I have admired Ann Hood for quite a few years – way back to the early 80s. For some reason, she fell out of my radar. But I resumed my love for her work with The Obituary Writer and now, her latest novel, The Book That Matters Most. I really enjoy novels set in libraries and bookstores or stories which revolve around a book club. This novel has all that and suspense, as well.
Ava and Jim have recently separated, Ava is naturally angry and distraught. They have a daughter, Maggie, who is on a year-long adventure to Florence, Italy to study art. Her father financed the entire trip. Ava teaches French at a local college. Cate is a friend of Ava’s, and she has promised Ava a seat in her book club as soon as one opens. A seat becomes available, and Ava joins the club.
Ava recalls Ted, a former partner. Hood writes, “Ted didn’t like books very much. Any books, never mind one about a philosophical seagull. Over a decade ago, when they lived in Manhattan and she was working at the Strand bookstore on Broadway and Twelfth, she would come home excited, a bag full of review copies and hard-to-find used books. She would lay them out on their enamel-topped kitchen table as if they were precious things. They were precious things, she reminded herself now. How she hated the way he shoved them aside to make room for his own textbooks; he was getting an MBA then, poring over facts and figures at that table long into the night” (96). I am glad that “book shover” was quickly out of the picture.
The frame for the novel is, of course, the book club. The annual picking books for the next year occurs, and they do something unusual. Cate, the coordinator of the club announces a theme for the next year. Ann writes, “‘Last year our theme was ‘The Classics,’ and Paula’s pick was Remembrance of Things Past. Can you believe that?” // Ah. Proust. Ava thought, remembering that he was the writer whose words her mother had repeated. There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book. She considered reciting the quote to the woman staring up at here to prove herself worthy to be here, in Paula’s shoes” (14). Now that is an interesting idea, and I might propose we try it as our next book selection event nears.
Meanwhile, Maggie has grown bored with Florence, and she travels to Paris. She meets an older man, and Maggie’s world begins to fragment. She occasionally emails her mother, lying about her whereabouts and her health. Hood writes, “Maggie stood, her knees weak, and made her slow way outside. It was early morning, and the sky was streaked with pink and red. It would be a hot day, she thought. She looked around, searching for something to orient her. A landmark or a street sign. But nothing looked familiar. She walked to the corner, stopped again to look around, still saw nothing familiar, and kept walking, until finally in the distance she saw the green pipes and blue ducts of the Pompidou Center. Relieved, she walked toward it. Nearby was the café where she had seen Noah, and the bookstore with the beanbag chairs. She would have a big café au lait and an omelet and bread and then she would go into the bookstore and sink down in a beanbag chair, and read” (223).
At this point the story comes together with a teary and satisfying ending. Ann Hood is a wonderful writer with lots of talent for drawing her characters, describing their settings, and exploring their anxieties and fears. Part of the story involves the death of Ava’s sister when they barely more than toddlers. Some might call this “chicklit,” but I prefer to call Ann Hood’s marvelous story, The Book the Matters Most a first-rate read for all adults. 5 stars.