What does it take for a book to become a book club favorite? Of the thousands of books published annually, a small subset manages to hit the sweet spot between entertainment value and social relevance that fuels discussion within local clubs and reading group giants such as Oprah and The Guardian. But with all the biggies vying for your attention and your book club to please, how to decide? We pick our all-time book club favorites by theme, so you can pair your reading group with the perfect read. Let us know your favorites in the comments!
Coming of age with a unique spin
When Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel about a hermaphrodite coming of age in 1960s Detroit was published in 2002, it became an instant bestseller and sparked a national discussion about intersex identity and experience. Its originality and wide-lens look at the American counterculture movement made it a favorite among book clubs— Oprah Winfrey, The New York Times, and The Guardian all featured it as a selection for their respective reading groups—as well as award committees: The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Your group will find plenty to debate about gender, identity, and more.
Mark Haddon’s 2003 story of a 15 year-old boy investigating the death of a neighbor’s dog pulled readers in with its quirky narrative style. Protagonist Christopher Boone has an Asperger’s-like syndrome that affords him an entertainingly frank and perceptive view of the world and the behavior of those around him. Critics and book clubs, including Book Talk and The Guardian, praised the book’s perspective on spectrum disorders and Haddon’s singular evocation of the teenage experience. Discuss what being different means to your fellow readers with this inventive novel.
3. East of Eden
Since book clubs tend to favor contemporary titles, it’s always refreshing to see a classic featured as a selection. When Oprah chose East of Eden as the inagural selection for her re-launched club, she revived public interest in John Steinbeck’s novel about two families living in California in the early 20th century. With themes of freedom and self-destruction, as well as timeless parallels with the Book of Genesis, the novel remains as relevant today as when it was first published 1952. Book clubs will have fun finding their own associations between not just the Good Book and Steinbeck’s, but also between the eponymous James Dean film of 1955.
Prep school meets sci-fi
Absorbing and chilling in equal measure, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go tells the story of a trio of boarding school friends (and sometimes lovers) who slowly come to realize that they’re being groomed for a hellish fate. Even as its nostalgic setting and entertaining story immerse readers, the larger questions it poses about scientific advance set the stage for heated discussion, which helps explain why it’s gotten top billing among book clubs since its publication in 2005. The critic John Mullan, who chose it for The Guardian‘s Book Club, calls it a “novel shaped by all that it leaves out.” Have your fellow book club readers decide which omissins they consider most telling.
Prayer and politics in Africa
Barbara Kingsolver’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel traces the experience of a missionary family from the American South who settle in the Congo in 1959, at a violent turning point in the African nation’s history. Through the voices of five women (the matriarch of the family and her four daughters), Kingsolver takes on big themes—race, colonialism, evangelism and misogyny—making it an ideal pick for book club discussions. Oprah, Yahoo! and The Guardian are just a few of the book clubs that featured the novel.
6. The Help
Changing tides in the South
Made into an award-winning film in 2011, Stockett’s mega-besteller about African-American maids working in Mississippi in the 1960s took book clubs by storm when it was published in 2009, opening discussions about race and gender in contemporary America while shedding light on injustices in the pre-Civil-Rights south. Yahoo! and reality television star Lauren Conrad both named it as an official selection for their reading groups. Your book club will find that it’s as much a story of female friendship as it is of people prevailing over constricting societal roles.
7. Gone Girl
The edge-of-your-seat thriller with a major twist
If you’re one of the few who hasn’t read Gone Girl since it was published in June of 2012, you’ve probably gotten used to covering your ears and darting into other rooms while your friends and family debated the finer points of its wild storyline. Flynn’s thriller about the search for a missing woman in the Midwest has won her fans en masse while stealing the show on the book club circuit. Jezebel, which selected as it a book club selection, captured the general reaction to the novel with: “Did it make you reassess whether you really want to plan that scavenger hunt for your three year anniversary/check out what your significant other is hiding in the back of the freezer?” It’ll have your book club debating “Whodunit?” for months to come.
The wacky child memoir
Walls’s memoir about growing up with highly imaginative but reckless parents became an instant bestseller and critical favorite when it was published in 2005. Book clubs, including Books-a-Million and Stanford, have continued to discuss its themes of freedom, loyalty, and facing one’s past, many of which Walls revisits in her new novel, The Silver Star. Talk with your book club about the advantages and limitations of memory.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir about her post-divorce journey to Italy, India, and Bali in search of pleasure and self-discovery made a splash with critics and audiences alike when it was published in 2006. OK! Magazine, Slate, and Yahoo! are just some of the reading groups that joined in on the discussions about individualism and spirituality that the book incited. Which aspect of this feast for the senses moves your book club most?
10. The Known World
Edward P. Jones’s historical novel about a former slave who becomes a slave-owning plantation farmer himself became a book club favorite when it was published in 2003, in addition to nabbing a National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The Today Show, which featured the novel as a book club selection, called it “a complex and often heartbreaking narrative” and praised it for tackling “a neglected chapter in American history: black slave owners in the South.” Your group can debate how well the protagonist and his family handle their complicated position.
Additional reporting by Julie Ertl.