My daughters are readers, and Evelyn, my youngest girl, has been my special reading buddy these last couple of summers she’s been home from college. She’s as serious as I am about used book fair shopping and if we’re ever at a loss for what to talk about (we’re not), one of us can just mention The Secret History, and off we’ll go.
This summer we decided to launch a Mother-Daughter book club. Just the two of us. Three short books. Each discussion to be held at a coffee shop new to us. Of course, the whole thing ended up being super fun and I only wish I’d thought of doing something like this years ago with my other kids.
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
I’d never heard of this book until an enthusiastic bookseller told me she’d just read it and loved it and then put it in my hands. Good enough for me.
The story is about a couple who have created a seemingly idyllic life for their family in a big country house in 1970s England. That is until Ben, their fifth child, is born. A description of the baby from the back cover: “…monstrous in appearance, insatiably hungry, abnormally strong, demanding, brutal.”
The baby grows into a child so sinister and cruel that the mother must decide whether to save her monstrous child (no one’s sure if he’s human or something else) or save her family, because she cannot do both.
This “gutting examination of the crucible of motherhood” (quote from a New Yorker article) is gothic horror, yes, but for me it wasn’t so much scary horror as moral horror (okay, a few brutal moments).
Evelyn and I both thought this book could be a great read for high school literature classes—a moral fable full of themes about societal and familial responsibility, personal freedom, and human nature. We had a great talk about mother-love. It was my favorite of our three summer books. It dragged in parts for Evelyn and even though it was a short book, she thought it could have been a short story. I gave it a 5-star rating. Evelyn gave it a 3.
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
I’m not on TikTok, but apparently this book has trended there and as a result, had the good luck to make it as one of our Mother-Daughter book club picks. Are we so glad we read it and did we have a jolly good time discussing it? Yes. Did we like it? Not too much.
This epistolary sci-fi romance is about the relationship between two time/space traveling rivals. There’s some kind of “war” going on across time between the Agency (not exactly sure what this is) and the Garden (not exactly sure what this is). The two main characters, Red and Blue, are humanoids I think but I’m not sure exactly what they are.
Red and Blue write letters to each other, but not normal letters. The world of the story is surreal so a letter might be written in essence-of-lemon-rind infused into a hummingbird feather grafted onto a ripple of water. Whether we didn’t read carefully enough or had our avant-garde defenses up, we just didn’t get it.
However, this book made us realize one of the advantages of book clubs—being forced to read what you otherwise wouldn’t choose or would have quit on your own. We marked so many passages to talk about (mostly marked “what’s going on here?”) and had our phones out googling “Dadaism” and “why do people like this is how you lose the time war”. Super fun discussion. But the book earned a 2 from both of us.
After Dark by Haruki Murakami
Evelyn grabbed this one at the used book fair and suggested it since we’d both been wanting to read some Murakami. I’d only read his short stories, so I was totally game.
After Dark follows various characters (a nineteen-year-old girl being our main one) over the course of a night in Tokyo, where the trains do not run after midnight. While most people are home asleep, there is a contingent of people (in this case prostitutes, musicians, criminals, and college students) caught out in the only places open—convenience stores, love motels, and Denny’s.
Throughout the book, the reader is told they are part of the story, if only in the role of a camera lens. Murakami uses this approach to zoom in and out of scenes in a conspicuous way. Then, intermixed with the “real” world is a more experimental story thread involving the main character’s older sister who is locked in a type of sleep-dream. Experimental, surreal, metaphorical, meditative, resonant, yes, all that.
The writing is strong and the concept is creative and my reading buddy had so many smart insights that elevated the book for me. I ended up at a 4 and Evelyn gave it a 4.5.
We talked a little about what our personal 1-5 rating systems were based on. Many times I’ll give a book a 5 but would hesitate to recommend it to anyone else. For instance, I thought We Need to Talk About Kevin was masterful, but only some of us want to read such an intense parenting nightmare about a mother of a kid who kills his classmates (not a spoiler—it’s on the back cover).
Evelyn said she gives a book an initial rating, but if weeks later she finds herself still thinking about it, she might bump it up. So there’s a resonance factor that’s sometimes immediate but sometimes delayed and that plays a part in how we end up feeling about a book.
What we think of as a great book, from a craft or creativity perspective, might not be a book we’d consider to be one of our favorites. So the 1-5 scale tends to be a best output guess when the input is a mix of the quality of writing, our enjoyment factor, and personal tastes.
What amazed me was how on-topic we stayed at our Mother-Daughter book club meetings. My girl and I can literally talk for two hours about a book (with some relevant tangents). Now, if I can just get her to commit to coming home for the next few summers…I’m already looking forward to sipping iced lavender lattes over some Le Guin or Ishiguro.