Mother-daughter book club members, left to right: Pat and Lauren Eng; Margi Kirst and Theresa Colton; Diana Leung and Jane Tam; Julia and Michele Gilman; Sofia Bisogno and Raquel Artecona; Grace Steinwurtzel and Sara Strang; Naba Khan and Saima Siddiqui; Anna and Phyllis Marcus. Photo by Lisa Helfert
On a spring Sunday afternoon in the Carderock Springs neighborhood of Bethesda, Raquel Artecona and her daughter, 18-year-old Sofia Bisogno, are putting the finishing touches on snacks for the meeting of their mother-daughter book club: smoked salmon, fruit salad, cheese and crackers, pastries, fizzy apple juice. Artecona, an elegant, dark-haired economist who grew up in Uruguay, brings out Champagne for the mothers—a valedictory note since this will be one of the last meetings of the 10-year-old group before the eight high school seniors disperse for the summer and then go off to college.
The girls and their mothers greet each other with hugs, then mill around the table, chatting and filling plates and glasses before moving to the living room to discuss Brooklyn, Irish novelist Colm Toibin’s story of mid-20th century Irish immigrants.
Michele Gilman, a law professor and the book club’s unofficial coordinator, initiates a discussion that is somehow both organized and relaxed. The group has an easy, egalitarian camaraderie, and everyone gets a chance to weigh in. There are digressions, and then laughter, as 18-year-old Grace Steinwurtzel—evidently a famous interrupter—cuts someone off for the third time.
Some of the girls, pressed for time in these final weeks of school, saw the movie instead of reading the book, and judge it overly sentimental. “Those were the most tears I’ve ever seen on screen,” says Naba Kahn, 18.
“It was a bit cheesy,” Grace agrees.
Over the past decade, the mother-daughter book club has read and discussed 50 books. Photo by Lisa Helfert.
Brooklyn’s tale of a young woman leaving her native country is perhaps more emotionally laden for the mothers—many of whom are immigrants or first-generation Americans—than for their daughters. “It reminded me of when my parents left China,” Pat Eng says.
The girls, too, will soon be leaving home. College acceptances and rejections have begun to arrive, though the first rule of book club is that nobody talks about college applications.
The talk, instead, extends beyond impressions of the novel to immigration, discrimination, class divisions, sexism in the workplace, changing gender roles and diversity—including a perceived lack of sensitivity to it at Walt Whitman High School, which most of the girls attend. At the end of the discussion, several of the girls decide to go to the school’s International Night, which raises money for UNICEF and celebrates Whitman’s diversity, saying they feel it gets less attention than other school events.
Night falls, yet everyone lingers. “Nobody ever wants to stop talking,” says Phyllis Marcus, who, along with Gilman, initiated the book club when the girls were in third grade. “We’ve seen them develop intellectually before our eyes—the whole arc of their childhood.”
Senior year of high school can sometimes feel like one long farewell party, but the end of the book club has a special poignancy. This group has outlasted most other enthusiasms of childhood—soccer, ballet, music lessons. Over the past decade, the group has read 50 books together.
“It’s been a 10-years-long conversation,” Sofia says.
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In the mid 2000s, Michele Gilman and Phyllis Marcus, who met in law school at the University of Michigan and were attendants in each other’s wedding, both found themselves living in Carderock Springs. The friends were avid readers and veterans of various book clubs; their daughters, Julia Gilman and Anna Marcus, were best friends and classmates at Carderock Springs Elementary School.
The mothers called or emailed families they thought might be interested in forming a book club, deciding to initially limit invitations to third-graders at the school and neighborhood residents. Although a few turned them down, 12 mother-daughter pairs showed up at the first meeting in the spring of 2006.
Photo by Lisa Helfert
Gilman wanted the girls to be given space to share ideas and opinions as equals, rather than to re-create the top-down atmosphere of a classroom. Marcus worried about the more talkative girls drowning out the quiet ones: “You didn’t want anyone to feel left out.”
Quiet or outspoken, what the girls shared as 8-year-olds was a seriousness about the endeavor. The first meeting was held at Gilman’s house, and the book for discussion was Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. The girls sat primly in a row on the sofa and raised their hands when they wanted to speak. The mothers were polite, a bit tentative—they didn’t know each other very well.
“Sumptuous snacks were particularly important in the early years,” says Gilman, a New Yorker who, in honor of Harriet’s predilections, prepared tomato sandwiches and egg creams, a delicious-sounding New York delicacy that some found disappointing in real life, as they contain neither eggs nor cream.
Families took turns hosting, and books were chosen by consensus. Gilman scoured blogs and book reviews for ideas, and the voracious young readers came to meetings with long lists of suggestions. Frequently, the next meeting’s selection was hotly debated.
“We were all really into it,” Anna Marcus recalls. “We were pretty intellectual for our age.”
Photo by Lisa Helfert
Gilman and Marcus were elated by the enthusiasm, and mused about whether the group would keep going into middle school. High school, back then, seemed impossibly far off.
But such commitment to intellectual inquiry wasn’t every 8-year-old’s (nor every mother’s) cup of tea, and a few pairs dropped out. The group finally consolidated to eight mother-daughter pairs. The mothers pointed the group toward books that the girls wanted to read, though some moms privately looked forward to a time when their reading tastes would be more aligned.
The girls’ tween years coincided with a boom in young-adult fiction. Elementary-school favorites such as The Witch of Blackbird Pond and Misty of Chincoteague gave way to The Giver, Artemis Fowl and The Hunger Games in middle school—stories that were darker and more violent than many mothers remembered reading when they were young. “We always considered their ages when choosing a book,” Gilman says, but there were occasional tensions over whether a given title was appropriate.
“A lot of the books we read I wouldn’t have picked,” says Jane Tam, whose daughter, Diana Leung, attends Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, though both have remained dedicated to the book club. “But it was such a pleasure to hear my daughter and her trusted friends discussing them. I wouldn’t have gotten that if not for this forum.”
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