Beverly Sigel and Ruth Podolin, both veterinarians' wives, felt socially isolated, so they started a book club. In the 44 years since, Sigel, Podolin and other members have been through marriages, divorces, career changes, health crises, and the birth of grandchildren.

But the book club rolls on.

The 13 women in their First Friday Book Club range in age from 55 to 89 and hail from throughout South Jersey, including Cinnaminson, Lumberton, Haddonfield and Cherry Hill.

They gather monthly at the home of a designated hostess. Their two-hour discussions center on a challenging contemporary novel or the occasional classic.

On the first Friday in May, the ladies pulled their chairs up to a table loaded with coffee, tea, fresh fruit and bagels at the home of Kitty Ebert of Haddon Township. The tablecloth had a floral print, as did fine china stored in a cabinet nearby. They discussed

Martha Quest

by Doris Lessing, the story of a young woman coming of age on a farm in Africa. Their animated conversation jumped from political affairs in Zimbabwe to sex, marriage, race and religion.

Marcy Kay, 55, is a massage therapist from Collingswood.

"Professionally and educationally, it's a very bright group of women," Kay said of her peers, adding that they're highly selective about what they read. (They usually do not take cues from Oprah's Book Club.) Their cardinal rule is to choose titles that have been released in paperback so members have the option of spending less or borrowing from the library.

Membership is informal and welcoming. When a woman meets someone who seems like a good fit, she can propose that person to the group.

When member Patsy Brandt realized during a yoga class two years ago that Ebert had an unusually large vocabulary, she knew just what to do.

"I figured she was extremely literate," Brandt said of Ebert, a retired high school English teacher, who, as it happened, had taught the children of two fellow members.

Other group members include a clinical social worker, a psychologist and a college librarian.

On the subject of men, the women disagree. Some believe that having a man join would be acceptable, while others cringe at the thought.

According to veteran member Bonnie Rosenberg, a former nurse and quilt-maker, the women are not all close friends, although they are relaxed around one another. Members spend the first few minutes of each meeting catching up on personal affairs, but they're quick to get down to business.

Still, through the years, the ladies have been there for one another.

Brandt has been struggling with cancer for seven years. Members helped shuttle her to and from chemotherapy.

When Haddon Township school board member Laura Chudd had to miss a year because of her mother's illness, she appreciated knowing that the other ladies were thinking of her.

"We know when something's going wrong, there's another group in the world pulling for us," Chudd said.

The club went on hiatus once - when co-founder Sigel went to work as a psychologist in Philadelphia 10 years after its launch. After a lengthy break, the women resumed their meetings roughly 19 years ago.

It was then that Ellen Stimler, a retired family lawyer and Holocaust survivor who lives in Medford, was invited by Sigel to join the group. Now 89, Stimler said she wouldn't know what to read if it weren't for the club. The books selected "give you an insight into a culture or customs, or an area of society that you don't really know," Stimler said.

Because she has been struggling with glaucoma, and her ability to drive has been affected, Stimler doesn't know how much longer she'll be able to attend First Friday meetings, although the other members assure her that they will drive her. That's fortunate because Stimler said, "I love these people, and I enjoy it."