Read an Excerpt from The Accidental Book Club
Jean Vison dumped a fistful of chopped, roasted red peppers into a pan of macaroni and cheese, and stirred, hoping doing so would make her dish pass as “gourmet.” This was her battle the second Tuesday of every month—calling on her minimal Food Network knowledge in an attempt to upscale her simple cooking and make it book club–worthy. Make it an offering that could sit alongside Dorothy’s chicken with lemon caper sauce or May’s salsa cruda or Janet’s crème fraîche–something-or-other, without Jean feeling embarrassed. Whereas her friends seemed to have actual recipes that called for fennel bulbs and chili threads and things scooped into quenelles, Jean seemed to rely on simply tossing soggy clumps of jarred peppers into her pasta and hoping for the best. She’d never been anyone’s chef.
Besides, it was a book club, she told herself. They were there for the books, not the food. But she knew that was a lie. Her book club may have once been about rekindling a love of reading, not to mention a welcome distraction from her lonely life, but it was now as much about the saffron risotto and the flourless tortes, and even the macaroni and cheese with soggy peppers, as it was about reading. Not that she was complaining. The meals were always amazing—sometimes far more amazing than the book they’d read. Sometimes they spent more time talking about how to get the brown sugar icing just right on Mitzi’s bananas Foster bars than they did about plot development or symbolism. And the sitting and talking while digging into a quiche so velvety it felt like sin was really the only thing keeping Jean going most months.
It was never just quiche or capers or a balsamic drizzle. It was one of Dorothy’s clan of riotous sons in jail once again for stealing a DVD player (“A DVD player, for crying out loud,” Dorothy had railed. “You’d think if he was going to risk jail time, he’d at least be smart enough to steal better technology.”). It was Dorothy’s divorce and her ex’s new girlfriend who wore a thong to the country club pool despite being far beyond thong-age and, to hear Dorothy tell it, having “more hail damage on those thighs than a used car lot in the springtime.” It was Mitzi’s political rants. It was Loretta’s off-color jokes that made everyone choke on their Sangiovese. It was poor, skittish Janet, so nervous she chewed her top lip flaky and chapped, her raw fingers making the fork or the book page or the ice in her water glass shiver while she tried desperately to join in the conversation. It was May’s dating woes.
It was the way nobody ever mentioned Wayne.
It was the way Jean never even thought of him during those meetings.
For two hours, once a month, Jean wasn’t Wayne’s widow. She was just Jean, the one who thought a shaved piece of mushroom or a chopped shallot elevated her cooking. She was just Jean, the one who bought three expensive bottles of Shiraz to go with May’s venison cutlets, the one who carried a printed list of all the best sellers in a fat notebook where she kept record of attendance, as if anyone bothered to worry about attendance. She was just Jean, the one who had it all quietly and delicately under control.
On a whim, she dumped a carton of feta cheese into the pasta and stirred. Now it was Greek macaroni and cheese. Now she had a foreign country to pin it to, which automatically made it exotic. If only she had some fennel to add—not that she could guess what that would do to make a difference in flavor, just that she’d heard a TV chef once say that feta cheese and fennel were like peanut butter and jelly. She knew much more about peanut butter and jelly than fennel and feta, but nobody needed to know that.
She popped the macaroni into the oven, uncorked the first bottle of Signorello, and placed it on the island, surrounding it with a cluster of sparkling wineglasses.
“Halloo?” called Loretta, Jean’s next-door neighbor and best friend of many years, from the front door. Loretta was, technically, the oldest of the group, but in numerals only. She liked to call herself “a born-again twenty-something,” and proved it just about every time she opened her heavily lipsticked mouth.
“In the kitchen,” Jean called back, and poured a bowlful of chocolate candies, which she slid into the middle of the massive dining room table. These would go untouched at first, but if the conversation was lively enough and long enough, they would soon be devoured, yet nobody would admit to having eaten a single one. She double-checked the notes that she had placed at her seat, double-checked that she had her copy of The Marriage Plot at easy disposal. She had so many thoughts about this book, so many things she wanted to say. She was excited about their meeting today. She turned back into the kitchen in time to see Loretta pull a giant loaf of some sort of bread out of a paper bag.
“Let me tell you, Jeanie,” she said, holding the loaf between fingernails manicured to match the deep red of her lipstick, “this bread is better than sex. The best thing I’ve put in my mouth since college. And, trust me, I put some pretty amazing things in my mouth in college. A whole phone book of amazing things, from Adam all the way to Zachariah.”
Jean lifted the loaf to her nose. It smelled sweet and like something else—maybe anise?—and like it might just go perfectly with her Greek macaroni and cheese (yes, she had decided on calling it that). “Butter,” she said, and went to the refrigerator to find a stick.
Meanwhile, Loretta had poured herself a healthy glass of wine and had commandeered her usual spot at the dining room table, just at Jean’s right. “I’m starving,” she moaned, plucking at the front of her button-down to get it just perfect. “Whatever you’re cooking smells wonderful.”
“Greek macaroni and cheese,” Jean called from the kitchen, where she was rummaging for a butter dish, and smiled. Yes, it did sound gourmet when she said it out loud like that.
“Well, then opa! I hope May brings some of those cheesecake things again,” Loretta said. “I’d like to walk barefoot through a field of those.”
Jean popped her head around the corner. “Let me know if you run across a cheesecake field and I’ll be first in line to buy it. And I’m sure she will. You practically ordered her to never bring anything but.”
“For good reason. Those are worth the extra protein.”
Jean snickered. May was legendary for two things—her beautiful, white-blond, thick, curly hair and her food, which always contained equal parts food and beautiful, white-blond, thick, curly hairs. Loretta had been known to call her out on it on multiple occasions, but May, God bless her, only chuckled and told Loretta to “can it and make her own dessert,” and they went back to their lunching and book dishing and pulling hairs out of delicious cheesecake.
There was a knock on the door, followed by the sound of it opening, and Jean could hear animated chatter coming from the entryway. Dorothy and Mitzi, friends and coworkers at American Dollar Bank, rounded the corner, juggling their dishes and books. Mitzi, the younger of the two, and life-dedicated conservative radio talk show listener, was going on, as usual, about something that sounded political.
“Hello,” Jean called out when they reached the kitchen, but neither of them had heard her over their own talking, and simply went on about their conversation, distractedly setting their dishes next to Loretta’s bread and uncovering them.
“Good riddance, that’s what I say. We can’t allow ourselves to continue to be governed by males who can’t keep their pants buckled. I can’t believe voters are so stupid as to keep him in office for as long as they have . . . ,” Mitzi continued.
“I sure didn’t vote for him,” Dorothy said.
“Well, of course not, because you have a brain. That’s why you dumped Elan.”
Dorothy tried to corral her frizzy graying hair behind one ear. Jean noticed a small hole in the armpit of her dress when she lifted her arm. Newly divorced, and left with five out-of-control boys to wrangle, Dorothy was doing good to just get dressed in the mornings. Some meetings, Jean thought, Dorothy looked as if she might nod off right there at the table. “Ugh, don’t mention his name. And, technically, Elan dumped me.”
The door opened again, and May came in, and not long after, so did Janet, reminding Jean of a doe the way she practically tiptoed into the room, looking apologetic, round-eyed, and afraid.
“Hey, Dot, I saw Elan and his stripper at the furniture store—did I tell you that?” Loretta called from the other room.
May, licking her thumb, which she’d accidentally pressed into a cheesecake bite while uncovering it, gave Jean a quick sideways hug, then headed straight toward the dining room. “What were you looking for at the furniture store, Loretta? Something for your reading room?”
“Oh, you know, that damn recliner of Chuck’s has crapped out again. The man’s killed more chairs than shoes, I can tell you that much. I should have asked Elan’s stripper if she was shopping for a new pole,” she called to Dorothy.
“You know, Dorothy, you should really see about going to the rally with us on Saturday . . . ,” Mitzi was saying, but Dorothy had plopped into a chair and was patting the back of her hair distractedly. Tired, Jean thought. She just looked so tired.
“More power to her. If she’s stupid enough to think he won’t cheat on her after he cheated on me with her, she deserves what she gets,” Dorothy said.
May returned to the kitchen and surveyed the counter. “Oooh, that casserole looks delicious. What’s in it?”
“That’s cowboy casserole,” someone—Jean couldn’t determine who—shouted from the dining room, and she heard scrapes of wood on the floor as they made their way toward the food.
“Come in, come in,” Jean said to poor hovering Janet. Then she set out the plates as everyone busied themselves with catching up while pulling plastic wrap off dishes, rummaging for serving spoons, and pouring wine.
As she always did, Jean took a moment to lean back against the counter and just listen. The house was far too quiet with Wayne gone, but it seemed she never noticed until it was full again. Wayne had liked to entertain. Back when the kids were young and they felt like they had all the time in the world, they put off having parties, but when they did have one, it was a party—so loud everyone had to shout to be heard. Wayne’s laughter carried the party to success.
She probably wouldn’t be able to handle a party without Wayne’s laughter now. She’d passed up the few invitations she’d been offered since he died. But this . . . This was a close second. This was the kind of party she could control, rather than a party that would take control of her. That was what she needed more than anything in her life right now. She’d been out of control for so long—everything had been out of her control. This felt good.
If two years ago someone had told Jean that a day would come when her only thought would be whether or not the roasted red peppers would be a good enough addition to the macaroni and cheese, she never would have believed it.
Jean pulled the macaroni and cheese out of the oven and added it to the buffet, and the ladies began loading up their plates, the conversation slowly and naturally turning toward the book, as it always did.
“I didn’t want this one to end,” Janet practically whispered over her plate, which had teeny mounds of food on it, more like samplings than actual portions. Jean had noticed this about Janet, who was so heavy, most of her bottom fell over the sides of the dining room chairs, her ankles often looking spotty and blue underneath the cuffs of her pants as she stood up to leave. “What a realistic look at love.”
Dorothy made a noise. “In my experience, a realistic look at love is when your husband of thirty years follows his doohickey to a woman who uses the word whatevs in every sentence.”
“Not every man is like that. You got a bad one is all,” May said. “I agree with Janet. I thought this was realistic. And . . . pretty.”
“Pretty? How is mental illness pretty?” Mitzi asked, jumping right in, as always.
May shrugged, her delicate shoulders pushing up her spirals. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s the writing that’s pretty. It seemed like it had something more to say. I keep wondering what I would have done if I were Madeleine.”
“I didn’t realize that a marriage plot was an actual term,” Loretta said. “I just thought it was a good title.”
Mitzi nodded. “A literary term, right? I didn’t know that, either.”
“I’m pretty sure it was a term used in the 1800s, because it was a kind of new idea back then,” Janet said.
“I think maybe the title was supposed to be a double entendre.” She stumbled over the ending of the word and immediately ducked down to her plate again.
Jean took a sip of wine. “It was nice to read a meaty romance,” she said. “I guess you can call it a romance?”
“Beats me. I don’t write ’em; I just love reading ’em,” Loretta said.
“Well, I think so,” Mitzi said. “If a marriage plot is literally about the plot, and the plot is about marriage, then isn’t it romance?”
“Not in my marriage, it wasn’t,” Dorothy grumbled. “And that sentence made my brain hurt, Mitzi.”
“Mine too,” Loretta said.
May nodded. “We may be overthinking things. More wine!”
“Either way, I would read more of this guy’s books,” Jean said.
“Hey, Jean, why didn’t we ever read Middlesex?” Dorothy asked. “I think we may be the only book club in the world that didn’t.”
“And it has Loretta’s favorite word right there in the title,” May said.
“What? Middle? Absolutely! I love the word middle. Especially when the other words are fireman and sexy cowboy,” Loretta said, and held her wineglass up, toast-style. May giggled and clinked her glass against Loretta’s.
“Well, I wouldn’t read more,” Dorothy said. “I didn’t like it.”
“Oh, Dot, you just didn’t like it because you’re burned by romance right now,” Mitzi said. Mitzi had a way of speaking bluntly to Dorothy, and sometimes Jean thought she was right on the edge of rude. But Dorothy didn’t seem to mind. Our friendship is honest, she’d been known to say. As honest as a slap in the face.
Dorothy shook her head. “I didn’t like Madeleine. I thought she was . . . I don’t know. Annoying.”
Mitzi reached over and patted Dorothy’s hand. “She’s young. You’re going to find any young girl annoying right now. And for good reason.”
“Absolutely,” Jean agreed. “You’ll come back to romance. When you’ve gotten some distance.” Like me, she almost added, but knew that wouldn’t be the truth. She still had to read romance as an outsider. She still had to skim over the more tender scenes, the scenes that made her think too hard about Wayne.
“Oh, Dorothy, I almost forgot,” Mitzi said, changing the subject. “My neighbor is convinced that your oldest son, Leonard, is the one who stole the hood ornament off his vintage Mercedes. He is seven shades of pissed. You’re probably going to have the cops on your doorstep soon. Just a heads-up.”
Dorothy groaned. “Just what I need—more cops. Those boys . . .”
“Send them to church. A good pastor will turn them around,” Mitzi said. “Send them to my church. I’ll turn them around.”
“Let me at ’em. I’ll take care of ’em,” Loretta offered. “God, this wine is good, Jeanie.”
“You’ll forgive me if I don’t want you defiling my Leonard,” Dorothy said.
Loretta faked indignation. “Well, I never!”
“Oh, yes, you have!” Mitzi and May said together, and everyone, including Loretta, burst into laughter.
Jean placed her plate on the table and eased into her chair. She cleared her throat. “Okay, okay, before we get too sidetracked, we need to discuss our next read. Any suggestions?”
Everyone looked at one another, munching, eyes wide. Jean always asked for suggestions but rarely got them. “All right,” Jean said. “I printed out this list.” She held up the list and waved it around, then looked at it again. “I was wondering about R. Sebastian Thackeray’s newest one. Blame, I think it’s called?”
“Oh, I’ve heard good things about that one,” Loretta said around a bite of Dorothy’s famous tabouleh salad.
“Not everyone. I heard some feminist groups have been giving him grief over it,” Janet said.
“Eh, everyone knows feminists are always looking for something to be pissed off about,” Mitzi said.
Dorothy rolled her eyes. “Oh, goodness, don’t get her started on the feminists.”
“But we liked that one of his that we read last fall. What was it called?” May asked.
“Something about crime lines,” Dorothy said. “It was pretty good. He can write.”
“No Crime in Timelines,” Jean corrected, “and, yes, we all liked it, which was why I thought . . .”
The phone rang, interrupting her. Since Wayne died, her phone didn’t ring very often. Only the book club members ever called, really. Or the occasional telemarketer.
She excused herself from the table and rushed to the kitchen to answer it.
“This is Curt.”
Jean blinked. As long as it had been since anyone had called her, her son-in-law Curt had never called her in the seventeen years since he’d married her daughter, Laura, and whisked her away to the other side of the state. “Yes, yes, how are you?”
“Uh, not good. I’m afraid there’s been a little problem.”
“A problem? What kind of problem?” Jean laid the book list down on the counter.
“It’s Laura. She’s in the hospital. I think maybe you should come.”