Book Club

Magpie Book Club: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson.

By: Jen Shoop

This book was unbelievable. In it, Woodson tells the story of multiple generations of a Brooklyn-based family, principally focusing on the unexpected pregnancy of Iris as a fifteen-year-old girl and the way her decisions to keep her baby and then leave her daughter in the care of her parents and boyfriend in order to pursue a college degree impact the family.

The prose runs both tactile and evocative, similar in a sense to Seamus Heaney’s poetry, which somehow communicates both earthiness, muck, physicality as well as the ineffable emotions that surge through us–often simultaneously. Both writers are in this sense worldly and other-worldly: they attend to the realities (sensorial and otherwise) of living in this world while also grappling with Big, Profound Things — in Woodson’s case, the meaning of family and motherhood in particular, the conditions of belonging to others while we are alive, even the nature of death. I marvel with particular wonderment at her conjuring of the forces of water and fire throughout the novel. Both elements play a functional role in propelling the plot forward and pinning down various symmetries in the novel’s narratives, but they also externalize the texture of this book, which feels almost like something fanning outward, rippling over–like flames, or waves. We don’t know if they are consuming the characters or propelling them, cleansing or burning, drowning or warming. There are deaths and injuries by fire, the sending of ashes out into the water, and many other moments conjuring these elements. The overlapping narratives told in different voices as well as the jumping forward and backward in time all further contribute to this sensation. The prose positively moves, and moves us with it.

I feel a lump form in the back of my throat when I think about this novel. There were sadnesses, yes–gaping absences, woundings, abandonments–but mainly it struck me as a slow fraying. Woodson does not linger on the specifics of a maudlin scene, for example. We find out about the (SPOILER ALERT) death of Aubrey not through elaborate poignant details but almost obliquely, in the moments leading up to it and the aftermath five years later and the briefly-glimpsed vision of Iris running sixty blocks to the World Trade Center. Because of this, there is never one central moment of agony or decay — just a slow tearing at the seams. Though we focus principally on Iris and her decisions, we also see the broad swathe of multiple generations of her family, and the way their heartaches are both intertwined and in some ways tragically disconnected. It is beautiful, truthful writing and I read it in two or three sittings, unable to think of anything else.

If you have read it, what did you make of the ending? Why did we end with a scene in which mother and daughter have been more or less reunited by the near-cosmic dint of the deaths of everyone else in the family, and their mutual discovery of gold (a material that can withstand fire!) buried by Sabe? It felt almost metaphorical to me, and at the same time, deeply believable. Please share your interpretations — I have been puzzling over this today…


+I have read so many excellent books this year, but I think Red at the Bone might be the absolute best.

+Currently reading Ruth Ware’s One by One (thriller!) as a little palette cleanser before digging into Billion Dollar Loser, a non-fiction chronicle of the rise and precariousness of WeWork, the co-working space behemoth.

+Currently listening to Cobble Hill, by Cecily von Ziegesar, author of Gossip Girl, which follows (copying and pasting from the cover materials) “a year in the life of four families in an upscale Brooklyn neighborhood as they seek purpose, community, and meaningful relationships—until one unforgettable night at a raucous neighborhood party knocks them to their senses.” I am listening to this book on Libro.FM, which several of you recommended after my post on audiobooks a week or two ago. Libro.FM enables you to buy audiobooks through your local bookstore. The folks there reached out to me after reading my post and generously offered me access to a selection of titles gratis.

+I am seriously considering this MZ Wallace crossbody in the navy with the red Gucci-esque striped strap — currently on sale! These are the kinds of bags that are heaven to have with little children around. I know several of you have raved about the similarly styled Dagne Dover phone sling.

+Speaking of Dagne Dover, I am also eyeing this fanny pack in the pretty matte pink color. I know I’ve talked your ear off about this, but I cannot believe how much wear I get out of my State Bags belt bag (available on sale here and here!). Or maybe I should invest in higher end one given frequency of use…black velvet Gucci anyone?

+These house slippers! LOVE. If they are too #extra for you, I also love the elegant smoking slipper styling of this pair. Peep the copy: “Furlanes are traditional indoor/outdoor Venetian slippers.  These chic handmade shoes with slip-resistant rubber bottoms (once made with recycled bicycle tires after WWII) are worn by gondolieri so they do not ruin the wood of the precious gondolas.  Legend says that the Venetian nobles wore them to sneak in silence, thanks to the soft and silent soles, in the night to meet their secret lovers.” YES. Love a shoe with racy history.

+Oh! Before we move on too far from bags, this stylish MZ Wallace backpack is also on rare sale. Love. I own the Metro style, but this is also majorly attractive as far as backpacks go. (And I did a lot of research on the subject back in the day.)

+While we’re talking luxe and fancy fabrics, this under-$100 pull-on velvet skirt is SO chic in the perfect shade of festive green, and do I or do I not need this washed silk pajama set to pair with my new velvet slippers?!

+This sweater looks like a dream. Layer over your favorite skinnies or maybe some faux-leather pants…

+I think they call that kismet

+Lusting after this set of bow placemats for my holiday tablescapes.

+I’ve had a few friends deliver precious new babies recently and found the most adorable baby gifts from Ralph Lauren for them — this precious cardigan, this sweet coverall, and these darling socks.

+Also note that their near-iconic flag sweater (also in white) is currently on sale for around $60!

+Love the shoulders on this coat.

+More great statement coats here.

+Speaking of statement coats, one of my personal favorites in my closet is by Harvey Faircloth, a brand that seems to have gone out of business — it is a utility jacket with a wide band of faux fur trim and I get so many compliments on it to this day. You can still find them gently used on eBay and occasionally NWT. I love that they fancy up everyday jeans and add edge to dressier looks!

+The dotted lines between work and home. (So many interesting comments on this one!)

+Maybe by the time this post has gone live, this sweater will have dropped. LOVE. I wore a similar style from Zara earlier this year on Instastories but it has sold out!

+And speaking of sweaters, as I write this, I’m wearing one of my favorite chunky cardigans. Ultra warm!

+This dress gives me Vampire’s Wife / Horror Vacui vibes for less. Cute with heeled suede boots.

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13 thoughts on “Magpie Book Club: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson.

  1. I loved, loved, loved Red at the Bone. It helped wake me up from an extended period of under-reading (for me, anyway!) and I completely agree that it was entrancingly well crafted. So many good lines lie within it! Ahh, I’m so glad I bought it in hardcover so I can re-read it easily in years to come.

    Re: the ending … I was struck by the themes of legacy & ancestry, in the sense that one of Sabe’s legacies was leaving literal gold bars for her family to find (i.e. objects that will take care of them into the future). I think it was interesting that Iris and Melody were left together in the end, and to me, it possibly struck a more optimistic note, in which maybe they could rekindle (kindle?) a new relationship together now that they’d been left nearly alone. Curious to hear your thoughts … I should really go back and refer to the book as I type these thoughts to make sure I’m doing Woodson’s work justice with this interpretation.

    I also thought the title was very meaningful — it was mentioned in one of the chapters with Iris & Jamison, right? To me, it conjures the raw tenderness of the book itself, viewed as a whole.


    1. It was so, so good. Interestingly, I’m in a small book club and we spent some time discussing our favorite books from the year. The top three (all books I’ve discussed at length on le blog!) for almost all of us were:


      Only one of us docked “Red at the Bone” and replaced it with Rachel Cusk’s “Outline.”

      Such a good year for books!!!


    2. Oh, interesting! Someone gave me a copy of Outline years ago and I donated it a few months ago (without ever having read it) … haha! I’ve heard really mixed things, but would consider giving it another shot in the future. If you ever read it, let me know what you think!

      I would say that my top 3 for the year are:

      Red at the Bone (Woodson)
      Severance (Ma)
      Free Food for Millionaires (Lee)


  2. This was one of my favorites of the year, too! You must pick up “Brown Girl Dreaming” next.

    Also, have you seen If Beale Street Could Talk? I found it breathtakingly beautiful in a similarly aching way.

    1. Added “Brown Girl Dreaming” to my list, Katherine! Thank you! Have not seen “If Beale Street Could Talk” — so thanks for that rec too!!


  3. I was so moved by the book as well. What a pleasure to read. I found myself lingering on each sentence to examine the craft.

  4. I can’t wait for my copy to arrive. I just finished two disappointing “lighter” reads and am ready to curl up with this one! Also, thanks for the RL tip — ordered the flag sweater and a few other cute kids items yesterday!

  5. Another site for authentic Venetian house slippers by a locally owned and operated store in Venice. I bought a pink silk pair (Savoy) when I visited Italy with my mother years ago. The black silk is absolutely divine, too, and perfect for a gentleman. And they have velvet!

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