Friday, 22 January 2010

The Second Amsterdam Book Club

A few years after I quit my first Amsterdam book club, I slowly became aware that book clubs were the new big thing in the world of expat wives.

Whoever I spoke to seemed to be reading something for Book Club, trying to find a copy of a book they needed for Book Club (not so easy...the English bookshops would sell out quickly and the Dutch parcel service was so unreliable that often books went straight back to Amazon).

But most of all my friends were planning menus for Book Club dinner, shopping for Book Club nibbles and spending the week beforehand cooking in a competitive frenzy.

I congratulated myself on being well out of it. After all I was a working mother - most unusually in the world of expat wives. I had enough on my plate with my exceptionally cool job in the glamorous world of international photojournalism. Or so I told myself…and anyone who asked why I wasn’t in a Book Club.

But then I started feeling a bit left out. A mother put up an ad on the school notice board advertising a ‘Book Club for American Moms’ which offended every other nationality, and was unofficially deemed to have breached the international ethos of the school. In the discussions which followed, it turned out that nearly everyone was in their own Book Club. Feeling a little left out turned into raging paranoia. Why wasn’t I in a Book Club? Why didn’t someone invite me?

But the best Book Clubs seemed to be extremely exclusive. You had to be invited. You had to be nominated by someone who was leaving. I fretted that my culinary skills had been judged and found wanting by one group, that I wasn’t intellectual enough for another. I didn’t like to ask outright if I could join, for fear of being rejected. But no one seemed to want me in their group.

And then…it happened! The Book Club I’d set my heart on, the crème de la crème, the one that several of my friends belonged to, had a place for me. I joined Book Club. And instantly became as exclusive about it as everyone else.

This Book Club was great. For the first time in Amsterdam I was in a room of predominantly English women (I felt a bit guilty about the American Mom when I realised how much I loved the feeling) We could use common cultural reference points (The Archers, Coronation Street) confident that others would understand us. We understood each other’s backgrounds, accents and jokes, and could gently tease the posher ones. And, best of all, there was a tradition of everyone bringing a contribution to dinner, so the hostess’s job was more co-ordinator than superchef.

I’ve been trying to remember books we read and discussed at Book Club. The only one I can remember with certainty was Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky. And I think we discussed Diplomatic Baggage by Brigid Keenan - a book about expat wifedom that made me laugh so much that I fell off my sofa.

Some books were great, others tiresome. I just have a blur of memories of interesting discussions that went off at strange tangents. We talked about life, death, marriage, work and on one entertaining occasion, what our mothers had told us about sex when we were growing up('If you're going to have sex, have good sex.')

Book Club was strictly female. Some members had their husbands well trained – to collect coats, say hello, then disappear. One memorable meeting was held at Justine’s house. We sat in style in the dining room. Justine’s husband was outside in the pouring rain, clutching an umbrella and barbequing our supper. My husband was not interested in food preparation or coat duty. He disappeared out when it was my turn to host Book Club.

When I came to leave Amsterdam it was my turn to nominate a new member. I couldn’t decide who would be a good fit with the current members. Then I met Red, recently arrived to take up a top job at a fashion company. Unusually - almost uniquely - in our expat world it was her job that supported her family, with her husband, a freelance designer, taking on the bulk of domestic duties.

Red seemed to me to be just what Book Club needed. Frank and forthright, she’d be outspoken and provocative. What is more, a woman who spent her life in the boardroom or spending quality time with her children might enjoy the relaxed mixture of friendly support and free-flowing conversation that Book Club offered. I asked her along to a meeting. I sensed a little wary scepticism on all sides. And then I left the country.

Now, just over two years later, I have written a book, it’s just been published. Red emailed to congratulate me, and share her news - she’s landed a great job in Seattle, she’s about to leave Amsterdam.

We cooked up a plan. For her last Book Club meeting, the one where she’ll introduce her new nominated member, why didn’t they read my book? Why didn’t I come over? I checked my husband’s airmiles account. He had the miles! I convinced him that this was just the treat I needed to mark the publication of my book. He kindly made the sacrifice.

So, this week I went back to Amsterdam. It was great to see old friends, walk in the park which doubled as our garden, remind myself of the life we had for eight years. And I arrived at Red’s house, for the surreal experience of returning to a Book Club which has lots of new members, with my book the subject for discussion. Ed, her husband, took my coat, then disappeared. Book Club traditions seemed to be in place.

We started off with cocktails - brilliantly mixed by Red, but worrying for an author who might have to speak coherently about her work. It felt strange to be back in the world of expat wives - to ask questions like ‘What does your husband do?’ And ‘How long are you here?’ But, true to form, expat women are open and friendly and inventive in the ways they find to transform a nomadic existence. By the time we sit down to dinner - and wine - I feel like I’ve never been away.

And then we talk about the book.

It’s a strange, strange thing to hear your own book discussed by readers. People pick up on odd things, they have their own ideas about characters. One perceptive reader had picked up on quite subtle hints about relationships between sisters, about motherhood and Catholicism. The book starts to have its own life. It’s like that moment at mother and toddler group when you realise that your toddler has toddled off and is finger-painting on someone else’s floor. You’re proud and scared and you feel utterly responsible and slightly redundant.

Book Club wanted to know how long it had taken to write, how the idea had started, how I’d built various characters. We talked about knife crime and feeling fearful on the streets - and how that’s not so true in Amsterdam. They asked how I had thought myself into the head of a teenage boy. They laughed at my Kanye West joke on page 251.

And then - as always – the conversation spun off at several tangents. We talked about what would happen if women ruled the world. About how to make teenage girls feel good about themselves. About make up and clothes and whether they matter and how much women dress for themselves and how much for men. We talked about cosmetic surgery, boob jobs in particular, and who’d have one. Then Red brought out a magnificent meringue cake, spread with home-made lemon curd and covered with edible gold dust, and Natasha presented her with a personalised cookery book, made up of Book Club members’ pictures and recipes, and made an emotional speech about how much they'd miss her. Red talked about how she’d loved Book Club, how much it meant to her, how it was the thing she’d miss most when she left Amsterdam. I felt very pleased with myself for nominating her.

The meeting broke up at 1am. We said our goodbyes and set off into the Amsterdam night. As I walked around the corner to my friend’s apartment I realised how safe I felt. How different the expat world is from our lives back in London. And why it was easier to talk about books than write them when I lived in Amsterdam.
Update: Have just changed the pictures to show Red cutting the amazing golden cake, Natasha presenting the leaving gift and Maria discussing boob jobs. Could you have guessed?


  1. Wow - that sounds like such a fun club! I'm glad you were able to go back and see everyone. It must be fascinating to learn all the concepts people thought about when reading When I Was Joe.

  2. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  3. That is so cool! It must have been very, very strange to have people discussing your book in front of you. Bet they loved it, didn't they?

  4. Wow, what a fascinating post. I can't imagine what it would be like to live in another country. I am so very English. You've made me wonder how many people at work feel they need to be invited by me to join the book group. I just kind of thought people would come if they want to. It is open to all but maybe people don't feel they can just turn up. I need to be more inclusive. I'll work on that next week.

    I'm sure they all loved Joe, how could they not?

  5. Well...the weird thing about writing a book is that you quickly realise that only the rudest people are going to tell you to your face that they hated your book or found it boring. Plus, you've read it so often that you find your own book trite, flat and dull.
    So when the book is published you think your friends are (kind and well-meaning)liars and your book is crap. It's a bit depressing. Thank goodness for book-blogging reviewers.

  6. Another lovely post, Keren. Loved the Kanye West joke - perhaps my favourite line. Hmm, maybe I'll think about that one.

  7. Oh, what a lovely post, Keren. I had no idea where it was going and was just enjoying the book club / expat life depictions when BAM! they're discussing your book. Too cool! What a wonderful life moment that must have been.

  8. Sounds great. Any book club I ever joined always folded (not down to me, honest) and now I rarely read books with plots. What I need is a book club for history books. Anyway, very brave of you to hear them discuss your book, but glad it was such a positive experience.

  9. Your really a good writer Keren. Good to read you blog posts here.

  10. Hello, it was so great to read your post. I have just moved to Amsterdam from Seattle and looking for a book club:) When I searched for the term, yours was the top post. Totally understand your comments on the "exclusive inclusive" nature of book clubs. wish me luck as I look for one! Thanks

  11. Harini - good luck! It took me years to find the right group, but I think now there is one attached to the American Bookshop. Have you discovered which is the most useful site for expats in Amsterdam? Hope you are having fun, Amsterdam is a great place to live. I miss it a lot.