Book clubs have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, thanks to support from bookstores and publishers. If you’re like me, a book club meeting is a welcome opportunity to socialize with other readers. But it can also be a daunting commitment, especially if your club meets monthly and you have other reading you’d like to do beyond your book club’s pick.
Our book club’s solution is to read short novels and novellas. When I read for pleasure, I usually prefer big, fat novels, so my book club affords me the chance to read books I might not otherwise pick up. There are plenty of short books to choose from, ranging from classics of literature to recent publications. I’ve found this site to be very helpful in selecting our next short read: GoodShortNovels.com. There is also a handy list of notable novellas on Wikipedia.
If your book club decides to try reading short novels, I recommend starting with The Awakening by Kate Chopin. This classic was published in 1899, but many people may not have had the opportunity to read it. Even though it’s over one hundred years old, the themes it raises are very relevant to us today and should spark a lot of discussion.
The Awakening is remembered as an early feminist work. When Chopin published it, its subject was so radical that the book was denounced and the author was shunned by both readers and publishers. It is about a young wife and mother, Edna Pontellier, who finds herself changing during a pivotal summer at the Grand Isle resort in Louisiana.
No longer content to remain in her traditional role, Edna awakens to a desire to live as she feels inside and finds it impossible to conceal her innermost passions from the world. But her desires conflict with the conventions of society. Women have come a long way since then, but we can still relate to how Edna feels and the obstacles she faces.
This short novel provides fertile ground for discussion. Here are some suggestions for discussion questions to get you started.
Edna becomes aware of having a dual life: an outer life that conforms, and an inner life that questions. At what key moments in the story does she succeed in living as her true, authentic self? What steps does she take to reconcile her inner life with her outer life? How does this cause problems for her? How might this conflict manifest for women or for other oppressed groups today?
An important issue that the novel address is how children can restrict a woman from living a free, independent life. Edna observes that some of her friends are “mother-women,” who constantly flutter around their children. How do these “mother-women” compare to today’s so-called “helicopter parents”? Edna does not consider herself a “mother-woman.” How does she resolve her conflict between the responsibilities of motherhood and being true to herself? What other choices might she have made?
Toward the end of the novel, Doctor Mandelet offers to help Edna. Later, she feels that he is the only person who might have truly understood her. What help could he provide to a woman in Edna’s situation? Might this help have changed the outcome?
As Edna discovers herself, she is like a child, just beginning to understand what she can do. For example, she learns how to swim and then wants to swim farther than any woman has before. How does this empower her? Does this sense of freedom or enlightenment manifest at the end, when she returns to the sea?
The Awakening has a lot to say about the roles of marriage and motherhood in women’s lives, and especially how they may restrict how freely women can live their lives. This novel sparked a discussion in our book club about how these roles for women have changed, and yet similarities persist. While we certainly have more choices than Edna did, we still must deal with internal conflicts and societal pressures regarding our various roles. Even after a century, The Awakening remains an enlightening read, and Edna Pontellier is still a sympathetic character.