Rachel's rant: Book club etiquette

This post was published in draft form, and went out on a feed before I could retrieve it. Thank you to two readers of that draft who e-mailed to offer relevant, important points which resulted in this revision.

I have noticed, at events where hors d'oeuvres were proffered, a certain behaviour. It's always a woman, and the remark is a variation of, "No, thank you, but my, it looks delicious."

At a social gathering, guests do not have to eat or drink. Or wait, do they?

If you are invited to a catered reception, I'd say not. It is unlikely anyone will notice, and some ravenous nineteen-year-old will snarfle your share of shrimp brochette.

If you are a guest in someone's home, declining everything offered as refreshment is going to be noticed, especially in the butter-scented domain of the women's book club.

Rachel's club is entering its twenty-fourth continuous year, and in the last two has welcomed two new members after they lost one to Prince Edward Island, one to the Library of Heaven. The club is a tea party with books; those readers are feeders. The original seven members prize both lively discourse and a generously-laden cake stand.

Rachel called to say that she had baked for two days to host her turn. (Hosts provide the refreshments, whether bought or homemade.)

One new member, recruited by a departing one, and here called "Monique", joined just under a year ago; she has attended previous meetings, but not yet hosted. At this meeting, she declined everything from Rachel's mandlebrot to mini-scones, but had uttered effusive praise for each waved-away tray: "Looks divine!" "Aren't these the most beautiful macarons?" "Oh, don't you just love chocolate?"

Though she noticed, Rachel said nothing; her asperity was saved for the phone call I received. She asked me, "What was with that woman?" Because Monique ate at the previous meetings, Rachel took her abstention personally.

I offered various scenarios: Diabetic? Germ phobic? Out of Weight Watcher points? Rachel, who has attended WW meetings since the recipes were type-written, said, "One freaking mandelbrot, everyone knows how to budget for that."

The first commenter, who has health issues that make eating outside her home virtually impossible, thought Rachel had made the matter "all about her". She felt that Monique's abstention required no explanation. This commenter's anguish was palatable: "Am I supposed to stay home?" I was moved by her situation.

She also viewed that revealing her health issues would be an invasion of her privacy. I agree that a guest is not obliged to disclose personal details. At the same time, an excuse such as "I'm not feeling well today" would not reveal much.

The second commenter said that in her culture, two behaviours were equally gauche: for a host to offer no refreshment to a guest, and for a guest to decline it. She wrote that a quiet word from Monique to Rachel at the start of the evening would have prevented the incident. Her note reminded me of the role of culture in shaping our standards for appropriate behaviour.

I've heard plenty about book club dynamics over the years; some are love-ins, others have ups and downs. I  think that Monique had not yet fully integrated with her club. When a newcomer joins a tight group, doing anything outside their norms stands out. Some will accept atypical behaviour ("That's how Monique is"), others will, but would like to know why ("Monique has IBS"), and some will be hostile and perhaps even exclude the member.

I asked Rachel what she wanted now: was this a tempest in a teapot, or did she feel that Monique was a poor draft pick? Rachel said she hoped Monique would work out. There will be another meeting in April; they're reading Jesmyn Ward's "Sing, Unburied, Sing."

She will put her bruised feelings aside, and see. (They have asked only one member to drop out, because in two years, she didn't read a single assigned book. They said she'd be welcome to return if she could.)

Meanwhile, Rachel was left with a pile of leftovers, because she always makes extra.

"Wrap them up and send 'em over", I told her; "I'm hungry just hearing about those scones."



Swan said…
If everyone else ate her food, why focus on one who didn’t? If it bothers her so muc, maybe she could have taken her aside and asked why? Maybe she was just there for the books..Why is it, when one woman isn’t a carbon copy of everyone else, she becomes the subject of gossip..why can’t she be who she is..she at least complimented the food...
Venasque said…
This is not an issue of style, i.e., she didn't wear the right shoes and therefore is an outlier. She was a guest in someone's home, refusing all she was offered, having previously eaten in other people's homes. It is a lot of work to do that kind of entertaining and to refuse everything on offer, is just bad manners in my view. If it was a current health issue, a quiet word would have been all that was required and nothing further would have ensued.

When entering a new group, it is best to see what others do and emulate it if you want to fit in. Eventually you can be a splitter and "that's just Monique" will be an explanation.
LauraH said…
Fitting into an established social group isn't easy. Sounds like Monique was following the group lead at previous meetings so perhaps there was a temporary health issue. Rather than stew, could Rachel have taken her quietly aside and asked if she was feeling okay,.."is there anything I can do" sort of conversation. Or is that too intrusive? I had no idea books clubs could be so tricky.
Rita said…
Could be Rachel was on a low-carb diet and even one small thing could mess up the metabolism. She may not have wanted to get into a diet discussion, and hoped that her praise would offset her not eating anything.

I'm glad you asked the non-reader to leave - when I was in a book club, I really hated when people didn't read the book, but felt free to make comments!
Duchesse said…
Babycakes: I had hoped to explain "why it is": she acted in a way that was not within the norms of the group (which does not make anyone right or wrong, it's just not their custom), and by commenting, this was noticeable. She can "be who she is" but at the same time, when "being who you" are really stands out, and differs from your prior behaviour, it is not unreasonable for a host to wonder what is going on.

Contrast your comment to Venasque's- both of which I appreciate. Your comment places Monique's wish to "be who she is" as paramount. Venasque places acknowledgement of a host's hospitality as paramount. When there is a meeting of minds, both can be served, but it takes openness and good will.

Venasque: Your comment reminds me of the many occasions when I have accepted the host's hospitality or fit in with a group because I wanted to be there. I belonged for many years to a women's poker group and the rule set by the host is that we had to bring food that was deliberately and egregiously bad for you- cheesies, a mountain of potato chips, corn dogs, fried stuff, sweets galore. At first I just hated it, ate before I went, and picked. Once I brought veggies and dip- they teased me mercilessly, and no one touched it except me. I learned to eat that stuff once a month, because the games and players were such fun.

And I would do it still, I miss them. (I moved to another city.)

LauraH: I have heard about many issues in various book clubs- often members do not like the books selected but feel they must go along. Others have personality conflicts, or persons who do not carry their weight. But Rachel's has run pretty smoothly for an amazingly long time.

RIta: I am not in this (or any) book club! This is a friend's club.
You, like me, tried to find reasons why Monique abstained- who knows? But by praising, she made her behaviour more explicit.

Jane said…
I attended a book club that met at a restaurant beforehand to eat (optional). The actual book discussion took place later at the library. Unfortunately, the women spent a few minutes on book discussion then yakked on for an hour about nothing. I went once.
Duchesse said…
Jane: I've heard about that, too- one woman left her book club because it became all about the member's lives, which she said was fine if that's what they wanted, but she was there for literature.
Jane said…
I just wanted to add, I have a food intolerance. Not sure what it is yet, but I get sick and suddenly. I would be mortified if someone pressed me on what I was eating or not. At first blush the guest seemed rude, but really, eating habits are a very personal matter in my book ;)
MissFifi said…
Here's my 2 cents.
It seems it is the norm for to have food and drinks at the book club meeting which Monique is aware of. I assumed if any member has a food allergy or issue, they can offer to bring a plate of something they can eat and share. If say someone eats beforehand, which I am sure happens, that could be stated without offending.

Monique commenting on how good everything looks was nice, but it made the fact she was not partaking more obvious and awkward. Rachel could have pulled her aside or even casually just asked, "Can I get you something else?" That would have given Monique the opportunity to say she was full or just not hungry. No harm, no foul.
Duchesse said…
MissFifi: Your idea of offering "something else" is thoughtful. Rachel had knocked herself out, though, so something else might not have been on her mind, and to prepare and serve that, she would have to leave the group. If a guest declines a generous array of food that includes many choices (and which she has eaten before) I do not feel that the host need supply further alternatives.
But i'm kind of a crank.
Susan said…
I would echo Jane's comment. I have a friend who has several food intolerances (sugar being one of them) which can make her suddenly and embarrassingly ill. I have another friend who has been able to eat nothing but cottage cheese for several years (and HAS been to some of the best major clinics in the country to no avail.) I think it is a shame that the non eating member just didn't take the hostess aside and say I won't be eating anything, but wish I could. I'm sure she was trying to make up for this by commenting on how lovely the food is.

I belong to a book club when there is a hostess and several co-hostesses for each meeting. There is a bountiful table of food offered. I often eat nothing because I am always watching my weight and just don't need the extra calories. No one even notices! I am always busy talking to everyone during our social hour time and sipping on a glass of iced tea. I see this as a tempest in a teapot. Whereas it would be very awkward to be invited to a dinner party an eat nothing, I see it as not a big deal at all to decline tidbits at a book club meeting.
Lynn said…
As someone with a medically directed, limited diet, I feel sympathy for both. It is very difficult for me to eat in others' homes or in restaurants, but my general take on this is to let the host/hostess know beforehand and not to ask for anything special. Until this happened to me I never realized how much joy is lost when you can't eat what everyone else is having or can only have the salad (without dressing croutons, etc.) at a restaurant.
Curious behaviour indeed yet not too late to let the rankling stop. I hope the hostess has a word with Monique and asks her what was up.
When I belonged to a book club the hostess did background work on the author and work we had studied. Everyone else brought the food and drink.
Duchesse said…
Susan: It is a tempest in a teapot to many! Rachel is a food-is-love type. I think this hit her where she most likes to give.

Lynn L: You are considerate to let your host know before the event, and I appreciate your example for the commenter who thought having to reveal her health issue was invasive. My own sense of it is that no one wants more details than the afflicted person wants to give.

Vancouver Barbara: R. does want to let go of her irritation- she called hoping someone outside the club would help her get a grip. She did not want other members involved. (Readers may find it odd to read what gets to a woman, but I have known her for so long this did not surprise me.)

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