That Difficult Next Book

I knew I’d have trouble finding the right book after She Left Me The Gun. What I wanted was something not too long and not too serious, amusing if at all possible, written necessarily by a woman, and this proved extremely hard to find.

mystery of mercy closeWhen I first began looking, short wasn’t a problem. So I thought I might try Marian Keyes’ latest novel, The Mystery of Mercy Close (which clocks in around the 500 page mark, but has biggish type and is in any case marketed as quick reading). In my head the notion of ‘chick-lit’ attaches itself essentially to two authors: Sophie Kinsella and Marian Keyes, and they live together under the chilly light of my general disinterest. For women’s writing month I wanted to try all sorts of different books, and I thought that maybe my impressions weren’t fair. However, I have to say I didn’t last long with Marian Keyes. I could see objectively that it was written to be funny with exaggeration and un-subtle class conflict, but by the time the main protagonist, a down-on-her-luck private investigator, has an old boyfriend conveniently door-stepping her with wads of cash to track the missing member of an Irish boy band… Well, I wasn’t in the mood to be quite that far away from any recognisable reality, no matter what the blurbs on the front said about the wonderful honesty and true-to-life qualities of Keyes’ writing.

So I tried again, this time a novel I’d been offered a couple of months back for review. This was a dual-time novel, based primarily in the present day and the life of a young married woman who had recently suffered a miscarriage. The emotional repercussions of this had caused great strife in her otherwise happy marriage. And then, as in the way of so many narratives, a bundle of letters from the estate of her husband’s grandmother turned up in the post to distract her. The letters dated back to the Second World War and were sent to the grandmother from her friend in London. This friend had decided to visit the National Gallery every month to see whichever painting was on display (the rest of the art having been taken away for safekeeping). So our narrator decides to go see the pictures too, following the paper trail. There was an awful lot of description of the paintings, and I just sort of knew that stuff would happen and eventually the married couple would reconcile over a new pregnancy. Not that it was a bad book; I just wasn’t in the mood for that, either. Not after incestuous abuse in South Africa, it felt too much like a fuss over nothing.

So then I found myself hauling lots of books off the shelves and rejecting them one by one. Maine by Courtney Sullivan was by now too long. The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger had had such mixed reviews (I still want to read it!), The Darlings by Christina Alger looked good but I’ve already reviewed a couple of books about the banking collapse in recent memory. Similarly, Sara Paretsky’s new novel, Breakdown, was appealing, but I’ve reviewed her before and I wanted someone new for women’s writing month. Sometimes I wonder whether having too much choice actively brings this mood on: this feeling that nothing is quite right, nothing hits the spot.  I was five pages into Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter and loving it, before realising with chagrin that ‘Jess’ in this case was a man.

history roomBut then I finally did settle down with a novel that wasn’t particularly amusing or non-serious, but which had at least engaged my attention with the writing style I wanted: clean, engaging, unpretentious. This book was The History Room by Eliza Graham. Meredith Cordingley has returned to teach at Letchford, a gorgeous private school in the Cotswolds where her father is headmaster, after her army husband has been seriously wounded. The loss of his leg has turned Hugh in on himself, focused on the long process of healing and unwilling to have his wife around him. Meredith’s mother has recently died, and whilst she is hoping to help her father as he grows accustomed to running the school without her, it’s not quite the sanctuary that Meredith had hoped for herself. And then a disturbing prank takes place in the history room, and it seems as if someone in the school is determined to make trouble. Meredith finds herself drawn into the mystery, and realises that it’s personal, involving the history of her own family and her father’s escape from Prague in 1968.

This was, finally the good palate cleanser I’d wanted. It’s an easy and undemanding read but the set-up is intriguing and although the villains are relatively easy to spot, the way in which people are involved with one another is not clear until the very end. Like so many recently published novels, the ending is a tad sensational (note to authors and editors – power is created in fiction by the reader understanding and identifying with the emotions of the characters, and being uncomfortably aware of the way that events will affect them; sensational events are flashes in the pan, with rarely any lasting effect). But I’d really enjoyed it, even if it wasn’t perfect. I’m a sucker for stories set in schools, and the army husband part rang true and was very interesting, plus that early prank was genuinely chilling.

At least now the way ahead is clear. I’ll be reading some poetry for Friday, and then next week will be given over to the joint reads Dark Puss and I have been enjoying. At the end of that week, it will be time for the next creative non-fiction book, and it will be Ghosting by Jennie Erdal, the memoir of her time as a ghost-writer.


29 thoughts on “That Difficult Next Book

  1. I was surprised by Marian Keyes. I read her novel Rachel’s Holiday and found it pretty gritty for chick lit. Then I read This Charming Man and was again surprised by the dark turn the story took. In both books she deals with addiction head on. I find her work to have much more substance than Kinsella, anyway.

    • That’s an encouraging vote in her favour. I hate giving up on any book and I’ve already decided to put Keyes’ novel aside and try it again when I’m not looking so ardently for something I can’t even put into words!

  2. I just brought home that same Marian Keyes from the library last night, so am glad to hear your opinion since I am also spoiled for choice. Sometimes that really does make it worse–that’s why I sort of like doing readalongs and having a specific book to focus on–usually I can drop into the story and feel quite pleased to be reading it rather than worrying there is a better fit storywise with some other book. So all that to say–I went through a huge chicklit phase a number of years ago and read a number of MK’s novels, but I am not sure I am the best reader now for her books. I might have to give that one a pass. I do lots of book grazing, too (too much so I sometimes think)–so glad you finally found one that suited your mood. I am looking forward to your joint reads and am very curious to hear what you both thought of your choices!

    • I know just what you mean! At least for a readalong, you know there’ll be other people’s readings to compare your own to, and that you’re reading for a purpose. I’ve been through phases in my life of reading lots of what I’d think of as comforting or escapist reads – and been extremely thankful for them. I also get the impression that Marion Keyes used to write slightly different books to these later, more mystery-oriented ones (but don’t quote me on that! I could be wrong). Sometimes, grazing (love that term) for the right book is the only way forward. Reading the books with Dark Puss has definitely been interesting. Somehow I’ve got to shape our conversations into posts over the weekend – wish me luck….!

  3. “and they live together under the chilly light of my general disinterest” this is a great line. i am totally jealous I didn’t think of it.

    want a great chick-non-chick book? North Spirit by Paulette Jiles.

    Just trust me on this one.

  4. Ooo, can’t wait to hear about the Jennie Erdal book. Unless it will be gossipy? Won’t be gossipy, right? It won’t be like, And then I worked with Lance Armstrong and THAT guy was a jerk. And things?

    • Oh I am really hoping it won’t be gossipy. My impression is that it’s not that sort of book at all. And if Lance Armstrong has been anywhere near it, I will eat my Roget’s thesaurus (which I really do not want to do). I’m starting it this weekend, and have high hopes. 🙂

  5. Too funny that you didn’t realize Jess Walter was a man! I hope you get around to finishing Beautiful Ruins, I read it earlier this year and really liked it. Looking forward to reading about your joint venture with DP.

  6. As a slow reader, I need to ration my time well when it comes to book selections. That’s the reason why I’ve been avoiding chick lit. However, I found them to be an enjoyable listen… I wouldn’t mind listening to them on CD while driving, they make the most relaxing rides. While Marian Keyes sounds like good CD’s to put in the car, The History Room sounds like a good read.

    • Now what a good idea! It’s so true that books come across very differently when they are listened to – my friend advised me to listen to Dickens and I appreciated him so much more in that format. Given that most easy reads are more about plot and character than language, I can see that audio might be a very sensible way to go.

  7. Isn’t it funny how sometimes those easy and undemanding reads prove to be harder to find? My shelves are overflowing with books and I can’t believe how hard it is to find a book to read sometimes! And, I’ve read my share of chick-lit but for some reason I have never really gotten into Marian Keyes.

    • Oh you are so right! You’d think it would be easy, but no. I suppose it’s because there’s some ‘thing’ I am looking for and really needing when I want easy and undemanding, whilst I’m more open to the book if it’s literary. I’m so glad it’s not just me, though, who struggles despite packed bookshelves! 🙂

  8. Eh, I’m suffering the exact same problem here – what to read next. I feel it’s time to bravely step back into the world of adult books after a sustained few months of children’s novels, and I’ve started Gertrude Stein’s ‘Three Lives’ which is excellent but just not what I’m in the mood for. I need something a bit easier… At the moment I have a history book, Amanda Vickery’s The Gentleman’s Daughter, but I’m not sure that’s quite what I want either. Hmmm.

    Just can’t be bothered with Marian Keyes and Sophie Kinsella though. That’s one prejudice of mine I’m not interested in challenging. Happily, I doubt either of them will care! 🙂

    I hope some authors and editors took note of your advice.

    Happy weekend!

    • Aren’t the transition novels hard to find? I am not at all surprised Gertrude Stein is not hitting the spot. Clever as she undoubtedly is, you have to be in the mood for her. Curiously enough I also have that book by Amanda Vickery, and whilst it looks wonderful, it also looks like something I need to have my brain powered up for. You need something inbetween those two and MK or SK! Who, heh, do not need to worry about our opinions, given what huge fanbases they have! Ah well. Good luck with finding the right book, and have a lovely weekend, too. 🙂

  9. “It felt too much like a fuss over nothing”–this is something every reader feels from time to time, and I don’t always acknowledge that it’s not entirely the fault of the book.

    • I just know how moody I am as a reader, or at least I am when rest and relaxation are at stake. I’ll try (almost) any piece of literature because I move into a different readerly position then, more open and accepting. But if I want escapism, then I get very picky! 🙂

    • Dear Grad! Perhaps it’s more of an English phrase than an American one. It refers to easy reading books intended mostly for young women. Bridget Jones’ Diary was the original piece of chick-lit, featuring a young heroine apparently in search of a reliable man. Chick-lit is supposed to be about searching for Mr Right, alongside the right job sometimes. But often the subset widens to include new parenting, marriage issues and anything about moving from the town to the country with a young family. Or to slice them up another way, books you might see in the supermarket with essentially the same sorts of covers – pastel covers and embossed titles with stylised cartoonish figures of young women. Like any genre there are all sorts of different novels written within those parameters – some are very funny, some are more romantic, and of course, some are better than others. 🙂

  10. I was wondering if she writes these books to cheer herself up as it seems she’s clinically depressed which surprised me a bit but coukd explain some of the darker undertones. I think I’ve read her a long while ago but don’t remember much. I always meant to try Sophie Kinsella …
    It’s sometimes really tough to find a book to follow one that impressed us so much.

    • Is she? Goodness me, I had no idea and yes, that might indeed explain the mix of tones in her writing. How interesting. And yes, it was too much to ask her to follow that dark and disturbing memoir. Sometimes it’s best just to let things settle for a while and watch TV instead. But I really wanted to find the next book!

  11. Please let me put in a vote for Sophie Kinsella. She makes me laugh out loud. There has been a recent sadness in my life and I have been comfort reading non-stop…she has got me through some sleepless nights.

    I do wonder sometimes if the term”chick lit” is disparaging to women writers and readers? (is there an equivalent term for men?).

    I agree with you about Marian Keyes’s latest book.

    I do like so much your fair minded approach to reviewing books and your willingness to try a wide range of books.

    • Oh I love it when an author gets a vote of confidence. I will definitely put her back on the list. And I send hugs and hope that life is looking smoother now. ‘Chick-lit’ has seemed to become a perjorative term, even if it didn’t begin life that way. It’s annoying how women’s writing is so often scorned as somehow trivial, and it doesn’t happen when men write books about domesticity or love. Boo! And thank you for the lovely compliment. I can’t say often enough how.. grateful I am, I suppose, for books. I definitely want to love them all! 🙂

  12. I think I’m going to have to write that not too long, funny, not too serious and necessarily written by a woman book for you. It’ll take me a couple of years though. 🙂

    • Oh can’t it just! Mind you, I do quite like pulling out a dozen books from the shelves and checking them all out, trying to decide what to read… If there’s confusion, it’s because I do it to myself! 🙂

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