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The Book That Matters Most


The Book That Matters Most

In Ann Hood’s THE BOOK THAT MATTERS MOST, a woman uses her love of books not only to rebuild her life after a failed marriage, but to put to rest a decades-old mystery that rocked her family to their core.

For 25 years, Ava has led a happy, if perhaps a somewhat predictable, life with her husband, Jim, and their two children, Will and Maggie. Although Will has always been a golden boy, Maggie has given them some trouble over the years with various drunken nights, poor choices in men and other teenage rites. Still, Ava has always considered her family “normal” --- that is, until Jim reveals that he has been having an affair with a leggy yarn-bomber and is leaving Ava to start over with her.

With Will abroad studying gorillas and Maggie taking a semester in Europe, Ava is left alone to take a highly coveted spot in her best friend Cate’s book club. The group meets once a month and reads 10 books a year, with each year’s books focusing on a certain theme. This year, Cate gleefully announces, they each will select the book that matters most to them. The choices vary from the obvious PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and THE CATCHER IN THE RYE to more surprising ones like A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN and Ava’s selection, FROM CLARE TO HERE. In brief internal monologues, Ava recalls the summer that her little sister tragically passed away, only to be followed by their mother 10 months later in a grief-stricken suicide. That summer, Ava read FROM CLARE TO HERE --- the story of a mother who follows her child into the land of the dead, abandoning her other child to live a happy life free of her grief --- again and again and again. Although she has not thought of it much since, it is clearly the book that matters most to her.

"While it is true that books about books have been gaining in popularity in recent years, in THE BOOK THAT MATTERS MOST, Hood has taken the trope and completely revitalized it."

Ava’s entry into the book club gets off to a bit of a rocky start, as she initially chooses to watch the PRIDE AND PREJUDICE film rather than read. Her lapse in judgment is quickly exposed; embarrassed, she begins to focus on her reading a little more, while forming subtle bonds with the other members of her group --- from cancer survivor Diana, to ritzy, polished Penny, widower John, and even young Luke, a lover of obnoxious hats. Though many of her fellow book club members only make quick impressions, Hood does a remarkable job of making each unique without relying on boring stereotypes or clichés. John in particular was a delight to read about, and his contributions to the book club, though short and quiet, were always the most insightful in their simplicities.

As Ava begins to feel whole again, the chapters alternate between her life and Maggie’s. We see that Maggie has left school to follow a boy to France --- a typical course for her, but one that takes a surprising turn when she meets a dashing older man who treats her like a queen. Of course, he is only preying on her vulnerabilities, and the reader is soon forced to watch as she takes a harrowing downward spiral into addiction and codependence that would make anyone squirm. Although Hood does not shy away from presenting Maggie’s faults, she is careful to balance these issues with her very real dreams and pains, creating a wonderfully well-rounded character. I admit that I am a big fan of mother-daughter relationships in books, but Hood really does something special here in allowing us to watch Maggie and her mother make similar choices while keeping their communications short yet layered in subtleties and hidden messages. At times it was nearly painful to watch as Maggie deceived her mother, but it was always apparent how deeply she loved her, especially during her worst spirals, when she could only hear her mother’s voice.

Soon, Ava is completely absorbed in her group, while Maggie has found herself at rock bottom. Through Hood’s masterful writing and the help of a few life-changing books, the two find not only each other, but themselves. Their lives will never be perfect, true, but the empathy and understanding they have gained through reading will take them long beyond the deeply satisfying ending. I’ve been a fan of Hood’s writing for some time, but I must say that this is perhaps her loveliest book to date, and Maggie may be one of my new favorite tragic characters.

Almost halfway through the book, another character enters the scene: Hank, the retired policeman who once investigated the death of Ava’s little sister. His story intertwines with Ava’s past and present in ways that won’t be fully revealed until the very last page. But he, too, is given such depth and personality that readers will be racing through to figure out what exactly happened that fateful day and how it can be resolved in the present.

While it is true that books about books have been gaining in popularity in recent years, in THE BOOK THAT MATTERS MOST, Hood has taken the trope and completely revitalized it. Although famous and obscure works provide the backbone for her book, it is their universal messages that allow her characters to move and thrive within their world. Rather than applying the most basic of themes from each work, she has clearly studied them carefully and woven them into her narrative with such finesse that even a reluctant reader would be willing to head out and buy copies of every book mentioned in Ava’s club.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on August 12, 2016

The Book That Matters Most
by Ann Hood

  • Publication Date: August 1, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 0393354091
  • ISBN-13: 9780393354096