Local Book Club for Women Adapts and Finds New Ways to Bond

By Angela Barbuti

Hemingway once said, “There is no friend as loyal as a book.” But what he failed to mention was that friendship can also be built upon a shared love for the written word. And there is no better example of this than our neighborhood’s own West Side Stories book club. This group of literary ladies, which formed in 2015 on Meetup.com, consists of 50 members who live or work on the Upper West Side. Designed for women ages 30 to 55, it meets monthly for thoughtful conversation over dinner at a local restaurant.

Although the COVID pandemic has halted their in-person discussions, it hasn’t stopped the committed readers from still gathering virtually. They have already conducted two meetings using Zoom, with women joining in on the video conferencing platform from their quarantine spots spanning from the Jersey Shore to Putnam Valley. Besides their usual book banter, they also catch up on their new life situations. “You also gain different perspectives on how everyone is dealing with the crisis as well,” said Victoria McNulty, who joined the group in early 2018. “We can all smile together and take our minds off our lives for an hour or two, and that’s important. I just wish someone would serve me dinner at my house!”

During this difficult time, the group’s organizer, Lallande deGravelle, who took the helm last fall, is currently keeping the guest list open to whomever wants to attend. However, sessions are usually limited to 14 in consideration of most venues’ space constraints and to retain the quality of closer-knit conversations. Once an upcoming meeting is announced, it is filled within a day, and each month, there is a waiting list of up to 15. Because of its popularity, there is also a waiting list just to join the group, which is capped at 50 since administration costs on Meetup increase based on size. “I get close to 100 requests a year,” deGravelle said

As for the book selections, they tend to be bestselling fiction chosen during brainstorming sessions at the conclusion of each get-together. When asked which picks have been the most memorable, deGravelle said, “We have the best conversation when we have somebody there who has a life experience that makes it more relatable.” An example she cited was the bestselling memoir “Educated” by Tara Westover, which deals with a theme of isolation from growing up in Idaho. “I think what was so powerful about that conversation was that we had a woman in our group who was from that state,” she explained.

Another noteworthy chat centered around “Circe” by Madeline Miller, which is based on a character from Homer’s “The Odyssey.” Two women in attendance happened to have a deep knowledge of Greek mythology and that added another dimension to the dialogue. “We were able to fill in some of the gaps around the mythology that others didn’t know. It really made it powerful,” deGravelle said. Michelle Ehrich, who has been a regular attendee for two years, named the novel “Small Great Things” by Jodi Picoult, as her favorite to date. “However, I always enjoy the conversation regardless of the book,” she added. “People usually have such varied perspectives, many of which I haven’t considered.”

An additional highlight in West Side Stories’ history was when Random House extended an invitation to their office to give feedback for a title in the final stages of production. “They were looking for our demographic and we certainly made that easy for them,” deGravelle said. Members received an advanced copy of the legal thriller “The Holdout,” by Graham Moore, and joined the publishing house’s marketing department to talk about the book over cheese and wine.

“What I enjoy about this group is that we meet over a meal – rather than just drinks – and often the restaurant matches the theme or location of the book,” said Gabrielle Gosselin, who has been a member for a little over a year. Searching for the right restaurant is always a daunting task for deGravelle. “It is a constant struggle, trying to find a place that can accommodate a group and be quiet enough where we can all talk,” she said. Following what her predecessors had established, she tries to thematically tie the eateries to the novels. So, when they read “Circe,” they enjoyed Greek cuisine at Kefi. The book “Free Food for Millionaires,” about a Korean immigrant, was celebrated with Korean food at The Mill. Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Underground Railroad” was discussed while eating soul food at Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar. The group does look forward to sitting together again one day, but for now, social-distancing picnics may be in its immediate future. At last month’s meeting, an online discussion of “The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver, the women in attendance proposed the possibility of gathering in Central Park once the city starts to reopen. “It’s nice to remember that we’re all in this together, and think about a time when we’ll be able to get together in person again-even if it has to be six-feet apart in the park for a while,” said Liz Benson, who has been in the group since 2016.

Despite this unprecedented chapter, pun intended, this book club’s story will continue. When asked what its meetings have meant during this time, Gosselin said, “I know I have a book to read by a certain date, and doing this makes certain days stand out.” At first, deGravelle thought she would just put the book club on hold, but after members contacted her about moving it online, changed her mind. “So many of us look forward to that conversation every month; it’s become a staple in our lives. By maintaining that monthly cadence, there’s a semblance of normalcy,” she said. “If that’s the one thing that I can do to contribute in this crazy world, then I’m really thrilled that I can do it.”

NEWS | 9 comments | permalink
    1. Sid says:

      Interesting that a piece about a women’s reading group would start with a quote from misogynistic Hemingway.

    2. HelenD says:

      Sounds amazing! Does anyone know if there’s a similar group for those of us who are slightly over the age of 55?

    3. AB says:

      Too bad book clubs seem to be sexist.

      • ZoomZ says:

        INDEED!
        Took the words right out of my finger tips.

        What would they say if it was a book club for MEN?

    4. Albert says:

      Why is the cutoff 55??