The Break-Up Book Club
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Breakups, like book clubs, come in many shapes and sizes and can take us on unexpected journeys as four women discover in this funny and heartwarming exploration of friendship from the USA Today bestselling author of Ten Beach Road and My Ex-Best Friend’s Wedding.
On paper, Jazmine, Judith, Erin and Sara have little in common – they’re very different people leading very different lives. And yet at book club meetings in an historic carriage house turned bookstore, they bond over a shared love of reading (and more than a little wine) as well as the growing realization that their lives are not turning out like they expected.
Former tennis star Jazmine is a top sports agent balancing a career and single motherhood. Judith is an empty nester questioning her marriage and the supporting role she chose. Erin’s high school sweetheart and fiancé develops a bad case of cold feet, and Sara’s husband takes a job out of town saddling Sara with a difficult mother-in-law who believes her son could have done better – not exactly the roommate most women dream of.
With the help of books, laughter, and the joy of ever evolving friendships, Jazmine, Judith, Erin and Sara find the courage to navigate new and surprising chapters of their lives as they seek their own versions of happily-ever-after.
Favorite book: The Red Tent—yes, still!
I read somewhere that the very first “book club” (female discussion group) took place in 1634 on a ship sailing to the Massachusetts Bay Colony when a “religious renegade” named Anne invited a group of women—no doubt exhausted from the voyage and in dire need of a break from their husbands and children—to talk about (and apparently critique) the sermons given at weekly services. (Which was nowhere near as relaxing as, say, a conversation about Bridget Jones’s Diary or Where the Crawdads Sing.)
They continued these discussions when they reached land (because how else did you get out of the cabin to hang with your friends?). It seems this didn’t go down too well with the Bay Colony’s general assembly, because they condemned the gatherings and banished Anne to Rhode Island. Which seems a bit extreme and, frankly, confusing. Perhaps they believed that the state was too small for a worrying number of women to gather?
Women have bravely faced the threat of banishment to Rhode Island ever since, gathering in reading circles and salons and literary clubs and societies. They were aided and abetted by the Book-of-the-Month Club, galvanized by Helen Hooven Santmyer’s And Ladies of the Club, and ultimately validated by Oprah, whose meatier/weighty exploration of dysfunction and unhappy endings put the concept on the map. And perhaps introduced the need for wine at book club meetings so as not to lose hope completely.
Our book club was started in 2004 by Annell Barrett, who owns Between the Covers Bookstore, which takes up the bottom floor of the historic home she lives in. It sits just OTP, which is Atlanta shorthand for Outside the Perimeter, aka I-285, the highway that encircles the city—kind of like the early settlers’ circling of the wagons—and separates the city folk and the suburbanites.
Annell, who is a practical sort of woman, never saw a reason to give the book club a name or confine it to a single genre. She just wanted more readers in the store, and so she picked a book she thought people would like, wrote the title up on the chalkboard behind the register, and offered a twenty percent discount to anyone who joined the book club. Then she promised there’d be wine. (The food to soak up the wine and allow members to drive home legally came later.)
There were five of us, including my friend and neighbor Meena Parker, at that first meeting in the carriage house behind the store, to discuss The Secret Life of Bees. The next month there were ten for The Jane Austen Book Club. He’s Just Not That Into You, requested by then twenty-five-year-old twins Wesley and Phoebe who kept falling in love with the same commitment-phobic guys, took us to fifteen members.
I chose the club over the one that started in our neighborhood because I love everything about Between the Covers and the carriage house behind it, and also because my neighbors liked to talk about one another more than the books. Plus, a few doors from home is not far enough away to avoid coming back for an especially messy meltdown, a lost cell phone, or a science project that is suddenly and inexplicably due.
Over the last fourteen years, we’ve read one hundred and sixty-eight books, which Annell has duly recorded in an official book club binder that she keeps at the front desk. The group swells and shrinks. We’ve had two different sets of siblings. Mothers and daughters. Best friends, work friends, and the occasional frenemy. Some members have left never to be seen again. Others have come back. One member joined as Carl and transitioned to Carlotta, and both of them totally rock their skinny jeans in a way I’ve always dreamed of.
We’ve tried out nearby restaurants and bars, but we always end up back at the carriage house. It’s a reassuring and comforting constant in a world that can take you by surprise.
Like the day I realized that Nathan, my husband of thirty years, had been rewriting our personal history. At first the revisions were so small I barely noticed. A minor detail reinterpreted. A tiny triumph appropriated and then repeated until it became an undisputed part of our marital history.
I never made a conscious decision to allow it. But I didn’t call him on his embellishments, either. (Which in case you’re wondering is the emotional equivalent of faking orgasms and then being doomed to nonorgasmic lovemaking for the rest of your married life.) This is how he became the star of our life together and I became the supporting player.
At the moment, he’s packing the things I laid out for him into the suitcase I left open on the bed. I started letting him think he was actually packing way before the creators of prepackaged meals began putting just enough premeasured ingredients in a box to convince the person assembling them that they were actually cooking.
The first time I did this, the suitcase was made of cardboard, the mattress it sat on was lumpy, and the red-and-blue-striped tie I bought him for his first sales trip came from the sale rack at T.J. Maxx.
“Thanks for picking up the dry cleaning.” Nathan stops long enough to flash me a smile. At fifty-eight, his hairline is in retreat and his features have begun to blur, but his dark eyes still crinkle at the corners when he smiles, and he can still make a person feel like the most fascinating being on the planet.
“No problem.” I don’t bother to explain that I haven’t dropped off or picked up the dry cleaning for a good ten years now. Because really, how can he not know this?
“Have you seen my lucky . . . Ah, there it is.” He lifts the red-and-blue-striped tie—now an Hermès that I reorder from Neiman’s as needed. “Can’t close a deal without this baby.”
“Oh, I’m sure you could close a deal in your sleep if you had to.” The words of reassurance are automatic, but they barely fit through my lips. Because no amount of smiling is going to change the fact that he’s leaving for Europe to introduce the Chickin’ Lickin’ chain of “Southern fried chicken” to key cities. And he did not invite me to go with him.
“I know you wanted to come, Jude, but I’m going to be racing from one meeting to the next. You’d be bored to death.”
“I’m pretty sure I could have found a few things to do in Paris and Rome on my own.” I think about those magnificent cities all lit up for the holidays. The Christmas markets. The department store decorations. The Louvre and Musée d’Orsay. The presepi in St. Peter’s Square.
He slips his Dopp kit, upgraded over periodic Father’s Days, into the corner of the Tumi suitcase. “You know I’d love to have you with me, but I’m going to be completely focused on business. I can’t afford to get distracted.”
Somehow, I manage not to ask if he’s ever heard of multitasking. Nor do I point out that he might never have been anything more than a semi-successful salesman if I hadn’t been there to push and encourage him, to entertain potential franchisees and the company brass, while keeping a sharp eye on our finances.
We never talk about the fact that I’m the one who kept us on a spartan budget so that we could buy our first Chickin’ Lickin’ franchise. Or that I put every penny my parents left me into a second franchise. All while running our home and our lives, serving on every PTA at every school our kids attended, being room mom and team mom and field trip chaperone and . . . it makes me tired just to remember it all.
“I heard from the children today,” I say, because hearing from Ansley and Ethan, now in their mid-twenties and working in different cities, is always a treat and because I’m determined not to pick a fight before Nate leaves town.
“Yes. Ethan thought the interview for the new sales position went really well.”
“Like father, like son.” He nods approvingly as he tucks the last few items into his suitcase.
“And Ansley and Hannah have picked a date over Labor Day weekend.”
Nate’s shoulders stiffen, but he makes no comment. I’m happy that our daughter has found someone to love and share her life with. Nate can’t quite accept that Ansley is in love with and wants to marry another woman.
I’m proud of both our kids. Thrilled that they’re happy in the paths they’ve chosen. That’s a parent’s job, isn’t it? To help prepare their children to stand on their own two feet. Wherever those feet lead them.
It’s not their fault that that independence has left me in the cheering section of their lives without a game of my own.
“Are we ready for the McCall dinner on the Thursday after I get back?” He zips the suitcase and lifts it from the bed. “And the cocktail reception at the club?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“You’re the best, Jude,” he says as he turns and walks toward me to drop a kiss on the top of my head. A friendly pat on the back follows. The kind you might give a teammate. Or the family dog. “I can’t imagine how I’d survive without you.”
I follow him to the foyer, my smile frozen at the compliment that still somehow manages to be all about him. As he glances out the double glass doors to the black car waiting in the driveway, I swallow back the hurt and anger.
Nate is going to Europe where he’ll be on the run, surrounded by people, and fully occupied doing business while I . . . another swallow of unpleasant reality . . . I’ll be filling my time with tennis and yoga and lunch with friends. Extra volunteer shifts. Unneeded mani-pedis. Finishing the book we’ll be discussing at our January book club.
“Well, then.” I swallow one last time. “Have a good trip.”
“Thanks.” He gives me a peck on the cheek and reaches for the doorknob. But then he hesitates.
“You know what?” He turns, and my heart picks up a beat. Maybe he’s going to come back and give me a real kiss. Or maybe he’s going to tell me to throw some things in a suitcase and come with him—because there are plenty of shops in Paris and Rome. Or perhaps he’ll invite me to join him when the meetings are over so that we can have a few days together.
“What?” Hope surges in my veins as I look into the eyes that used to spark with love and adoration.
“I have dinners every night, and the time difference is always a pain. So, I’ll just text you in the mornings to organize a convenient time to speak, okay?”
My mini fantasy, and the hope it fueled, evaporates.
“Yes. Of course.” I smooth my face into a pleasant, unperturbed mask even as I wonder if he’s expecting some sort of thank-you for fitting me in to his day. “Whatever works best for you.”
The sarcasm flies right over his head as he walks through the door, eager to go forth and conquer. While I remain behind. Like a faithful hound you leave off at the kennel on your way out of town.
After Nate leaves, I drink a couple glasses of wine to smooth out the angry edges then watch HGTV reruns until it’s late enough to get in bed without feeling completely pathetic. There I sit up watching The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, then Late Night with Seth Meyers mostly so that the house doesn’t feel so big and quiet and because I’m angry in a way that’s new and unfamiliar and that keeps me from falling into a real sleep.
Tired and grumpy, I down a first cup of coffee in the silent kitchen the next morning then carry a second into the bathroom, where I shower in an effort to wake all the way up. Wiping steam off the mirror, I stare at my reflection and wish someone would hurry up and invent a way to apply makeup with your eyes closed. I actually google this, but so far no one appears to have attempted it. I am left to dry my hair and trowel on the makeup with my eyes wide open.
I putter around the house until it’s finally time to dress for my early lunch at Rumi’s Kitchen with Meena, but no matter how many times I check, the only message from Nate is a brief text announcing his safe arrival. There’s nothing from the kids, either, though I don’t necessarily expect daily communication. I have discovered that sometimes no news is the very best news of all. But this does not apply to husbands.
I’m the first to arrive at Rumi’s, which is named after a thirteenth-century Persian poet, and am shown to a table for two in the center of the rapidly filling restaurant. I’m sitting down when Meena, who has a tendency for tardiness, texts that she’s almost there.
Meena and Stan and Nate and I used to hang out together. We moved into the neighborhood around the same time and had children who were about the same age. Stan and Nate played golf together. Meena and I carpooled, made a fair doubles team in tennis, and often drove to book club together. The kids were in and out of our houses. Not long after we became empty nesters, Stan and Meena downsized to a two-thousand-square-foot condo in a Buckhead high-rise. We stayed put.
It turns out it’s hard to hide from each other and each other’s annoying habits in that kind of square footage. (Which is undoubtedly why even the least-expensive homes in the Atlanta suburbs are so massive.)
They separated just over a year ago. Stan and Nate still play golf. Meena and I still get together, and see each other at book club, but she’s become a little less available now that Stan is out of the picture. They’re not the subject of gossip they were when news of their split surfaced, but it’s generally assumed that although Stan was always a bit of a jerk and a cheater, Meena, now single in her fifties, must be miserable.
This is the first time we’ll be together since their divorce became final two and a half months ago. I’m braced for anger and/or unhappiness and prepared to offer sympathy. A bottle of pinot noir sits open and breathing on the table, and I’ve instructed the hostess that the bill is to come to me. But when Meena arrives, there is nothing pitiful about her.
“Wow! You . . . you look great!
“Thanks.” Her smile takes up most of her face. “I feel great.”
I study her. She’s lost weight and her face is . . . it’s not just the smile.
Meena laughs. “You’re trying to figure out if I’ve had something done.”
Another laugh. “I may have had a little tightening around the eyes. A filler or two.”
She does not mention a boob job or tummy tuck, but the transformation is stunning. So is the smile on her face. “I wanted to look good for my online dating profile. I hired this adorable young girl to shoot photos for me.” She pulls out her phone, and within seconds I’m looking at absolutely gorgeous shots of Meena both posed and candid.
“You have an online profile, and you’re . . . are you really dating?”
“I am.” She pours us both a glass of wine and lifts hers to mine. “And it’s so much more fun than I ever imagined.” She laughs this light, happy laugh. “I wanted to be prepared in case I’m ever naked in front of someone who didn’t know me before I had children.”
I cover my gasp as the waiter approaches to take our orders then down my entire glass of pinot and start on a second as Meena chatters on about swiping right and swiping left. “It’s this incredible validation to see how many men find you interesting when your husband has barely looked at you for years.” She scrolls and taps her phone. “This is Frank. We’ve been out a few times. He’s a very successful software sales rep. His office isn’t too far from my condo.” She angles the screen toward me, and I see a smiling, clean-shaven man with even features, a squared chin with a comma of a cleft in it, and bright-blue eyes. His dark hair is threaded with gray. He looks to be in his mid-sixties.
“He’s cute. And he has a really nice smile.” I feel an actual rush of what may be jealousy as we finish off the bottle. “Did things get settled all right financially?”
“Better than all right.” She leans forward. “I was completely freaked out when Stan first told me he wanted a divorce, but I had the greatest attorney. I absolutely loved her, and honestly, it was inspiring to see a woman kick butt like that.”
We finish our meals and contemplate the dessert menu. Meena’s the one who orders the dessert and a glass of champagne for each of us. When the bill comes, it’s delivered to her.
“Oh, no. I invited you for lunch. It’s definitely my treat.”
“No, it’s mine. A lot of my friends beat a hasty retreat when Stan and I broke up.” She toasts me with what remains of her glass of champagne. “Your friendship means the world to me.”
When we walk out to the valet to retrieve our cars, she’s still smiling. She seems confident, taller somehow, as if a weight has been lifted from her shoulders. We hug and promise to see each other at book club in January. She flashes me a wink and a last smile as her car arrives. I realize the weight she’s lost is named Stan.