Longtime reader Denise Neary provides her book club's perspectives on Jodi Picoult's new novel SMALL GREAT THINGS.
Denise Neary: Our book club was lucky enough to get advance copies of Jodi Picoult's SMALL GREAT THINGS, and met to discuss the book last week. If you are looking for a smart, compelling, intimidating book for your next discussion, please consider SMALL GREAT THINGS!
ReadingGroupGuides.com: Tell us about your group, including the size of it, the age range of your members and how long you have been meeting.
DN: Ours is a wonderful, smart, funny and totally opinionated group. And, unusual compared to some book clubs I know, we always talk about the book when we meet. There are twelve of us, all women...two young adults, and the rest all over 50. Our group has been meeting for a little over five years (although five of us previously were in a mother-daughter book club for another seven years). The group meets once a month, typically on a Sunday afternoon. The host selects the book, and we announce a the book for the next meeting at the meeting prior.
RGG: How did your book group get advance copies of SMALL GREAT THINGS?
DN:I attended Book Expo in Chicago in May, and received an advance copy of the book., which I devoured. And I had that great experience when it feels like a book was written just for me! The daily news --- shootings, cries for justice, unrest, accusations --- made me think about the book.
Even on the saddest news days of the summer, I was buoyed by what I had read, and thought the book was a way to help promote discussion and understanding. Racial strife can't be dissolved by understanding; but understanding is key to alleviating racial strife. I feel like I understand overt racism, and I wanted to talk about the casual racism the book explores so beautifully. I knew I wanted to lead a discussion about the book. I reached out to the publisher, and was OVERJOYED to get advance copies of the book.
RGG: The book deals with complicated issues of race and law, both currently hot-button issues. How did that affect the tone of your discussion?
DN: Ms. Picoult might be delighted to learn that I was more than a little intimidated by the discussion. I often lead discussions of "controversial" books: ROOM, THE LOVELY BONES as examples. Why am I comfortable talking about abduction and rape, yet a conversation about race gives me flop sweat? I felt real anxiety prior to leading this discussion. Not to be too adorable, I wanted to do it justice. I shouldn't have worried. The discussion was robust, respectful and fun. I hope even honest!
RGG: Is your group racially diverse? Do you think this influenced your discussion?
DN: We have only one African-American woman in our group; she loved the book, and she told us about some of her experiences that were really helpful and encouraged conversation. The rest of the group is Caucasian. Our group really connected to Ruth. To generalize about our group experience, we are a group with privilege in our lives --- lucky enough to have education and work that matters to us --- so to see Ruth's world (such a familiar world) collapse in a moment was startling. And believable. One of my favorite parts of our discussion was talking about times where each of us felt awkward or out of place because of race. Funny, and sweet and poignant! And each one of us had that experience.
RGG: We hear there are a lot of lawyers in your book group. How did that impact the conversation?
DN: We are an opinionated group of lawyers and non-lawyers. Our group HATED Carla, the hospital administrator. Especially the lawyers! I would give away spoilers if shared what we cheered about, but know we saw at least one "small great thing!" And your group may have its own as well!
Loved Kennedy's closing argument. And we LOVED the role of the judge!
RGG: What new insights did you come away with after your discussion?
DN: So many! A bundle of race and privilege takeaways. We all heard the news differently because of the book. Our eyes were opened to looking at the world around us a new way.
We thought Ruth's taking Kennedy shopping was a brilliant way to show casual racism. We all walked away having considered times when we feel "other." And how for us, being other was a temporary experience.
RGG: Did the book change your (group's) perspective on race and privilege? Is there anything you now see differently?
DN: Our group is aware that we benefit from privilege, and like many privileged people take it for granted or have a hard time seeing it. We discussed how we accept privilege without thinking much about it. And how easy it is to forget how much easier life is to negotiate with privilege. That said, just the fact that we are thinking about things a new way means we see things differently.
RGG: Was the group united in its feeling about the book?
DN: We LOVED the book.
We thought the writing about baby Louis' birth was so powerful, maybe the best section of a very powerful book. We thought Ruth was very believable, and that she had done everything "right" made her the perfect vehicle to tell a story that would be relatable. Some of us would have liked more on some characters --- Ruth's mother and her sister both seemed to have the potential to have been a fourth character/voice. And the issues we found a little far-fetched were based in reality.
RGG: Do you think the book works well for book groups? If so, why?
DN: I think the book is book club gold. The writing is terrific, the story is compelling. The book provides a great avenue to talk about issues we don't want to talk about, and should. We really could not stop talking about the book --- we went well past our typical two-hour window.
RGG: What kind of books does your group usually read?
DN:We read mostly fiction, and have a slight leaning toward literary fiction.
RGG: Had you read anything by Jodi Picoult before? If so, how did this book compare?
This group hasn't read Jodi Picoult before --- although several of us attended a really fun DC Good Housekeeping/Random House event featuring the author a few years ago.
(All that to say if you can meet Jodi, you should try!)
Those from the Mother Daughter book club read both MY SISTER'S KEEPER and NINETEEN MINUTES. In NINETEEN MINUTES, I remember the moms thought the writing about bullying in school was way over-the-top, and the girls saw the descriptions as ho-hum. That was a good book discussion!
I think the author is particularly adept at taking controversial topics, creating believable characters, and writing a story from so many angles you aren't sure where she actually stands. Even thinking about MY SISTER'S KEEPER makes me cry years later!
As good as PIcoult's past work is, I think SMALL GREAT THINGS is in its own lane. A book about race and racism that prompts thoughtful consideration and easy conversation --- that is an achievement. Everything about the book suggests, as the author says, that the idea has been taking root for years. I am so glad she waited until it was just right!
RGG: Who would you recommend SMALL GREAT THINGS to? Why?
DN: I have recommended the book to every reader I know. I gave the advance review copy to several people. And every one of us left the discussion planning to hand the book to someone else to read.
As my small great act of today, I can't endorse it enough as a book club read.