The Book That Matters Most


Review: Marla Cantrell
by Ann Hood |W. W. Norton & Company | 358 pages | $25.95


The question of what happens when a long marriage ends is the fodder for countless novels. One of the parties leaves, the other deals with the fallout, and both are forced to change in ways they never imagined. This is how The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood begins. Ava, middle-aged and nearly falling apart is mourning the exit of her husband Jim who left her for a woman he knew years before.


Ava’s story starts the week before Christmas. With her marriage in tatters, she tries to rebuild her life. Her friends step in, one of them asking her to join a book club. Each of the twelve members must pick the book that mattered most to them, to be read the following year. Each month, they’ll tackle one book. Ava, since she’s a new member, is given the month of December.


While the rest of the novels are those you’d expect—To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Anna Karenina—Ava picks a book that’s so rare the club members can’t find it. But Ava insists the book, From Clare to Here, changed her life and that she can get the author to come speak to the group about it.


That is the first lie Ava tells. She also cheats on her first assignment, watching a movie based on Pride and Prejudice instead of reading the book. These indiscretions are a symptom of her situation, of feeling lost and hoping this new group will somehow save her.


But the book club is just half of the story. Ava has two grown children, a boy, and a girl. Her son is fine, but her daughter Maggie is in deep trouble. The novel toggles back and forth between Ava’s story and Maggie’s.


Maggie, who’s supposed to be studying art in Italy, is actually living in Paris with an older married man. He supplies her with everything she wants, including an array of increasingly more dangerous drugs. As she becomes addicted, her life hangs in the balance.


Because of the chaos Ava’s experiencing, and because Maggie is so good at lying to her mother, it takes Ava a while to figure out that something ghastly is going on with her daughter. As Ava realizes Maggie is not where she’s supposed to be, and begins to search for her, we learn more about Ava’s childhood, and the tragedy that took both her mom and her younger sister.


The Book That Matters Most looks at how quickly life can change, the effect of childhood trauma, and the consequences of family secrets. But the author doesn’t leave readers there. She also shows how strong we are. And how forgiveness works miracles. And how beautiful life can be when we’re given a second chance to get it right.

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