Katie Fitzgerald recommends novels to read with a Catholic women’s book club.
One of the great blessings of my early years of parenting has been discussing books with my fellow Catholic moms at monthly book club meetings. I’ve been part of two book clubs in recent years, and not only have they given me a wonderful opportunity for fellowship with mom friends, but they’ve also helped me to discover books I might otherwise never have read! If you’re thinking about starting a book club in the new year, or if you’re looking for books to read on your own or with an existing book club, I have some suggestions based on my experiences over the past few years.
The first book I want to recommend is Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. This is the story of army captain Charles Ryder, who, during World War II, arrives with his battalion at an aging English estate. As the other soldiers begin to tell him about the place and its amenities, Charles realizes he has been here before, as this is Brideshead, home of the Flyte family whom Charles befriended as a young Oxford student. The story then launches into a lengthy flashback, chronicling all the ways in which Charles has been connected to the Flytes over the years, and how these relationships have led him slowly to a conversion to the Catholic faith. The wonderful thing about this book is its point of view. The characters are flawed people who commit sins and make poor decisions, but the story always presents bad behavior in a negative light and ultimately rewards only morally right choices. This book also has one of the most beautiful Catholic death scenes of any novel.
A second favorite book I discovered through book club is Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. This novel is about a priest and a bishop working to establish a Catholic diocese in late nineteenth century New Mexico, and it tells of many of the difficulties and hardships they face as they pursue this goal Though Cather herself never converted to Catholicism, she clearly had a deep empathy for those who practice the faith, as this book includes many very sympathetic Catholic clergy characters. This book not only taught me the history of the Church in the American West, but it also made me appreciate the hardships priests endured in trying to evangelize early America. During our discussion of this book, I remember mentioning how spoiled I felt, knowing I can receive the Sacraments any Sunday, at almost any convenient time for my schedule, while the characters in this book often waited years for valid baptisms and marriages, not to mention Masses. I felt an even deeper kinship with these characters when churches shut down due to the pandemic.
It is also thanks to book club that I tackled one of the most intimidating books on my shelf, Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. This trilogy follows the life story of a young Norwegian woman, Kristin, daughter of Lavrans, whose sinful choices early in life play out in different ways as she becomes a wife and a mother. The entire novel is set against the backdrop of a Catholic culture in which time is reckoned according to feast days and liturgical seasons, and Confession is a key piece of the plot. The story is a bit of a soap opera, and there are definite moments where Kristin’s behavior can frustrate and annoy the reader, but taken as a whole, it’s a beautiful story of overcoming sinfulness to embrace heroic virtue.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is another book that focuses on the impact of sin. When an artist paints a portrait of handsome and youthful Dorian Gray, Dorian realizes that his beauty will someday fade. He sells his soul to ensure that he will never age, but that only his portrait will bear all the ugliness and scars caused by the amoral lifestyle he leads. As Dorian becomes more horrified by the hideousness of his portrait, the reader comes to fully appreciate the ways in which sinful behavior can distort and harm us.
Finally, though I haven’t read it with a book club yet, I want to recommend In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. This novel about the cloistered nuns of a Benedictine monastery called Brede Abbey opens in 1954 when successful businesswoman Philippa Talbot leaves her high-powered job in London to become a nun. The story follows the rhythms of the liturgical year as Philippa moves toward her final vows and beyond. Not only is this a fascinating look at the life of a cloistered sister, but it’s also a wonderful reminder that we can all observe the feasts and fasts of the Church year regardless of our vocation.
Are you part of a book club? Which titles would you put on your list of favorites?
Copyright 2021 Katie Fitzgerald
Image: Andrea Piacquadio (2018), Pexels
About the Author
Katie Fitzgerald is a former children's librarian turned stay-at-home, homeschooling mom. She and her librarian husband live in Maryland with their five children, the youngest of whom are boy/girl twins. She has published two textbooks for librarians, and she writes about homeschooling, books and the reading life from a Catholic perspective at ReadAtHomeMom.com and on Instagram @read.at.home.mom.