Lisa Scottoline is a hugger.
The best-selling author stands at the front of a seemingly endless receiving line of fans at her sprawling 44-acre Pennsylvania farm. She is flanked by her daughter and sometimes co-writer, Francesca Serritella. Each person receives a personal welcome from Scottoline; this is her annual book-club party, and she is determined to hug every one of the 450 attendees.
They are just as eager to hug her back. After all, isn’t it every book lover’s fantasy to have her favorite author come out from behind the editorial curtain and schmooze? There is the air of excitement as each new book club arrives at the front of the line. Some present festively wrapped gifts. This is Woodstock for women who love to read, a total girl-fest. And this is only the first of two days of festivities; another group of 450 devotees will arrive tomorrow.
Scottoline, 58, is flying high these days, with 20 books under her belt; she has 30 million books in print and is published in 35 countries. Her new novel, Accused, which just came out, is Scottoline in top form. The book continues her series of mystery-thrillers about Rosato and Associates, an all-female law firm. (Scottoline knows from whence she speaks: she practiced law herself, having graduated cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania law school.) She also finds the time to write — with Serritella — “Chick Wit,” a weekly column in the Philadelphia Inquirer — the pair has written four amusing books, the latest being Meet Me at Emotional Baggage Claim.
Hundreds of people patiently wait in line to take their turn, almost all dressed casual suburban attire with comfortable shoes. There are no Jimmy Choos in this crowd. Each group lines up like the Rockettes to have the moment captured by a professional photographer hired for the day. Some of the book-club invitees are Kindle devotees; others still like to turn pages — all have managed to procure invitations to this event. They range from the 20s to retirement age. Some are from the East Coast; others have driven and flown from further away. But they are united in their devotion to the hostess.
Sue Shaw and Kay Harkness, book-club buddies, are typical. The Houston-area duo has driven two days to make the party. “We love her!” enthuses Shaw, in her 60s. “We’ve been involved with her books for a long time.” Harkness, in her 50s, concurs. “She’s so personable! She’s the same as we are, and she just makes it known.”
Most of the guests are female, but there is a small group of equally ardent male fans. Harry, an energetic 92-year-old, arrives with the Harry’s Harem Book Club. Harry proudly announces that he is the only man in the group. “I’m the talker,” he says convincingly. Frank Parente, 60, is here with his wife, Frances. “We’re fans as well as readers,” he declares. Frances concurs: “She gives back to her fans. Who lets people into their homes like this?”
Indeed. One fan is so at home that she eases back into a stuffed chair in the library and puts her feet up on an ottoman. The crowd has fanned out through the expansive first-floor of her house, where there are trays of catered food on every flat surface: wraps, cheeses, crudités, cakes, cookies, cannolis, brownies and more. Two “bartenders” pour sodas for the guests. The Bodacious Babes, a book club from Medford, Massachusetts wearing mock tiaras and boas, partake of the goodies. Member Edie Wechsler munches and marvels, “she thanked US for coming!”
Most extraordinary about the event — for which Scottoline picks up the entire tab — is its total lack of commercialism. There are no promotional gizmos or piles of books for sale. When Scottoline later sits down to autograph books, there is no requirement, as there is at many author events, that the book signed be purchased there; most people here have lugged favorite Scottoline volumes from home. The only commercial venture on the scene is a boon for the consumer: one can prepurchase Scottoline’s new book, and get a free copy of Lisa and Francesca’s new book. No, the event is a genuine giveback to her ardent fans by an author who has prospered mightily thanks to their patronage.
Away from the crowd, Lisa’s office is warm and cheery, in muted reds with Oriental rugs. Around the room are framed copies of articles about her, a letter from Bill Clinton, a fan, as well as Laura Bush. What made her decide to hold this book-club jamboree, now in its eighth year? “I started to notice the book clubs were finding me and that made me really happy, just as a book lover and certainly as an author,” says Scottoline. “If you look over time over what’s happened in the culture, we’re all atomized. We telecommute, we work different places, we’re online, and we’re virtual. At the same time that we’re spreading out and dispersing, though, we’ve had an enormous rise in book clubs. Exponential growth—I’ve seen the charts. What is going on here? What are they giving away?”
To anyone who has attended one of Lisa’s glamorous book-club confabs, the answer is obvious: books and fellowship, er, sisterhood. And she is passionate about championing that cause. “I want to encourage that,” says Scottoline. “I also want to say thank you. There are a lot of titles out there, and it’s hard to know which ones to pick. And these book clubs were finding me, not driven by any press attention, because I really wasn’t getting very much. I feel really privileged to be part of this process.”
Scottoline writing partner Francesca Serritella, 27, concurs. “People my age are used to giving our opinion on everything, but the opinion consists of thumbs up, thumbs down, like, don’t like, heart, no comment. The opinions are so condensed—I hate it, I love it. It leaves you wanting, especially when it comes to great literature and stories.”
Not far from the house a huge white tent covers hundred of chairs, lined up in rows. It looks like a revival meeting, or a tycoon’s wedding party. The sated crowd settles into their chairs, as their hostess takes the stage. With the verve of a standup comic, the author candidly jokes about her divorces (after all, she is the author of “Why My Third Husband Will Be a Dog”) and leads the crowd in a rousing “Happy Birthday” for her 90-year-old mother, known to her readers as “Mother Mary,” who has come up from Florida with her brother Frank for the party.
By this time, the book-clubbers and the Scottolines have merged into one happy family. “I know strong women characters,” says the author. “I’m looking at them!” And in case there was still a dry eye in the house, she told her fans, “If you didn’t get a hug, come and collect it.”