    • P.S. — the last time, everyone really liked the book and the discussion was getting rather boring. Finally the last woman spoke up and said, “I hated it.” She got hearty applause for having the courage to be the lone dissenter. Really–someone spontaneously clapped and we all joined. It was very refreshing.

  11. I adore Sara Bareilles – she is my favourite singer songwriter of the moment and I can thoroughly recommend the album that ‘Brave’ comes from. I didn’t join a book group for years, afraid of saying/being pretentious. But I do feel that the problem with everyone airing only opinions is that you only get an argument or a love-in, never a discussion. You can only discuss what’s spoken about with a measure of objectivity, be it reference to what actually happens in the story, or a notion of what the whole story is trying to say. If all people want to say is: I loved/hated that character, what good does that do? I do belong to a book group now, and was very quiet in the early meetings, but now I go ahead and say what I want to. Familiarity helps no end!

    • I’m glad you’re enjoying the book group, it gives me hope!

      I did think that there was a lot to say and conjecture about Ending that was not solely opinion, which influenced my choice of it. I would tend to choose an ambiguous book for that reason. I am dreading someone choosing a really straightforward one and it turning into either argument or love in!

  12. I remember telling someone once that it takes 3 days to prepare some spontaneous remarks 🙂 so don’t worry about that. Its all about prep. Over time the confidence comes through. You live in a gorgeous area. Reminds me of Hampshire. I lived around Winchester and Alresford for many years and loved walking the farms and fields. Very therapeutic.

    • Yes, we are very similar to Hampshire.

      Thank you for your encouragement, I am sure it will be easier for me next time round. Confidence is a funny thing, you don’t want to be over or under confidence.

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