Critical Reviews

Publishers Weekly, Jun 6, 2016
Hood’s (The Obituary Writer) latest novel is a moving, intricate story about loss, healing, and the value of critical thinking. A year after being left by her husband, Ava is still reeling from the grief of separation, which brought back the pain of losing her sister and mother early in life. In order to branch out and meet new people, Ava joins a book club where each member must choose a book that matters most to them for the group to discuss. Although the new activity keeps her engaged, Ava, who lives in Providence, R.I., still feels alone, with her son abroad in Africa and her daughter studying in Florence. What Ava doesn’t know is that her daughter has recently quit school and is now living in Paris under increasingly dangerous circumstances.

Ava doesn’t immediately enjoy the book group (she watches a movie adaptation instead of reading the first book), but bit by bit, book by book, she rediscovers her love of reading, makes new friends, and begins to heal. As the narrative focus moves among different characters and back and forth in time, suspense builds about what happened to Ava’s mother and sister and what might happen to her daughter. Meanwhile, the book club allows Ava to examine her grief and slowly learn how to move forward. This is a gripping, multifaceted novel about recovering from different kinds of loss and the healing that comes from a powerful story.

BookPage, August 2016
Readers who have ever turned to a book to get out of a slump are going to love Ann Hood’s The Book That Matters Most. The story begins on a festive December night in downtown Providence where Ava, a middle-aged French professor, is feeling anything but festive after discovering her husband’s infidelity. Like a film reel, memories of her once perfect life keep running in her head and no number of martinis can push the stop button. Miles away in Paris, Ava’s daughter, Maggie, is going through a crisis of her own after a failed attempt at writing a novel. Both women are desperate for something to pull them out of their misery.

Ava meets her savior in the form of a book club headed by her librarian friend, Cate, where each member must choose the book that matters most to her for the club to read. Hesitant at first about fitting in and even making the grave mistake of Netflixing her first book, Ava soon finds the comfort she is looking for in the books and the club members.  

With Maggie, on the other hand, Hood takes us on a roller coaster ride through drug addiction, poor choices in men and her desperation to write. She finds a lifeline in a tiny bookstore run by a mysterious and stoic American expat. 

Getting lost and then being found would in itself make for a wonderful story, but Hood adds another layer of complexity, linking the parallel journeys of mother and daughter in an unexpected way. The Book That Matters Most is an engrossing tale that reminds us of the power of the written word to comfort the soul.

Kirkus Reviews, August 9, 2016
A mother and a daughter seek balance in their broken lives while books provide them with comfort, clarity, and clues to a mystery.

When Ava North joins her best friend’s long-running book club in Providence, Rhode Island, it is not to find solace from the long-ago deaths of her little sister and mother. That wound is locked up tight. Instead, it’s because her husband of 25 years has left her for another woman, and Ava is bitter and lonely. So much so that she’s a refreshingly cranky, reticent participant in the club, whose theme for the year is “The Book That Matters Most” to each member. It’s somewhat suspect, but forgivable, that all the members save Ava choose well-regarded classics, but Hood (An Italian Wife, 2014, etc.) handles it with a light touch.

Meanwhile, Ava’s problem child, Maggie, continues running with the wrong crowd when she abandons her study-abroad semester in Italy to haunt Paris, where she slips willingly into heroin addiction. There is momentum in the juxtaposition of Ava’s and Maggie’s circumstances, one improving incrementally, one devolving steadily, into which the spice of intrigue is added: what were the circumstances of Ava’s sister’s death? What of her mother’s? Why is Maggie the way she is? And what does Ava’s little-known book pick—the book that matters most to her—have to do with all of it?

Hood occasionally adds a slurry of unnecessary exposition but is more often able to limn fundamental character truths via well-placed details. She has a knack for dramatic revelation that feels natural, possibly because she is so skilled at knowing what to leave out.

Whether or not they think of themselves as bookish, readers of all stripes will enjoy cycling through these characters’ lives and discovering their shared, mysterious past.

USA Today, August 6, 2016
Ava Tucker is reeling. A late-night ping on her husband’s cellphone reveals that nice-guy Jim - the kind of man who is there for just about everybody except his own family - has been having an affair with a yarn bomber.

Let’s start out by saying that it’s a relief to read anything in which the villain’s weapon of choice is a knitting needle. In The Book That Matters Most (Norton, 358 pp, *** stars out of four) author Ann Hood (The Knitting Circle) cleverly stitches Ava’s story with that of her troubled daughter, Maggie, weaving in a childhood mystery for a novel that deserves a spot on your summer reading list.

Ava nurses her heartbreak among the warm-hearted members of a quirky book club whose theme for the year is the books that had the most impact on their lives. Book club slackers will recognize Ava’s tricks to get through books she can’t quite face: Rent the movie if no CliffsNotes version exists. Ava’s wine-emboldened commentaries at book club and May-December dalliance with a hipster club member add just-right notes of awkward hilarity to the saga of a middle-age woman who finds herself reluctantly separated.

Author Ann Hood

Books have always played an important role in Ava’s life. Her beautiful, passionate mother owned a bookstore, and one book in particular helped Ava through the loss of her sister and mother one horrible year. Desperate to impress her book club pals, Ava chooses that book as her book club selection, and promises that the author will come to their meeting. But her book is out of print and the search for its author leads her on an unexpected journey to the past.

Hood creates a sympathetically flawed character in Ava, and a harrowing portrayal of her wayward daughter, Maggie. Off for a year in Paris to be a writer, recklessly impulsive Maggie succumbs to an older man who plies her with the drugs she craves. This storyline wraps up too neatly and quickly for any reader who has experienced substance abuse in a loved one. Still, Hood’s novel is rich with pleasures, and will no doubt launch a thousand book club discussions about the transformative power of reading., August 12, 2016
In Ann Hood’s The Book That Matters Most, a woman uses her love of books not only to rebuild her life after a failed marriage, but to put to rest a decades-old mystery that rocked her family to their core.

For 25 years, Ava has led a happy, if perhaps a somewhat predictable, life with her husband, Jim, and their two children, Will and Maggie. Although Will has always been a golden boy, Maggie has given them some trouble over the years with various drunken nights, poor choices in men and other teenage rites. Still, Ava has always considered her family “normal” --- that is, until Jim reveals that he has been having an affair with a leggy yarn-bomber and is leaving Ava to start over with her.

With Will abroad studying gorillas and Maggie taking a semester in Europe, Ava is left alone to take a highly coveted spot in her best friend Cate’s book club. The group meets once a month and reads 10 books a year, with each year’s books focusing on a certain theme. This year, Cate gleefully announces, they each will select the book that matters most to them. The choices vary from the obvious Pride and Prejudice and The Catcher in the Rye to more surprising ones like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Ava’s selection, From Clare to Here.

In brief internal monologues, Ava recalls the summer that her little sister tragically passed away, only to be followed by their mother 10 months later in a grief-stricken suicide. That summer, Ava read  From Clare to Here--the story of a mother who follows her child into the land of the dead, abandoning her other child to live a happy life free of her grief--again and again and again. Although she has not thought of it much since, it is clearly the book that matters most to her.

Ava’s entry into the book club gets off to a bit of a rocky start, as she initially chooses to watch the Pride and Prejudice film rather than read. Her lapse in judgment is quickly exposed; embarrassed, she begins to focus on her reading a little more, while forming subtle bonds with the other members of her group --- from cancer survivor Diana, to ritzy, polished Penny, widower John, and even young Luke, a lover of obnoxious hats. Though many of her fellow book club members only make quick impressions, Hood does a remarkable job of making each unique without relying on boring stereotypes or clichés. John in particular was a delight to read about, and his contributions to the book club, though short and quiet, were always the most insightful in their simplicities.

As Ava begins to feel whole again, the chapters alternate between her life and Maggie’s. We see that Maggie has left school to follow a boy to France --- a typical course for her, but one that takes a surprising turn when she meets a dashing older man who treats her like a queen. Of course, he is only preying on her vulnerabilities, and the reader is soon forced to watch as she takes a harrowing downward spiral into addiction and codependence that would make anyone squirm.

Although Hood does not shy away from presenting Maggie’s faults, she is careful to balance these issues with her very real dreams and pains, creating a wonderfully well-rounded character. I admit that I am a big fan of mother-daughter relationships in books, but Hood really does something special here in allowing us to watch Maggie and her mother make similar choices while keeping their communications short yet layered in subtleties and hidden messages. At times it was nearly painful to watch as Maggie deceived her mother, but it was always apparent how deeply she loved her, especially during her worst spirals, when she could only hear her mother’s voice.

Soon, Ava is completely absorbed in her group, while Maggie has found herself at rock bottom. Through Hood’s masterful writing and the help of a few life-changing books, the two find not only each other, but themselves. Their lives will never be perfect, true, but the empathy and understanding they have gained through reading will take them long beyond the deeply satisfying ending. I’ve been a fan of Hood’s writing for some time, but I must say that this is perhaps her loveliest book to date, and Maggie may be one of my new favorite tragic characters.

Almost halfway through the book, another character enters the scene: Hank, the retired policeman who once investigated the death of Ava’s little sister. His story intertwines with Ava’s past and present in ways that won’t be fully revealed until the very last page. But he, too, is given such depth and personality that readers will be racing through to figure out what exactly happened that fateful day and how it can be resolved in the present.

While it is true that books about books have been gaining in popularity in recent years, in The Book That Matters Most, Hood has taken the trope and completely revitalized it. Although famous and obscure works provide the backbone for her book, it is their universal messages that allow her characters to move and thrive within their world. Rather than applying the most basic of themes from each work, she has clearly studied them carefully and woven them into her narrative with such finesse that even a reluctant reader would be willing to head out and buy copies of every book mentioned in Ava’s club.