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Book discussions touch on life and fiction

As Virgil, a jaded private detective (is there another kind?), discovers that her friend and client may be hurt by forthcoming revelations, she begins to weigh the benefits of discovering the truth against its potential costs and wrestles with the realization that the former may not justify the latter.

If this scenario sounds like a good setup for some tense confrontations, or perhaps a dramatic twist, well, that’s exactly what its creator, mega-selling author Jodi Picoult, had in mind when she wrote “Leaving Time.”

But even though Virgil and her client Jenna are not real people and the obstacles they face as Picoult’s yarn unravels serve primarily to advance a plot, they also happen to raise questions that apply to the real world.

Gathered in the middle of a large meeting room in the northwest wing of the Medford library one gray, rainy Tuesday evening, eight local women leaned over their copies of “Leaving Time” and attempted to answer those questions, dissect a few plot points and critique Picoult’s writing style. In a twist any respectable book lover would spot a mile away, most of those questions, posed by discussion leader Colleen McDonald, sprouted detours that members of the Second Tuesday Book Chat were eager to explore.

“Have you ever been in a situation where you knew a truth might hurt someone to hear, and what did you do?” McDonald asked the group, reading from a sheet of questions she prepared before the gathering.

Conny Nichols, seated directly to McDonald’s right along one side of a square built by four rectangular tables, was the first to answer.

“Well, I think perhaps I told a white lie,” she said.

“I told the truth,” chimed in Kathlene Cressler. “I look back on it, though, and I think I should have probably (lied). But you can’t take it back.”

Cressler’s comment demanded an explanation, and her book club mates, always game for a good story, were all ears. Cressler obliged, and after spending the better part of an hour discussing a book that’s part psychological thriller, part mystery, the women were clearly ready for a short, impromptu segue into real life dramady.

Once upon a time, Cressler began, a friend of hers had her hair done on the same day they were planning to go to a concert with a group of friends. It was going to be amazing, provided nothing went wrong. Like, say, a car wreck, an earthquake or, worst case scenario, a haircut from the bowels of hades. Adding a layer of awkwardness to the whole affair was the fact that the offending stylist was friends with the victim.

“I don’t know what her friend was thinking,” Cressler said, suppressing a laugh. “It was the shortest hair style you can imagine, and it was every different kind of length you can imagine.”

Here, a few giggles.

“Maybe she was trying to do a spiky thing on the top or something.”

Giggles turning to laughter.

“She’s a really cute gal, and she said, ‘Does it look really bad?’ And I didn’t know what to say because it did look horrible. I just wanted to tell her, ‘I have a scarf you can borrow.’ ”

“A scarf!” somebody bellowed.

Cressler, now laughing herself: “I said, ‘It will grow.’ ”

Howling.

While the conversation did occasionally meander, most of McDonald’s discussion-starters led to more straightforward analysis of character relationships and themes, reactions to specific storylines and criticism of Picoult’s decision-making, especially regarding the novel’s shocking twist ending, which drew mixed reviews.

“I thought it was a rip-off of a film,” said Susan Carpenter (revealing the movie to which she was referring would spoil “Leaving Time.”)

One of the women, who showed up for the first time to “widen her circle of friends,” did not finish the book and was confronted with the big twist about 10 minutes into the meeting, but did not appear disappointed, and like everybody on hand for the get-together also did not hesitate to add her two cents.

As book clubs go, Second Tuesday Book Chat is standard fare, but with eight to 10 participants on average, the discussions, members say, stimulate from beginning to end.

After brief around-the-room introductions, McDonald opened the meeting by summarizing Picoult’s resume and reading excerpts from a few “Leaving Time” reviews, one by the New York Times. Then she opened up the floor to overall impressions of the book.

“Leaving Time” drew mostly positive reviews from club members, but it’s clear that what draws these book lovers to the Medford library month after month — several members of Second Tuesday belonged to multiple book clubs — has less to do with the quality of the selections and more with surrounding themselves with others who share a common interest. The camaraderie and mutual admiration for well-told stories is evident, and possibly necessary when considering a few of the club’s previous selections — see “The Da Vinci Code” (June 2014) and “The Casual Vacancy” (December 2013).

It should come as no surprise, then, that the discussion during the “Leaving Time” meeting had few lulls, and though opinions and interpretations often differed, the mood remained light.

“That development of character and the background and her whole epilogue, really, was impactful,” Carpenter said. “And I enjoyed that … at the opening of every chapter is a one-line sentence, and that could be a whole thematic movement within the story. I think that she’s a very thoughtful author.”

The Second Tuesday Book Chat works like a traditional book club in that it zeroes in on one book per meeting — in this case, one per month. The responsibility of discussion leader rotates every month, and they meet in the Adams Room. Unlike other book clubs, the Second Tuesday group is not genre specific; instead, the goal is to diversify.

Future titles on the docket include “Orphan Train” by Christine Baker Kline, “H is for Hawk” by Helen MacDonald, “Fault in Our Stars” by John Green and “Splintered” by A.J. Howard. Past selections run the gamut from classic science fiction (“Fahrenheit 451”) to modern drama (“The Goldfinch”) and even young adult (“The Hunger Games”).

After the “Leaving Time” meeting but before heading out the door, Cressler said she gets a lot out of the meetings, whether she happens to like the book or not.

“We interact and talk about the questions that come up that are interesting,” she said. “The nice thing about this is that everybody’s really open, everybody’s really supportive. And it’s always been that way.”

Reach reporter Joe Zavala at 541-776-4469 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Bobbie Mann makes a point during a discussion with the Second Tuesday Book Chat group.
“Leaving Time” was the topic of discussion during a recent meeting of the Second Tuesday Book Chat.