Today's post is from the newest member of the She Reads team. We're happy to welcome her as a guest on Novel Matters. It's incredibly interesting for writers to be allowed to "sit in" with a book club as they discuss novels through the lens of real life.
Although still debating what she wants to be when she grows up, SheReads book club columnist Melissa Hambrick is a former entertainment industry PR exec, a full-time stay-at-home mom of two boys and a part-time volunteer for any school function that she didn’t scrunch down in her seat far enough to avoid. Having written for numerous publications, including Home Life and Today’s Christian Woman, and with chapter one of what is sure to be a bestselling novel stored in her laptop for the last year and a half, she blogs at WordMom.com less frequently than she probably should. Her book club, which she lovingly dubs ‘overachievers anonymous,’ actually has a strange preference for books they don’t really love, which they find leads to much more interesting conversation.
Tonight’s Book: Shelter Me by Juliette Fay
Pasta Fagioli Soup*
Sigh. At 4 p.m., the Sunday night of our book club, our telephone rang. My husband’s best friend had gone out for a run that morning, had a heart attack, and died. At the age of 41.
My husband and I were both rocked to the core. They’d just had lunch together 48 hours ago at a Chinese buffet. Neither of us completely believed it—and I’m not sure that even after the funeral—a Catholic high mass—we get it either. The service seemed so formal and so far removed from the Kansas Jayhawks-loving Southern boy with the dry wit that we knew, it was tough to reconcile the little pewter urn on the altar with this man who was so full of life.
My husband went for a drive—“Carefully!” I called out to him as he left the house. And when he came back, he insisted I go ahead to book club. It was so hard, leaving to be with my group of women who share and support each other, knowing that his best guy friend was gone. And you know how guys are with friends—they don’t usually have a big circle that chats and keeps up with what’s going on, unless it is the standings in their fantasy football league.
So eight of us girls got together over comfort food—an amazing Italian soup, crusty bread, chicken salad and strawberry shortcake—to talk books, life and death. The evening couldn’t have been more comforting if we were all sitting around in our Snuggies, which, actually, might not be a bad idea.
Juliette Fay gives a brilliant glimpse into the life of Janie, a young mother of an infant daughter (still nursing) and a preschool son, whose husband has just died in an accident. In the author insights and extras provided with my copy of Shelter Me, Fay says:
“The story of Shelter Me has been in my head for a long time, in various forms. I think its first cell-divisions began when I got married. I had never loved anyone the way I loved my new husband, and had never felt so loved. I became quietly, privately terrified of losing him. I wonder if everyone doesn’t have these thoughts at some point. You love someone—your spouse, children, best friend, aunt, dog—so much, you know that if anything happens to them, you might not be able to put one foot in front of the other anymore. Nothing would make sense. You’d forget how to do simple things like make toast or swallow.
Then we started having children and I thought, “Okay, now I’m really in trouble.” Not only did I worry that something might happen to them, I still had the fear of losing my husband, and I now had to worry on my kids’ behalf about losing their father. Making up stories about how I would manage was a way for me to process my own fear.”
So, the good news is that for those other anxiety ridden folks like me (and quite a few of the girls in book club)—yes, you are apparently normal. One clubber calls it “going from 0 to 60 in ten seconds or less.” On 9/11, a dear friend of hers lost her husband in the Trade Centers. Counseling helped her friend and their family, but this clubber says that it was if she herself had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—while her friend had gone through therapy and begun to heal, she’d been fighting off her own rather severe case of the “What ifs.” She does it, I do it, and I’m betting you do it, too. This is why we women seem to have a hotline to God.
Fear does crazy things to us, and so does grief. Shelter Me is the journey that Janie takes from being a widowed mom whose milk has dried up and is afraid to get out of bed, back into real life.
It’s like that moment you slam your finger in a door and it hurts so bad, and happens so fast, that you say something that unfortunately the two-year-old decides to parrot for the next week. Except losing your husband—that’s like slamming your finger in a door, every day, every minute.
I will concede that while we all enjoyed Shelter Me, it was not my personal favorite. It had a tendency to dangle its toes into Lifetime Movie waters a bit with her relationships with men—too convenient, too dramatic in one instance, too hunk-with-a-heart-of-gold-clad-in-plaid-flannel-and-tight-jeans in another. For some reason Valerie Bertinelli and Aiden Quinn keep coming to mind.
We loved her relationships with the other women in her life, especially given her mother’s reluctance to return and plug back in to a family relationship, even through the tragedy. Aunt Jude is a gem—everyone needs one. Her neighbor, the new friend she discovers through her son’s preschool, even the women in her self-defense class—these are wonderful examples of how women’s relationships can be so foundational to each other.
Most of all, we loved Pology Cake. This should be mandatory in life—apologies should always be accompanied by cake. Of course her cousin Cormac helped her to pick out the exact Pology Cake for the appropriate “restorative justice,” as Fay calls it. Who knew that chocolate cake wasn’t a one-size-fits-all? One clubber mentioned that she took donuts to a friend when her dog died, to which I replied, “Of course. Nothing says, ‘I’m sorry your dog died’ like a box of Krispy Kremes.”
Losing someone is painful and no amount of “what iffing” is going to prepare anyone for it. Fay reminds us that the process is debilitatingly ugly and refining, with glimpses of beauty and a promise of a new beginning.
Our friend is gone. I drive down the road, thinking, He’s not here. He’s not on this earth anymore. How can that be? But I find pleasure that he got to laugh at the fact that Tennessee had yet another snow day for only one inch of snow. And that while his nieces and nephews won’t have their uncle’s hand to hold, he’s sure to still be at every baseball game. And I somehow think that he’s having the heavenly equivalent of chicken wings and watching the Jayhawks play basketball.
Questions for Discussion:
1. Have you ever mentally put yourself in Janie’s place? How do you combat those overwhelming “What if” feelings?
2. Do you have a version of Pology Cake? How have you restored yourself with someone when you realize you have messed up?
3. What did you think about Janie’s relationship with Jake? Was it inevitable?
4. Dylan spends a good deal of time in this book wearing goggles. Why?
5. We thought Janie’s mom felt like she had “put in her time” and now it was her time to do what she wanted. How do you feel about the relationship between Janie and her mom? Do you think her mom was selfish, or just unable to be who Janie needed her to be?
6. What symbolism did you see in the porch that her husband commissioned before his death being built, and all of the unknown little things that kept being fixed along the way?
Pasta Fagioli Soup *adapted from Family Circle Magazine (which added Kale and 2 cans white beans, instead of one)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes with basil, garlic and oregano
2 cans (14.5 oz each) chicken broth
8 oz small pasta shells
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 can small white beans, drained and rinsed
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Fresh shredded parmesan, for serving
1. Heat oil in lg. pot over med. heat. Add onion, and cook 5 min. Add garlic, cook 1 min.
2. Stir in tomatoes, broth and 3 cups water. Bring to simmer over high heat. Add pasta and Italian seasoning. Cook, stirring 5 min.
3. Reduce heat to medium and stir in beans, tomato paste, salt and pepper. Heat through.
4. Ladle into bowls; garnish with Parmesan.