My three book clubs: Pandemic, parenthood highlight this month’s selections | Books

Jodi Picoult’s book brought back a flood of memories from March 2020 while two stories captured the challenges of motherhood in novels I read and discussed in my three book clubs in March.

‘Wish You Were Here’

What I thought • Set in the time when the initial waves of COVID-19 hit the United States, “Wish You Were Here” takes on some of the pain, isolation, stress and heroism brought on by the pandemic.

Diana and Finn have planned a romantic vacation to the Galapagos Islands, and Diana expects there will soon be wedding bells. Life is nearly perfect for the couple who have their lives mapped out, but on the eve of their March 2020 departure, Finn, a surgical resident at a New York hospital, tells Diana he can’t leave. He encourages her to go on the nonrefundable trip.

Diana arrives to an island under quarantine, where she is stranded with little Wi-Fi or cell service. Isolated from most of the world, she makes a connection with a dad and her daughter de ella on the island while discovering everything beautiful the island has to offer. Meanwhile, in New York, Picoult gives you a front-row view of health care workers and what they faced as Finn and other medical personnel fight to save lives while they themselves are in constant peril. As many people have during the pandemic, both Diana and Finn gain an understanding of what is important in their lives.

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Picoult does a great job of incorporating research on the coronavirus without overloading you with too much information, but if you are not into art, you may find the author’s deep dive into the art world (Diana is an associate specialist of art collectibles at Sotheby’s) a bit of a drag.

Don’t skip the author’s note at the end where Picoult, who has asthma, describes her initial reactions to the virus and the process that brought her to write this book.

At book club • For several readers, Picoult’s story reminded them of their own bouts with COVID. The book hit so close to home for one member that she couldn’t finish it. We all discussed where we were and what we were thinking as the virus arrived more than two years ago. There were some questions about the timeline Picoult used in the book about when events happened, but we were forgiving. “She writes books that are so contemporary,” one reader said. “Books that really touch you emotionally.”

On the upside, the book all made us want to go to the Galapagos and perhaps meet a handsome Gabriel while we were there. Our Irish eyes were also shining (it was March 17) with the grand feast our host served: corned beef, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, Irish soda bread and a minty green ice cream for dessert, all washed down with some Killian’s Irish Red.

'The Vanishing Half'

‘The Vanishing Half’

What I thought • In the curious town of Mallard, Louisiana — it’s so small “you won’t find it on any map” — light-skinned Black people have their own biases. It’s the 1950s, and twins Stella and Desiree long to escape the tiny, stiff town where their prospects are limited. They run away to New Orleans, and eventually their paths diverge. Years later, Desiree returns to Mallard with bruises and a dark-skinned daughter in tow. Nobody, including Desiree, knows where Stella has gone. Racial identity is the core of the story, but motherhood, spousal abuse, sexual orientation, gender identity and self-acceptance are also among the many subjects covered in this novel.

I read this book more than a year ago, so I decided to listen to it this time to refresh my memory. There are many characters, and the book’s timeline jumps around a lot, so knowing the basics of the story, I found myself enjoying it more this time around. Though this book is a little soap opera-ish, Bennett is a descriptive writer, and narrator Shayna Small did a beautiful job of giving the characters a voice.

At book club • At least two members were bothered by the unlikely coincidences in “The Vanishing Half.” “It was pleasant to read,” said one reader. “And it was only afterward that I was like…wait a minute.” Another member was “rolling her eyes a lot” as she read because of the improbability of many things in the story, but she agreed it was an entertaining read. One person suggested her family’s “DOI” rule. Don’t overthink it.

‘The Push’

What I thought • I enjoyed this book with a not-so-magical but chilling ending when I read it last year. Another novel touching on motherhood, the book’s character Blythe is struggling with connecting with her daughter, Violet, during the stress-filled days of early parenthood. Her husband de ella mostly brushes off her concerns de ella, but Blythe’s family’s pattern of mental illness makes her worry that it has damaged her. After the birth of her second child, with whom she immediately bonds, she begins to wonder if it’s her daughter de ella and not her de ella.

Written in short, punchy chapters, “The Push” is unsettling and at times gut-wrenching.

At book club • Most readers were captured by the book, finding it disturbing but hard to put down. “It kept me wondering if Blythe was really seeing things properly,” said one member. Or was it really Violet who was sociopathic?

One member didn’t care for it. “I found the whole thing depressing. … The dad was a jerk, and the mom needed way more therapy than she was getting.”

Bonus books

• If you need a book to take to the pool this summer, “Mary Jane” would be a great choice. In her funny, sweet coming-of-age story, author Jessica Anya Blau takes you on a nostalgic trip back to the 1970s with avocado-colored appliances, President Ford references and gender stereotypes from that time period. Told from the perspective of 14-year-old Mary Jane, this may seem like a young adult novel, but it’s really not.

It’s the summer of 1975 and Mary Jane has led a sheltered life with conservative, strict parents and an education from a private school in Baltimore. Her eyes de ella are opened after being hired by a free-spirited family to nanny their 5-year-old daughter. While Mary Jane’s parents are reserved, the Cone family is messy, emotionally demonstrative and not so concerned with appearances. Throw into that mix a rock star with a heroin problem and his celebrity wife, who have come to live with the Cone family for psychiatric treatment from Dr. Cone, and it’s a life-changing summer for Mary Jane, who discovers the person wants she to be

Exploring race and class issues of the time, this novel goes deeper than many coming-of-age stories.

• A return to commuting for my new job wasn’t all bad — it gave me time to listen to two audiobooks in March. Aside from “The Vanishing Half,” I also listened to “The Stranger Diaries.” I chose Elly Griffiths’ gothic page-turner on a recommendation from this newspaper’s Book-Dispatch Facebook group — it was cited as an example of dark academia.

Clare Cassidy is a high school English teacher in rural Sussex, England, who has a fondness for gothic author RM Holland. His former home de ella is now part of her school’s campus de ella. Clare is writing a biography on Holland and moved to the small town with her teen daughter, Georgia, after a divorce.

But when Ella, Clare’s friend and colleague, is found dead, life imitates art as real-life murders begin to mimic those in Holland’s famous story “The Stranger.”

Clare is one of three unreliable narrators—Georgia and Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur are the other two. Interspersed throughout the novel are experts from “The Stranger,” giving clues along the way.

The frequent change in points of view, not to mention the story within a story, made the complex narrative a little hard to follow sometimes on audio. But I mostly enjoyed this story, which set a creepy mood of suspicion and dread and had the inklings of an old-time crime novel. I’m also a sucker for a book with a cute dog or cat character, and Herbert, a small, white rescue dog who looked “just like an illustration in a child’s picture book,” filled the role.

Norma Klingsick is a former designer and editor at the Post-Dispatch. She can be reached at

Saturday, April 9th, 2022


Saturday, April 9th, 2022


Friday, April 8th, 2022


Saturday, April 9th, 2022



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