December Comfort

I once came upon a wonderful quote by P G Wodehouse that I’ve never been able to find again that said something like: The world is full of wonderful literature that one should read. But just as I’m reaching for a classic volume, my eye falls on the latest Agatha Christie. I must say I felt a bit like that this week. I had begun Marianne Wiggins’s The Shadow Catcher, and from the prologue it looked complex, sophisticated and promising, but then I found a copy of Rosy Thornton’s latest novel in my pigeon hole in college and suddenly it seemed completely irresistible. Critics talk a lot about the difference between mass market novels and literature, between lowbrow, middlebrow and highbrow fiction and the debate is always a bitter and contentious one. As far as I can see, the difference lies in exactly how much comfort the novel offers to the reader, where comfort is bound up with qualities like optimism and simplicity. Books on the mass market end offer people like me, who just don’t believe that life works, storylines in which protagonists fall in love, cope with difficult children, and tackle the recalcitrant awkwardness of life with good humour and good faith. Killers get caught and sent off to jail, threats to communities are lifted, secrets are revealed, and serenity restored. It’s nice to believe things work out okay, because after all, even in life they do sometimes.

Literature toys more with the thought that maybe resolution doesn’t always happen, and it proceeds with an eye on the complexities of existence and human emotion, but at the end of the final chapter, it usually relents to some extent. Finding meaning in life, even when it’s a meaning we don’t always want to hear as readers, is inevitably a positive and comforting event. The book hasn’t been written that refuses this solace to its readers, because if it had, no one could read it. So, whilst those that favour literature may scorn the lack of attention to paradox and uncertainty in mass market fiction, the genres get impatient with literature for refusing to come out and admit that for all its tortuous meanderings, a story is a story. The function of narrative is to rescue us, one way or another. To my mind, genre fiction and literary fiction are equally important and it doesn’t matter where readers insert themselves on the sliding scale they offer. What is important is diversity and variety. It’s if we only allow ourselves one kind of story that we’re in deep trouble. For my own part, I like to sample everything.

Rosy Thornton’s latest novel, Crossed Wires, follows the lives of two very different people as they fall in love, long distance. Peter is a geography don at a Cambridge college, while Mina works at a Sheffield call center, fielding car insurance claims. Chance, in the form of a series of minor car accidents, brings them together, their shared status as lonely single parents maintains the connection. In many ways the romantic link is subordinated to the parallel narratives of their lives, in which both must deal with anxious moments over their children. Peter has twins, whose deep connection is broken when one sister becomes involved with a family on a nearby traveller’s site. Mina has a daughter, Sal, whose elected isolation in reading hints at darker troubles, and a younger sister, Jess, whose rebellious, difficult nature is hard to handle. There’s a story screaming to get out in here about the state of class relations in Britain today, and the resentments and prejudices surrounding people who live on the edge of poverty. But it’s subsumed into the central storyline of differences in relationships. As parents, both Peter and Mina are attuned to the deep workings of attachment within their children, whether to adults or to their peers, and are almost excessively fearful when those attachments falter. Fights between siblings or schoolfriends, the diminished intimacy that comes as children grow and separate, are witnessed with dismay by Peter and Mina, and they do in both cases lead to dangerous situations. In the realm of the adults, however, things are very different. The separation of Peter from Mina, by geography and by class, in no way prevents a gentle intimacy from forming between them. Separation and intimacy are the ideal components of any successful human relationship, but this seems much easier for adults to understand in relation to one another than parents to grasp in their dealings with their children, where the enormous weight of responsibility crushes the tender lightness of the connection. There’s a great sense of the value of community in Rosy Thornton’s novels, very clear in Hearts and Minds, where the Cambridge college is seen (quite rightly) as a big, bickering, loyal family. The communities in this novel may be more fragmented, and more fraught, but loyalty, sympathy and compassion still abound. It’s a world where people strive to do their best for one another, despite their limitations. I read it in about two big gulps, and felt very comforted.

I then went on to read Laurie Colwin’s Happy All The Time. This I also loved, as Colwin has one of those witty, sassy voices that I could just listen to endlessly. It doesn’t really matter much what happens in the novel. In this case, however, we have a story of two couples, or at least, two young, happy-go-lucky men who fall in love with women they adore but who torture them in different ways. Holly is cool calm in relation to Guido’s passionate sensitivity, Misty is the force of negativity in relation to Vincent’s relentless optimism. It’s a story about yin and yang in relationships being the best combination, but sometimes, nevertheless, murder to live with. All the way through I was trying to figure out which team Laurie Colwin was batting for. There’s a strong, almost moral sense that life is wonderful, and easy to live and works out just splendidly. Colwin is all for good living, particularly when it comes to food, entertaining and friends. Everybody loves everybody else, no problems ever constitute true obstacles, eccentric relatives turn up and provide terrific amusement. And yet out of this confection arises two types of classic Colwin characters. One kind is the domestic goddess. Holly is beautifully dressed, an excellent cook, cultured and in control, serene, unemotional and actually I rather loathed her until near the end of the book when motherhood undoes her corset stays a bit. There’s something faintly disturbing to me about the kind of character who sweetly goes about doing exactly what is best for them and arranging themselves a delightful life; in this story her husband, Guido, is left carrying all the emotional baggage that Holly neatly steps around, and is rather ticked off for moaning about it. The other character is the embodiment of anxiety, in this case, Misty: ‘Misty felt that life was a battle. You had to fight and think. You had to hack your way through life with your intelligence as a machete cutting down what obstacles you could. You were born knowing nothing: you had to fight for what you knew.’ By contrast I had huge sympathy for this position, as it’s the one I adhere to myself, although I could never be as rude and offputting as Misty is, in order to protect her vulnerable interior. Colwin is too smart a writer to simply juggle oppositions, and by the end of the narrative, each character in her foursome has lost some of their rough edges and climbed down from the extremity of their positions. This was a very seductive read, offering a kind of promised land of relationships where happiness and contentment bubble up irrepressively, and negativity is gradually eroded by the sweetness of life. I enjoyed it immensely, but by the end, I was feeling ready to pick up Marianne Wiggins again. Not because I was tired of kind hearts, good intentions, witty one-liners and happy endings, but because I was sufficiently comforted to face the dark side once more.

9 thoughts on “December Comfort

  1. i read across genres — the only qualification is that it be good for its genre.

    my frustration with *the shadow catcher* was that elements of the plot were just far too neat and convenient.

  2. I make only one differentiation – well written or not well-written. Otherwise it makes no difference to me whether I am reading a purely escapist light-hearted crime story of a deep piece of ‘literary’ fiction. At the end of the day the key question is ‘What is a book for?’ And my answer is simply ‘To be enjoyed’. The level at which it is enjoyed is a matter of taste.

  3. I certainly read for comfort. There are times when I’m too tired, too stressed, too sad to deal with ‘literature’. And then I do want to read something lighter that has a happy ending. And you are exactly right when you say ‘sufficiently comforted to face the dark side once more.’

  4. I’ve always thought you read a wonderful variety of books, and even though you are a university professor you can equally enjoy them whether they are highbrow literature or an escapist mystery. This is why I always enjoy reading your posts as you can always find something insightful to say about them all. I try and vary my reading, but I could do a better job of it (will try next year). You’ve written before about how narrative rescues us–and I love that idea–and it really is true (how do people who don’t read get by–honestly I do wonder how they cope? TV–surely it can’t be as fulfilling?). I’ve got a couple of Rosy Thornton’s older novels (including the last one so many people read last year), and one of Laurie Colwin’s. Both authors sound good!

  5. December is the perfect month for comfort reads, isn’t it? Which must be why I’m in the midst of both a Georgette Heyer and Sherlock Holmes right now. I can’t wait to read the new Rosie Thornton, and you’ve made me realize Laurie Colwin’s fiction (I loved her Home Cooking) has been on my TBR list way too long.

  6. Both of these books sound like fun. I find myself turning to comfort reads more often these days than I used to — and it’s very nice! Or maybe the nature of the comfort read has changed — I used to re-read an old favorite like Austen, whereas now I’m more likely to pick up something like a Rosy Thornton novel. My only complaint about lighter kinds of fiction is that I have to be careful to find something well written, because if it’s not, I find myself getting so irritated that I lose the chance for comfort. But there are plenty of people out there who can do it well.

  7. I thought I’d be clever and find the quote for you but I have failed. Though it could be n the Russian P.G. Wodehouse society site and I just didn’t know it because I don’t read Russian.

    Thornton’s new book sounds as good as Hearts and Minds. I must get myself a copy when it makes it to the US!

  8. Emily – I do agree with you. But interesting re The Shadow Catcher. I shall be reading with that thought in mind, now. Scriptor, I absolutely agree. If it gives pleasure, it’s good. And each to their own – taste isn’t something you can alter, in any case. Musings – I realised that a lot of my reading was done to give me a mental palate cleanse, and there’s nothing like a funny book to make you feel a million times better. I am truly grateful to books that lift my spirits, in whatever shape or form they come! Danielle – I think you will enjoy both Rosy Thornton and Laurie Colwin, and both rescued me from December gloom! I think you read a wonderful range of books and I fear for my tbr pile even more than I normally do if you are considering reading even more widely! I’ve read some fantastic books thanks to your recommendations. And I do love to read everything – I’d hate to miss out on anyone! Emily – ooh Sherlock Holmes and Georgette Heyer sounds like a fantastic combination. Perfect winter reading. And I’d love to know what you make of Home Cooking. I don’t often read cookery books (or not like that) but I might make an exception for Colwin. Dorothy – I do absolutely agree with you. I get fed up quickly with books whose heroines gasp in dismay or are too perfect to be true. I also think that if you’ve spent an academic term teaching literature, you need something light and a little pointless to counterbalance it. If I didn’t just enjoy reading for the pleasure and escapism it gave me, I couldn’t tackle the big, difficult books for their deeper meaning. Stefanie – oh you are just the sweetest! Thank you so much for trying. I read it in an article in either a magazine or newspaper and I am deeply suspicious nowadays that it was a fabrication. But you never know. I had forgotten you’d read Hearts and Minds! Rosy Thornton is reliably good, I think.

  9. So glad to hear Rosy has a new book out – I loved Hearts and Minds so much, and was actually just thinking about re-reading it. I’ve not read the Colwin book you mentioned, but I just picked up another novel of hers at a library book sale yesterday, and I can’t for the life of me remember the name. But I do like her work. This is the time of year we need good, well written stories about the lives of others to help us forget all the things going on in own!

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