Somehow, sometimes, one feels the need for a quick fix – be it a shopping spree, a sugar rush or, in my case, a couple of quick-to-read, non-angsty, non-existentialist romance novels. I admit to my guilty pleasure and here are three of the finest I have read recently: Gabrielle Donnelly, The Little Women Letters, Barbara J. Zitwer, The J. M. Barrie Ladies Swimming Society and Carole Matthews The Chocolate Lovers Club. Feel free to stop reading now if you don’t fancy any ruminating discources on what appear to be three trivial novels. In fact, I’ve been thinking about writing a post like this for some time – about Donna Douglas’s series about the Nightingale hospital, the first of which is The Nightingale Girls. So perhaps I should just rename this post as ‘A Series of Quick Fixes’.
Perhaps, one might have thought, studying literature means acquiring a sort of snobbery about what precisely constitutes literature. However, I have always vehemently opposed any attempt to divide the world of books into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ literature. I believe that instead any distinctions should be renamed as ‘books I liked’, ‘books I didn’t like’ and ‘books I didn’t understand’. The latter category perhaps deserves a post of its own, including as it does, I think, ideas such as ‘books whose point I didn’t understand’, ‘books which I want to re-read because I think they may become books that I like’ and ‘books which seemed to have no point at all but which are apparently incredibly important’. The category ‘books I liked’ can also be subdivided into ‘books I will re-read again and again’ (such as, in my case, The Lord of the Rings and Das Fliegende Klassenzimmer), ‘books which I really enjoyed but which I doubt I’ll be able to re-read’ (such as The Bone People perhaps?) and ‘books which are enjoyable, light, fluffy and much better than any RomCom Chick Flick but have about the same effect on my life as a piece of good chocolate. Or an ice cream. Or a bit of music from Hairspray. They cheer me up, they make me want to read again and they remind me of a few home truths (such as ‘believe in yourself’ and ‘you may be writing this post sitting next to the love of your life’). And that, precisely, is why I think that such light literature should never ever be disparaged.
Preachy bit over, here are the details!
Gabrielle Donnelly, The Little Women Letters
I first picked this book up about 18 months ago. I was waiting for my partner in a charity shop, browsing the book bin (uh-oh!) and picked up this little gem. Now Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women series has belonged to my list of ‘books I want to read again and again’ for years and like any devoted fan I was slightly concerned by any attempt to tamper with Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, Marmee and, above all, the lovely Professor Bhaer. However, Donnelly does not really tamper at all. Instead, she invents a modern Meg, Jo and Amy, a contemporary Marmee and even a new Professor Bhaer – showing that characters from classical fiction are still relevant to contemporary readers. In a sense, the novel’s protagonist discovers this connection herself; Lulu, her older sister Emma (or Josephine Emma) and her younger sister Sophie, are young women living in London. That their mother Fee happens to be the great-great-granddaughter (or something) of Jo March is negligible. Lulu finds Jo’s letters which she wrote to Marmee, Beth, Meg and Amy and these letters fit in so well with what the reader probably already knows about the March family that they do not compromise or jar any treasured opinions. The exception is the last letter which is a little too convenient (well, even more convenient than the whole series of plot devices already is) but I will leave that up to the reader to decide. Ultimately, though, this novel is a story about young women trying to find their place in life, to find out who they are and what they want and these women realise that love and family is at the heart of everything – just like the March sisters did.
Barbara J Zitwer, The J. M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society
This is exactly my kind of barmy read. Lots of strong women with their own troubles and concerns, who find strength in their companionship with other women. Yes there is a love story and yes it’s immediately obvious which man the young female protagonist is going to end up with (hint: it’s probably not the one she started with!) but the centre of the novel is, again, a journey of discovery about identity and family. The start of the novel, however, is the Swimming Society – a group of older women who go swimming in a lake near Stanway House (where J. M. Barrie stayed) come rain or shine. Or snow. Or ice. All these women have their own personal tragedies and all of them are inspiring. It’s only a short novel so I don’t want to give any more details away. Suffice to say that the novel made me smile and laugh out loud a lot.
Carole Matthews, The Chocolate Lovers’ Club
Now here is a mixed box of characters (pardon the chocolate-scented pun there). Quirky chocoholics appear to promote the mantra that chocolate and a close group of friends can solve all problems. I’m not sure what to make of this novel. I did enjoy it but I’m not sure I’d have the patience or the stomach for the sequel; there was entirely too much gluttonous consumption of chocolate and, after however many pages, the protagonist did start to grate a little. Her friends were all more interesting because from the start the main character was set up as the one with the cheating boyfriend who eventually leaves him for someone else who still isn’t really worth it. A bit too Bridget Jones for me I’m afraid. I found the woman who was disinherited by her family for marrying for love but found herself with a gambling husband much more interesting. Or the independent, opinionated and sexual American woman who gave up her career to marry an aristocrat, only to find herself in a sexless and lonely marriage. Or even the gay couple who run the chocolaterie the girls meet in. And especially the aristocrat-turned-hippie for whom I was rooting the whole way through. So then. I enjoyed the novel for the supporting cast rather than the main character and, of my trio for today, I think this was my least favourite but that doesn’t mean it didn’t make me smile.
I think this post is already long enough without Donna Douglas’s novels, so I will devote a separate post to them. Good night all and get reading!