The Lonely Hearts Book Club
“Characters discover that the pain of growth is worth embracing rather than escaping . . .”
If you enjoy feel-good novels, you’ll surely feel good after reading this one. Better yet, it achieves the effect without being sappy. Well . . . okay, it’s sappy. But it’s so well written that the sap doesn’t cloy. Consider it a marvel of poignancy leavened with sharp zings of humor, cut-to-the-quick insights, and superb characterization.
The title captures the premise. All the characters are acutely lonely, although they don’t set out to form a book club. It arises spontaneously as a means of keeping their group from falling apart.
The only trait shared by the main characters is a love of books. This includes Sloane, a librarian, for whom “reading was my only life skill.” Her colleague Mateo, a wannabe novelist, works at the library “because this was as far from working in a hospital as he could physically get.” Their antagonist, the elderly patron Arthur—a former literature teacher—retreats into books because he is “sick and spiteful, two qualities that were so much a part of me that there was no way of killing them without killing the man they belonged to.”
Yet mousey and polite Sloane finds herself drawn to cantankerous and rude Arthur because his erudition challenges her own, and his combativeness stimulates her creativity. They come to enjoy a daily sparring match with words and literary references, enough so that when Arthur fails to arrive at the library one day, Sloane grows concerned. Everyone else is glad to have a break from him.
But another day passes, and then another . . . with no sign of Arthur. So Sloane breaks library rules about patrons’ personal privacy to find his address, then drives by his home to make sure everything’s all right.
It isn’t. Arthur has gone down hard with a medical condition, and Sloane breaks out of her self-imposed cage to help him—at the cost of her job. Meanwhile, Arthur’s across-the-street neighbor, Maisie, observes the comings and goings out her window (“always watching, a spectator with her face pressed against the glass”) and probes her way into the scenario. Mateo follows up from wondering what happened to Sloane. Then Greg arrives as his grandfather’s only living relative.
These characters in succession tell the story. Each of their viewpoint sections is divided into chapters (versus each chapter an alternating viewpoint), narrated in a distinct first-person voice (versus an author’s voice with just the names changed). Everyone in the group is suffering from loneliness, alienation, and hidden hurts, believing themselves unlovable and their dreams impossible. The individual sections end when that character faces their heart/hurts/self head-on for the first time. At that personal turning point, the next character’s section begins.
The book club is the pretext they use to stay together, intuitively recognizing a common need for friendship and support. They do actually read and discuss well-known novels that many readers will recognize, and this exercise gives both the group and readers important food for thought.
What makes this an upbeat novel instead of a downbeat one is the author’s light touch. The tone and tempo resemble those of contemporary romance or women’s fiction. Despite each character being psychologically broken, the author does not allow them to wallow like tragic literary victims. Instead, their story advances steadily, with laser-focused shots to the heart most readers will be able to relate to without feeling battered by collective misery.
Drama comes when each character’s mask gets ripped off as a result of their book discussions and changed behaviors; also from confrontations with other people in their lives who don’t understand their changes and want them to stay the same.
The least bookish character, Maisie, serves as a foil for the others. She’s always watched TV or read tabloids, until “hearing Sloane and Arthur talk about books was like listening to a song in another language. The message didn’t always make it through, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t appreciate the melody.”
However, her unfamiliarity with literature lets her hear the message more easily. Thus she is first to recognize core meanings in the book club’s selections, and how to use them as much as words to heal souls.
Her wisdom puts the group on track to resolve their individual problems. Then they unite to break through Arthur’s carapace. He wishes: “To turn a blind eye to my faults, to sail through life in a sea of ignorance—now that was bliss. People with no introspection had no idea how good they had it.”
But introspection is forced upon them all, which gives the book depth. Characters discover that the pain of growth is worth embracing rather than escaping—a lesson many of us can benefit from learning, too. The Lonely Hearts Book Club provides a heartwarming way to get there.