This spring, the St. Andrew's Women's Network hosted two Book Club Discussions for alumnae and parents of the School, one in Charlotte, North Carolina, the other in New York City. The Charlotte event, where guests discussed Toni Morrison's Beloved, was held in the home of Sarah Belk P'06,'09,'12,'16 in late February, while Mary Malhotra P'17 hosted in New York this past Tuesday; women gathered in Mary's Manhattan apartment to discuss Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. Both discussions were led by St. Andrew's faculty members and by Women's Network co-chair Elizabeth Roach.
"The Women's Network holds these book discussions not just to enjoy an evening of great food and great conversation with alums and parents (although that's certainly part of it)," Roach said. "We want to give our alumnae and current and past parents the opportunity to connect or reconnect with St. Andrew's—with our teachers, with each other, but also with the kind of intellectual exploration that occurs on campus. In essence, we're trying to recreate the Harkness table discussions we have in our classrooms, in the living rooms of our Book Club hosts. I particularly love these discussions because adults—with their varied life experiences—have a different perspective than teenagers on the issues in the novels we explore. It's enriching for me as a teacher."
Book Club attendees are "assigned" a text—always one that St. Andrew's English students are also reading—some months in advance. In the week leading up to the event, Roach sends out a list of questions and, in some cases, primary and secondary sources about the text, so that attendees can mull over the various issues within the text and angles of analysis in advance of the actual discussion. Roach and an additional St. Andrew's faculty member then travel to the host's home to lead the book discussion.
"I've loved doing these events over the years," said History Department Chair Emily Pressman, who helped lead the Beloved discussion in North Carolina. "Our group in Charlotte was terrific: they had wonderful insights into the novel, putting it into conversation with questions of historical memory that are, perhaps, more acutely present in the South. To have a group of such smart and engaged readers working through questions at the heart of Beloved was particularly powerful for me, as both a teacher and an historian."
"I attended the Charlotte meeting with Elizabeth and Emily," noted Cynthia Oates P'13. "It was great to be able to envision the two of them conducting their class, reading their favorite passages to us, asking us the same questions they ask their students. It reminded me of the great teaching that goes on at St. Andrew's."
"I often hear alums wistfully say how much they wish they could get back to the seminar table at St. Andrew's," Pressman added, "and parents visiting campus will often describe their envy at the work we get to do with their children in our courses on a daily basis. These events are a way of bringing a little bit of that classroom experience that is at the heart of St. Andrew's, to them, where they live."
"I loved the Wuthering Heights book discussion," said Liz Manocha P'18, who attended the New York gathering. "It was an evening of great conversation in a lovely setting with interesting women. Wuthering Heights is a strange and dark story, and Elizabeth Roach lead a discussion that helped me better understand the unique aspects of the novel and why it has earned a prominent spot in the canon of English literature. It was great to experience first hand some of the St. Andrew's magic. My inner English major was reawakened!"
New York host Mary Malhotra P'17 noted that her son just finished reading Wuthering Heights in his V Form English class, and that the Book Club was a great window into his classroom experiences at St. Andrew's. "I was able to ask Elizabeth, 'How did this book work in a V Form classroom?'" Malhotra recalled. "She explained some of the roadblocks students face while reading it, and how they work through that. I think we were all blown away that our kids have access to these kinds of minds, and scholarship, and talent, within their classrooms."
"Elizabeth was so great," agreed English teacher Katherine Crowley, who helped lead the New York discussion. "She really helped us to think critically about Wuthering Heights, about the characters and their development. She brought the book to life for the women, and helped a lot of us to understand the text in a whole new way."
"We talked a lot about what we think Emily Bronte is trying to say about love and eternity and the transcending of time," Crowley continued. "Our own life experiences often so influence our reading of a text. So considering that we were twenty women of all different ages and backgrounds, it was a pretty incredible conversation."
"It was also such a great opportunity to connect with other people who are part of St. Andrew's," Malhotra said. "We had women of all different ages attend, and we each got to meet current parents, alums, or past parents we didn't know. One woman who came was an old friend of mine I hadn't seen in ages, and I had completely forgotten that her son went to St. Andrew's. She was actually the person who told me about St. Andrew's in the first place!"
"I truly don't think any other school is doing something like this," Malhotra concluded. "These Women's Network book discussions are unique—and fabulous. I think everybody was wishing we could do these once a month!"
The St. Andrew's Women's Network was founded in 2010 with a goal of connecting, celebrating, and harnessing the power of the School's alumnae through events held both on and off campus. When alumnae gather for Women's Network events, they share their experiences and insights with students and faculty, and reconnect with each other and with the School. Since its inception, Women's Network events have expanded in size and scope, and have become central to our mission to provide community, inspiration, and mentorship for all members of our community.