Book Club: People of the Book

This month’s selection was Geraldine Brook’s latest, People of the Book. Brooks has been a favorite of our group — we’ve read Nine Parts of Desire, Year of Wonders, and of course the Pulitzer Prize winning March. I really enjoyed this selection but missed our gathering because I got the night wrong. Oops!

Brooks is especially gifted at creating compelling characters with rich interior lives. The novel centers on Australian book-conservation expert Hanna Heath. I just loved her intelligence, wit, and independent spirit. Who could have thought that the subject of a book and its history would be so exciting, even sexy?

My field is U.S. women’s history, so my knowledge of early modern and modern European history is a bit rusty (last time I took Western Civ was in 1983). This book certainly forced me to go back and review and/or fill the holes in my memory. I found the historical characters and settings very convincing for the most part. The only one that didn’t really wring true for me was the last one set in fifteenth-century Seville. Like the ending to Year of Wonders, it just didn’t ring true to me. I also thought that the explanation of how this character fit with the illustrations of the Sarajevo Haggadah was really a stretch. Finally, I think the book could have done without the potboiler ending — seemed to me she was trying to duplicate The Da Vinci Code here. Nevertheless, the detective work certainly beats that predictable piece of crap by a million miles. I’d love to see this book made into a film — I could easily imagine Rachel Griffiths as Hanna.

I also really admire her approach to historic preservation. In the voice of Hanna, she writes: “To restore a book to the way it was when it was made is to lack respect for its history. I think you have to accept a book as you receive it from past generations, and to a certain extent damage and wear reflect that history. The way I see it, my job is to make it stable enough to allow safe handling and study, repairing only where absolutely necessary.” Now, I used to serve on the board of the Burlingon, Ct Historical Society — one of the goals of the group is to preserve the Elton-Brown Tavern in the center of town. One member stubbornly insists that the name should be restored to just the Elton Tavern — this seems to me to ignore the history of the town’s inhabitants. Also, the tavern was in private hands for many years, only being bought and restored in the 1970s. I think it would have been really cool to preserve some of that history — I wonder if the kitchen had any of those funky avocado appliances from the 1970s, or orange shag carpeting?!

The book group discussion guide on Brooks’ website asks a question about Hanna’s mother Sarah, a neurosurgeon who left Hanna in the care of nanny’s so she could pursue her career. I’d agree with the guide that gains in women’s rights owe something to gusty women like Sarah, but it’s too bad Brooks felt it necessary to portray her as such a bitch (yes, I know female surgeons of her generation had to be bitches to survive). Also, it seems to me that Sarah’s story is an individual struggle, not one for women as a class, although she does show respect for nurses (unlike some other female surgeons my Mom, a retired OR nurse supervisor, has told me about). My intro to WGSS class just finished reading “Mommy Wars” — I’ll say more about this later, but my main problem with that book is that with the exception of Jane Smiley’s essay, the book portrays each women’s story as an individual balancing act rather than examining the structural problems that place women in this dilemma to begin with.

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