Hands up, who’s failed to read a literary “must”? You know the one, the book with the gold-plated reviews, the one with its own stand in the bookshop window, the one that won the thingy.
I’m reading WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN by Lionel Shriver. The story: via a series of letters to her ex, a mother works through her grief and guilt over her son’s killing spree in a US school — and it’s good. I know it’s good. It won the 2005 Orange Prize. My pals are telling me that, while I might not “enjoy it” (subject matter, etc), I will admire it.
I love a good literary classic, something well crafted, chewy, dense… I’m a stay-at-home mum who clings to the international news as an evening lifeline thrown across my nappy-shack, hauling me into the world of adult politics and surmise. KEVIN is fiction, but there have been similar cases. Also, I studied psychology — I’m interested in the darker sides of the human psyche. It sounds like The Book For Me.
I bought it for myself as a treat, I’ve been reading it for exactly six months, and I’ve just passed page 100.
It is good. Possibly, for me, slightly too self-conscious (although with such an introverted format and dire subject matter, I suppose cerebral claustrophobia is part of the reading experience…) but the writing’s good and I’m hooked enough to want to finish it. So how come I’m picking up a lot of other books and galloping through them, while KEVIN waits on my bedside table, gathering dust and, in a sticky stroke of irony, a layer of “well done” stickers from school?
Other books that I have read since first picking up KEVIN include Vanessa Gebbie’s THE COWARD’S TALE (my thoughts here), Alison Wells’ HOUSEWIFE WITH A HALF-LIFE (interview here), numerous anthologies, and more kids’ books than you can count. A pattern’s emerging: almost all my reading this year has been focused around either my children’s bedtimes, or my blog interviews and posts.
I no longer have time to read for fun, and KEVIN isn’t really a book to rush.
Yesterday, I picked up THE ANGEL AT NO. 33 by Polly Williams because my husband gave me a stack of books for Christmas and it seemed churlish to have read none of them. Many were scientists’ biographies or extended philosophical musings, but in their midst was a bright turquoise paperback which, truth be told, looked like it could be devoured in one sitting.
The first few pages gave me that dreaded ‘what’s so special about this?’ feel (story: a thirty-something mum dies and her friends, husband and son have to cope — and/or copulate — while she watches from the ether). The storyline is THE LOVELY BONES minus the murder, while the characters and love story are all BRIDGET JONES. The writing is contemporary, sassy, easy, light… the characters are more cake than heartbreak and the husband is sexy (although we ‘get’ that he has dark eyes, ok — we don’t need to be told quite so many times…)
However, after the initial ‘meh’, I found myself zooming past page 50, 75, 100… I overtook my progress with KEVIN in a matter of hours because ANGEL is one easy read — easy as in fluid, simple… elegantly simple… The characters became my friends. OK, I’ll admit that it’s easy for me, I lived in London for a delicious decade, my best friend lived in Muswell Hill, I’m a mother of boys, and my husband is tall, stubbly, and has very dark eyes — plus, you know, pain au chocolat…
Thing is, THE ANGEL AT NO. 33 is bloody good fun.
Would I buy it for a friend? Yes, because it really is good fun. Will I buy another of her books? Yes, because I like fun. I like London, Sancerre, and highlights that go green in swimming pools (hair issues do happen). I am a busy, tired, working mum of three, sometimes I don’t want to dissect my maternal psyche or the istigkeit of good grammar — sometimes I want to stick my face in a cake and kick back — read a book without taking notes.
ANGEL didn’t require me to do anything other than enjoy it. I could loll around, remembering old times with my friend J, her kitchen in Muswell Hill, and the champagne that she siphoned into me three minutes before my wedding as I struggled (with a cauliflower-sized clump of loo roll) to scrub a burgundy-plum lipstick print off the skirt of my pale cream wedding dress (shoulda put the lippy on last, eh).
Polly Williams has just given me a bloody fabulous, enjoyable night in, and she’s reminded me how much I love reading — not just for the mind-expanding, philosophy-changing insights from the depths of the literary pond, but also to remind me of Sancerre hangovers and old friends.
I did read it in one sitting and it relaxed me so much, I’ve spent today pottering around in slow motion, chilling out, ordering wine. I might have another night in tonight — I might even have another go at WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN.
I understand it’s very good.