The Good, The Bad, & The Boozy

Embrace The Chaos Of A Suburban Book Club

Plus: What happens when “book club” really means “wine club.”

by Anna Davies
How to join a book club in the suburbs.
ansonsaw, FatCamera, Yevgen Romanenko, Westend61, Saktanong Chaipunya, EyeEm, Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Book clubs: They’re as much a suburban cliché as carpools and Target runs. They’re also a really effective way to meet new people — or find out who aren’t your people.

Take it from me. I spent my 20s bopping between Manhattan and Brooklyn, where I briefly joined a book club that met at all-you-can-drink mimosa spots. So when I moved down to Savannah, Georgia, by myself when I was 30, I thought a reading group would be a good way to recreate the social circle that I’d miss from New York City.

The first meeting was on the rooftop of a cool local bar. During the discussion about the book, which took place during the Holocaust, one woman raised her hand and flipped back her hair. “I don’t know why it’s such a big deal,” she said. “Our country lived through the Great Depression, and we don’t talk about that all the time.” I was horrified and found myself getting red-faced, schooling her on how problematic her statement was.

I never went back, but it wasn’t a waste of time — I realized very quickly who I wasn’t going to be friends with. And, a few months later, I became part of a fun, informal, impromptu book club with a few neighbors. And although that first group was awful, I’m glad I went and would encourage anyone who moves to a new place and wants to widen their social circle to go to one as well. (I also went to a hiking club, sip-and-paint night, and a ladies business networking lunch during my time in Savannah. The point: When you move, join things. You can always quit.)

But book clubs don’t require business cards or hiking boots or artistic talent, meaning they just may be the social groups with the lowest bar to entry — and the fewest excuses. So before you buy Sally Rooney’s latest, learn what suburban dwellers wish they’d known before they went to book club.

Yup, There’s Usually A Lot Of Booze

That joke that “book club” really means “wine club”? It’s true. “I got so drunk at my first book club meeting,” recalls Sally, 36, who moved to the Atlanta suburbs four years ago. “I hadn’t met a lot of the other people, so I was nervous and I probably drank a bottle of wine by myself.” Luckily, says Sally, other members were just as tipsy, and the drinking had become lubrication for a juicy gossip session — with minimal discussion of the book.

Still, having a topic of discussion can open up the conversation far more than simply inviting people to come over and talk. It’s fine if book club morphs into “let’s drink and catch up about our lives,” as long as everyone’s on the same page, says Renee Solomon, clinical psychologist and CEO of Forward Recovery, an addiction treatment center in Los Angeles, California.

But sometimes, the boozy bonding can go too far. “I once went to a friend of a friend’s book club. One woman got really drunk and emotional. It wasn’t about the book — she had gone through a bad breakup. But it felt really uncomfortable. I was hugging her, and she was crying on my shoulder because we were sitting next to each other,” recalls Shawndra, 32, from Nashville, Tennessee. “I ran into her a week later at a coffee shop, and she had no idea who I was!”

If book clubs have become code for booze clubs — or if you never know who’s going to throw up or cry — it’s a good idea to change the venue, says Solomon, who recommends picnics or breakfast, where alcohol is less likely to make an appearance. Also: If you feel like you need to drink to get through the get-together, it’s a sign that it may not be the best group for you.

Try, Try Again

OK, so your first group meeting was awkward. Go again, say people who’ve been there, done that. “My first book club was so awkward,” recalls Laurie, 32, who has belonged to one for four years in her Boston suburb. “I hadn’t read the book and I felt like I was in college. Everyone was trying to talk to make themselves sound smart, not to connect.” But Laurie went again and, little by little, the walls broke down.

“I think what saved us was having anonymous polls for which book to read next,” says Laurie. “At first, our goal was to read ‘important’ books, but it turns out that we were a lot happier reading celebrity memoirs.” It can also help to focus on what your book club goals may be: Is it to have something to do once a month, get the lay of the land in a new town, expand your literary horizons, or make new, close friends? Your goals will determine your group MO — and may also determine how much you share with the group.

Other times, you outgrow book club — and that’s OK, too, says Alison, 42, from Seattle, Washington. She recalls the slow fade of her 10-year-long membership: “My book club died a slow death by sh*tty ‘bestseller’ books. Anyone who actually cared about books left the group to teach literature, write their own books, or open poetry bookstores. The rest of us drank wine, and I explained the books. When the pandemic hit, everyone went dark. No idea what happened to book club! We all conveniently ghosted each other.”

Sometimes, Book Club Grows Into Something Bigger

Melanie, now in her 40s, has been in a book club with her ex-husband’s friends and frat brothers for nearly 20 years. “For comparison, the marriage lasted six years,” says Melanie, who lives in the New York City suburbs. “We take turns picking books but do a mix of modern and classic. Our most lively discussion of all time was over Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.”

Robin, 38, who lives in the Atlanta suburbs, joined a book club through her church. After George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, the group began focusing on racial justice books. The members then decided to shift their focus toward social justice initiatives, including campaigning for local politicians. “I had never thought of myself as a ‘political’ person,” says Robin, “but that part of me had a chance to flourish through my book club.”

6 Ways To Do Book Club Right

Don’t wait for an invite. Some suburban book clubs may seem exclusive, so look around. Your local library or bookstore may have one, or you could ask local Facebook groups if any clubs are going on. And if all else fails? Look at the social circle you’re already in — maybe your yoga studio, favorite coffee shop, or bar would host and help promote.

Actually read the book. Or at least listen to the audiobook. If you can’t swing either, read the first chapter, the Wikipedia summary if applicable, and an interview with the author. The more knowledgeable you are, the more talking points you’ll have.

Go outside the box. When Emily, who lives in the Philadelphia suburbs, was in her 20s, she joined a book club of women in their 40s and 50s. “They were my mom’s age, but I didn’t have many friends in town, and they were great. I loved talking with them!”

Make it work for your schedule. Consistency is key for book clubs. Some people love a Friday night hangout, but get creative. Early morning coffee and breakfast before work may be easier, for example, if you have a long commute.

Add a WhatsApp thread. Having a (mutable, hideable) conversation throughout the month can be a way to keep in touch, share thoughts, send polls, and otherwise make sure book club doesn’t fade.

Invite the author. Many authors, especially lesser-known ones, are happy to virtually drop in on a book club, and it can add another dimension to the same old routine. Reach out to them on their socials, and if they do stop by, make sure people are ready to ask questions and engage.

Source: Renee Solomon, clinical psychologist and CEO of Forward Recovery, an addiction treatment center in Los Angeles, California.