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.