Kirsty emailed me last week (she is a real-life friend, honest, but she lives quite a long way away) (although having said that, I do email friends who live very near me) (in fact I email my Paramour quite often, is that really really sad?) (I'm not sure I want you to answer that)
Where were we? Oh yes, Kirsty's email. It was a plaintive plea born of near-despair. She said
One thing I really want to do is start reading happier books. I keep reading appallingly sad books, and just stopped in the middle of one set in India when a baby was buried alive. I understand that is the reality of some women's lives, but, y'know, I'm reading for leisure.I have so much sympathy with this. I'm not averse to reading a sad book now and again, but do they ALL have to be so tragic? There seems to be a real vogue at the moment for books full of horrible characters who have desperately sad lives with no redeeming features whatsoever. And maybe I'm shallow, but I just don't want to spend my leisure hours thinking about people who are having a terrible time. I do quite a lot of that in the day job, as it happens, and a fair amount in my personal life, so when I read for pleasure I'd like it to be just that - for pleasure.
I asked Kirsty if I could throw open her plea to a wider audience. She was enthusiastic, so here we are. I'll start with some recommendations of my own.
One of the best books I read last year was Lottery by Patricia Wood. Its central character is Per, an adult man with learning difficulties, whose family are money-grabbing bastards who don't care about him and whose best friend is an alcoholic. So far it sounds just like the kind of miserable book I'm trying to avoid. However, it has compelling characters in a gripping story which is heartwarming without being saccharine.
Another I enjoyed very much was Run by Ann Patchett. She's a terrific writer and I loved Bel Canto, the story of a group of people held hostage in an ambassador's house in an unspecified third world country. Run is set in a very different territory: a New York family. Again, it has heavy-duty themes: bereavement; kinship; race. But again, the characters are fascinating and memorable; the plot beautifully designed; and the story has optimism at its heart.
A third was The Road Home by Rose Tremain. This is the story of Lev, a bereaved Eastern European man who travels to London to look for work. Some of it is enormously funny and some equally moving. I reached the middle and then put the book down for a week, convinced it was all going to go horribly wrong for Lev, and needing to psych myself up to read the rest. One of the things I admired most about this book was the way the author differentiated between the characters' voices. And, again, such characters! I found it really interesting to see my own country through Lev's eyes. I won't spoil the ending for you but I was very glad I found the courage to finish reading the book.
You may have worked out, from the recommendations above, that my great love is contemporary literary fiction. However, my final recommendation is a Retro Read: a book first published exactly 100 years ago. It's still in print, which is a considerable recommendation in itself. One of the things that fascinates me about this book is the way it lets us glimpse a past society through the contemporary literary fiction of its time. Some of it seems incredibly dated, of course, and it's not at all PC. Yet it has a feisty heroine who struggles to overcome considerable difficulties: poverty; a misguided mother; social class differences. Some of the characters may seem stereotypical to 21st century readers, particularly the men, but the women are strong and well-rounded, and the author is a master of descriptive writing as well as storytelling. I re-read this book at least once a year: Gene Stratton Porter's A Girl Of The Limberlost.
So it's over to you now. Bring on the happy books! Clearly they don't have to be 100% happy - in fact they couldn't be; you need The Very Hungry Caterpillar for that. They also don't have to be contemporary literary fiction. I do read across genres, and love, for example, Terry Pratchett; such a happy writer. But Kirsty and I will be very grateful for any suggestions you can offer. And I hope this will be a useful resource for others, too.