The Best Books Club Column: "The Lonely Hearts Book Club," by Lucy Gilmore

Photo by Tom Hermans

For our July book club selection, I wanted something light, but not too light. Or, as I tend to think of it, “light with depth.” Several people suggested “The Lonely Hearts Book Club” (2023); intrigued, I checked it out at the library.

The cover looks light, the title sounds light, and the first chapter or so was somewhat light. But unlike the proverbial duck, the novel isn’t light. Not at first glance, at least.

In Lucy Gilmore’s tale, a health crisis leads to the creation of an extremely unusual book club. The three founding members include Sloane Parker, the stereotypical meek librarian; elderly, extremely angry, book- club-hating Arthur McLachlan; and bubbly divorcée and phone psychic Maisey. Arthur’s grandson Greg and Sloane’s former coworker Mateo soon become reluctant members; finally, Nigel, a well-known book critic and Arthur’s longtime nemesis, joins the group.

Five of the six members are bound by the fact that each is deeply scarred by the loss of once-close loved ones through death or estrangement, and each is desperate to hide the depths of their pain.

Because of my own journey these past 14 and a half years, I found myself identifying with their stories. And from research and my own encounters with innumerable people who have shared their stories with me throughout the years, I feel safe in stating every person who has entered their prime time years — a.k.a. “best years” — can, at least to some degree, do the same.

As I read about Sloane, Arther, et al, I at first grew concerned about this month’s column. I liked the book and wanted to share about it, but I wanted this midsummer column to be like a day at the beach — light and airy.

And let’s be honest: Grief and loss, estrangement and death, are not light and airy.

Eventually, though, I began to realize Gilmore’s tale is not all doom-and-gloom, and in fact has much to offer those who have suffered the death of a loved one or the fracture of a once-close relationship.

“The Lonely Hearts Book Club” is a testament to the healing power of literature. Books — both fiction and nonfiction — offer an escape from our own circumstances, a path from sorrowful introspection to a brighter place. They provide a lens through which to view our losses and our responses to them, learning valuable lessons along the way.

The novel is a reminder of the importance of being open to new experiences. After my husband died nearly 15 years ago, I didn’t seek new experiences; all I wanted was the return of my “old life.” But necessity demanded I find a new job, which led to U.S. and international travel, writing opportunities and other experiences I had until then never imagined. While I still would have chosen my old life in a heartbeat, these new experiences were instrumental in my overcoming and moving past the almost-immobilizing grief of those first several years of widowhood.

Gilmore’s tale is also a treatise on the immeasurable value, not only emotionally but also physically, of opening our hearts and looking past the façade that others wear to the person behind it, of connecting with even the unlikeliest people to create community.

“The Lonely Hearts Book Club” is a story of triumph. It is light with depth.

Some questions and topics we’ll discuss at our July Facebook Live chat Monday, July 8, at 4 p.m. include:

1. What was the driving force behind each character’s decision to join the book club?

2. Which member did you most closely identify with, and why? Whose literary opinions and preferences are most like your own?

3. How do the characters change as a result of their membership in the book club and their interactions with the other members?

4. Parents’ relationships with their children is one of the themes in this book. How is each character shaped by the parents and/or children in their life?

5. The novels the book club chooses to read mirror what’s going on within the characters’ lives. What book best captures your life and outlook right now?

Coming Up

For our August selection, we’ll read the bestselling historical novel “West With Giraffes” by Lynda Rutledge (2021). Inspired by true events, the tale involves a curmudgeonly old man, a young man desperate to travel to California, the world’s first female zoo director and — of course — giraffes!

Patti Miinch, a resident of Cape Girardeau, is an author, mother and mother-in-law of two, grandmother of five and retired educator; while she has many loves, spending time with her family, sports, travel and reading top the list.