There’s a quiet group of book-lovers, of which I’m proud to be one. We have no regular meeting time and no fixed forum at which to express our feelings. This particular book club works in a different way. I’ll give you a recent example.
I swim twice a week at my local pool. Over the years I have got to know a few of the regulars. Last week I was chatting to one female acquaintance about her reading group.
I would love to be a member of a reading group. There is nothing I enjoy more than talking about books (You too? We should become friends at once) but sadly, I am the world’s slowest reader. If there was a book group that met once every three months then I might just be able to keep up.
Also, I don’t really like being told what to read. Or do.
It’s a good job I work alone.
But I digress. My swimming friend was telling me about her group’s most recent choice (The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook, which I had read and loved). She then asked me what I was reading. I told her that I’d recently finished Anne Tyler’s new book.
‘Oh I love Anne Tyler,’ she exclaimed. ‘She’s absolutely brilliant. Do you know? I suggested that my book group read one of her titles and some of my friends hadn’t even hear of her.’
We exchanged a glance and shook our heads, shadows of sympathy and judgemental disappointment clouding our faces.
And that was the moment. Another two members of the Anne Tyler book club had made a connection and a literary friendship was established.
Now I’m not an evangelical sort of person. Heaven knows, the world is full of people trying to impose their will on others. Live and let live, say I and I know every book-lover has their favourite. However for me, a life without Anne Tyler would be a poorer one.
I have never read a writer whose words resonated with me more. She expresses inner feelings, thoughts, moods and life with near perfection.
I have to pause sometimes when reading her books to tell myself to slow down because these are words to be relished and savoured.
I’ll give you an example from her latest novel, A Spool of Blue Thread. One of the main characters, Abby is reflecting on how she feels about her grandchildren.
‘She loved them so much that she felt a kind of hollowness on the inner surface of her arms whenever she looked at them – an ache of longing to pull them close and hold them tight against her.’
I feel exactly the same way about my own children. I’ve just never been able to express it with such simple brilliance.
Three years ago, Anne Tyler came to England to attend the Oxford Literary Festival. She was to receive The Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence (what else?) and give a rare interview.
As I booked tickets for my husband and me, I experienced that jittery panic you feel when you are going to meet someone that you’ve admired for so long. Will they live up to expectations? What if you don’t like them? What if you meet them and you say something stupid? Or burp? Or fart? Or all three?
Yeah, I know. I worry too much.
The interview took place at the Sheldonian Theatre in the centre of Oxford. We arrived early and whilst waiting outside, a small group of people walked past. Among them was a tall willowy lady with wispy grey hair scooped up into a bun. I nudged my husband.
‘That’s Anne Tyler!’
‘Yes! It’s Anne Tyler!’
If I had reached out my hand, I could have touched her. I could have grasped her arm and pulled her into a clumsy embrace. I could have hugged her and told her that she had changed my life; that her words had made me want to write, that she expressed everything I felt and did it bloody brilliantly. I could have then been carted off, shouting like a crazy lady and missed the talk.
Happily reader chums, I merely watched her being escorted into the building and felt a pang of sadness that I’m am not a bit more impulsive.
Still, it meant that we could follow the hoard of other Anne Tyler devotees into the building to find our seats and saved my husband considerable embarrassment.
The Sheldonian Theatre is a large dome-topped building, rather like a church with seats on ground level and encircling it on three sides. We opted to sit high up for a better view and as Anne Tyler and her interviewer, Peter Kemp, made their way onto the stage in front of us, a reverent hush descended.
As the interview began, there were issues with sound but I didn’t care. I leaned in closer to make sure I could hear every word. As Anne Tyler answered each question with wry wit and intelligence, you could feel the room breathe a sigh of relief and swoon.
This woman, who wrote so perfectly and beautifully was everything we wanted her to be and more.
My favourite answer came when she was asked what her idea of heaven might be. This is an excellent question for a writer who deals with mortality in so many of her books.
She told us with a knowing smile that she would be half-way through writing a book, have an eleven-year-old daughter and a new puppy. Who could argue with that?
After the interview, Anne remained behind to sign one book per audience member. We waited in line for an hour and when I met her, I did my best not to gibber like a crazy lady as I told her that she had inspired me to write.
She smiled at me in a no-nonsense, kind way, like a favourite aunt. ‘Wonderful. How many books have you written?’
‘Two,’ I squeaked, doing my best to stop thinking about the fact that Anne Tyler was talking to me. To me! ‘Not quite as many as you,’ I added, feeling immediately ridiculous for stating the bleedin’ obvious.
‘Well keep going and good luck with your writing,’ she told me as she handed back my signed book.
‘Thank you,’ I smiled, heading for the door but longing to stay.
Benediction received, book signed, I walked out into bright sunlight and immediately burst into tears. My husband, who understands me like no-one else said nothing. He simply put an arm round my shoulder and led me to the nearest cake shop.
So yes, I am proud to be a member of the Anne Tyler Book Club and I was overwhelmed to have the chance to listen to her alongside my fellow club members. We are an unassuming, friendly group and if you decide to join our club, you’ll have a lifetime friend in me.
Anne & Annie, 1st April 2012 shortly before I burst into tears.