The book club met every third Thursday of the month, usually to discuss literary fiction. Suggestions were tossed about and discussed until one book was chosen; it used to be that the whole club came up with choices, but that had ended long ago.
Ellen Grace Sweetbriar held forth on the finer points of the opus for this month’s book club. Ellen Grace appointed herself head of the book club, selector of books, and final arbitrator of membership, though no one could quite remember how that happened. Somehow she just took charge. In the beginning, the book club members were happy to have someone choose the book and moderate the discussions. After all, it saved time and Ellen Grace was so good at ferreting out books, but it was beginning to grow tedious, especially since nobody liked Ellen Grace all that much. It wasn’t that they minded her selections, but she just wouldn’t shut up about them. She talked and lectured until the book club members wanted to lock her in a closet and commence with the important matters of drinking wine and dishing gossip.
Ellen Grace sat now in a red velvet chair that looked like a throne with its gold gilding and ornate wooden carving talking about the theme of this magnificent, outstanding work of art. “It’s a masterpiece,” Ellen Grace said. “The way she weaves together the mystic and natural, the light and dark. She calls upon the chthonic forces in all of us.”
She was positively quivering, and her face glowed as she looked around the room. She pressed her thighs together as if some chthonic forces were having their way with her right then.
“I thought it was a lot of trash,” said Alice Ross. She sat next to Callie on the sofa and picked at the cheese tray. “Porn. I mean, if we’re reading porn, why not read something like Delta of Venus? Anyone remember that goodie from way back when?”
There were plenty of titters all around. Alice said whatever she pleased. This was her house, and she generally hosted book club. Ellen Grace wanted so much to be Alice’s friend, but except for these nights Alice avoided her as if she were a bit of horse manure stuck to her shoe.
Alice rode every day; she hosted charity events; she didn’t have time for hangers on. She only participated in this group because her daughter Lisle had talked her into it. Alice liked to shake up this group of silly hens by making obnoxious comments. The hell with what Ellen Grace thought.
Ellen Grace colored. “Well, of course, it’s not for everyone,” she said. “I know we usually read more intensely literary titles but I thought it would be a nice break. Everyone seemed to agree.”
“Intensely literary. Intensely pretentious, you mean. You don’t need a book club to read. You pick up a book.” Alice looked at Callie Barnes who shrank back in her seat a little. “What about you? Did you like it? Did you want to read it?”
Callie felt her cheeks turn hot. She hated being put on the spot. She had only been allowed to join because she was friendly with Alice’s daughter Lisle. It was all so entangled. Some nights she dreaded book club. She always felt like she had to paste on her best school mom face and put on her best clothes and try to drag out some literate nuggets so she didn’t sound like a complete moron. She loved to read; why did this club feel like such an ordeal?
Everyone was staring at her in anticipation, and Callie could see the relief on their faces. They hadn’t been singled out. Lisle mouthed, “Sorry.”
Callie glanced at Ellen Grace. Her face was pink. Callie knew that her future in the book club might rest on her answer. In or out? She looked at Alice who was oblivious to the whole thing. “I didn’t have time to read it,” she said.
Alice started to laugh. “You didn’t have time, but did you want to make time?”
Callie felt the weight of Ellen Grace’s disapproval, and she took a breath. “No. No, I didn’t. I didn’t think I’d like it, so I didn’t make the time.”
Alice turned red laughing. She thumped Cassie on the back. “Good for you. At least you’re honest. Not like the rest of these frightened cows.”
“Oh, Mother,” Lisle said. “Really.” Secretly Lisle was delighted. She hated Ellen Grace. She hated the prim way she sat with her thick ankles crossed so primly. She was a little nobody who had wormed her way into the club and now ruled it like a dictator. And Judy Reiff, who’d brought her, had long since dropped out because she said she was too busy. Getting drunk, no doubt.
Every woman in the room looked tense.
Alice stood and glared at Ellen Grace who perched on her throne, her face the color of an eggplant. “You’re just a petty dictator over this, a silly book club.” She turned back to Callie. “Do you ride?”
Callie shook her head. “My daughter rides.”
“She rides with my Megan,” Lisle said.
“Come around sometime with your daughter,” Alice said. “I’ve had enough of this crap for tonight. Lisle, dear, you finish up. Let the queen finish her pronouncements. I’m going to bed and reading a good mystery. Nothing pretentious about that!”
Callie listened to Alice’s shuffling footsteps make their way upstairs. Alice was still chuckling. Lisle cleared her throat and said in her most chipper voice, “All right then, does any one else have any thoughts on the book tonight?”
Maya Reiff said, “I think I could use a glass of wine.”
Lisle smiled delighted. “Maya, darling, you read my mind. Let’s drink and talk trash.”
The women got up and went to the buffet table to refill their glasses. Nobody noticed that Ellen Grace had collected her things and slipped out the door.