'He was a complete prat] I felt like telling him to piss off,' says one.
'No, no, I was very moved,' her neighbour argues. 'I sobbed my way from page 290 to the end.'
They are not Open University students, or teachers discussing next term's A-level text. They are members of a private book club and are chewing over December's chosen work.
Balzac's classic is having a fairly rough ride. 'But Eugene (the hero) has no persona]' cries Karen Robinson, a journalist on the Sunday Times. 'He could be played by Jeremy Irons. He's so bland.'
Her neighbour, Lesley Kay, a financial PR, says: 'What I want to know is, does he get his leg over? I think he is, quite frankly, sexually frustrated.'
Helena Cooper, a translator of Japanese, sitting opposite, shakes her head and muses: 'Obviously I've missed a whole load of stuff here. I wonder if we would have written this conversation at university or for our A-levels.'
Probably not. The club, which meets one evening every other month to discuss great works of literature, seems to exist not so much for analysis and regurgitation of Lit Crit, but for the simple pleasure of reading a text at the same time, then having an impassioned debate on equal terms.
'I started the club two years ago after I had my first baby,' says Sarah Wynter, an actress. 'I thought I would never read a book again. You know, all that stuff about women losing their brains after having a baby. I thought it would be a way of reading six really good books a year.'
She and her friend Carolyn Pierce, a solicitor, agreed that it would be fun to discuss books 'but not write the essays', and decided who the other members of the group should be. 'It was important not to invite people who knew everyone else already,' says Carolyn, 'otherwise we would just have descended into gossip right away.'
According to Carolyn, 'We all love it. We've been through boyfriends, husbands, babies; we know about all this going on, together. And we never miss a meeting.'
The format is always the same: the main novel is discussed for about an hour and a half, with the help of notes circulated by the member who is presenting and structuring the talk. Then the dinner menu is passed round, and the club turns to eating and chatting. Husbands, partners or boyfriends surface only as good gossip material.
'I was sitting at home dashing through our last novel (The Idiot by Dostoevsky), and my boyfriend asked why on earth do we do this,' says Carolyn, who admits that she once took
a day off work in order to finish a set text.
'I just said, 'Oh, do shut up,' and got on with my book. They provide good child care, and that's it. They don't get into the idea behind the club, probably because they aren't allowed to.'
'Men?' says Isabel Unsworth, a freelance writer. 'They would ruin the balance. We have exactly the right mix of personalities here. For a start, we're all fairly talkative.'
Not that debating skills are the only criterion: the club clearly takes the works to heart. 'The Idiot] Oh it was marvellous,' said Lesley fondly.
'Well, Balzac was a lot less sweat than Trollope, I must say,' Isabel remarks. 'Could we compare it to Madame Bovary?'
Only one dismal failure is admitted: Libra by Don DeLillo. 'It was about the JFK assassination and the life of Lee Harvey Oswald,' says Sarah. 'No one understood it.'
The time arrives to decide on the six texts to be read in 1993. Each member suggests at least one book, which the other five then vote on. Nigel Williams, Jeanette Winterson and Henry James are all contenders, as is the idea of reading poetry, but the club clearly prefers getting its teeth into a good yarn rather than a sonnet or two.
'Poetry] Oh God, no way,' shrieks Helena. 'Unless it's Pam Ayres. I'm not doing Eliot.'
'I suppose it wouldn't take long to read,' says Karen, 'but I'm not doing Philip Larkin, or Paradise Lost.'
Her expression brightens. 'Let's do Little Women.'
Despite the cries of adulation around the table, however, Louisa M Alcott eventually fails to win a majority, and the final choice includes Witchcraft by Nigel Williams, and A Book by Angus Wilson.
Winterson was instantly rejected; James got one vote. 'Philistines,' mutters Lesley.
This wrangle demonstrates how important it is to pick the right texts. As Lesley points out, the very act of discussion enables a book to sink all the more into one's mind. 'You read it on a deeper level. Your thoughts are clarified on it. I vacuum books up,' she says, 'and often never stop to think about them. Here you understand why you enjoy a book.'
The club makes a point of never meeting at a member's home; all agree that the hostess would inevitably end up 'offering round snacks or cooking a whole meal'.
Away from the traditional female constraints of caring for self, partner or offspring, an uninterrupted evening of food, companionship and conversation becomes possible; and the consequence is that each gives herself the chance to read literature that most people, out of further education circles, rarely have the discipline to master.
It is no wonder that not only is there a waiting list to join, but that it has never been used. The book club has no vacancies, now or for the foreseeable future.
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