Words || Meg Mason
Candy-pink covers, a silhouette of a woman in heels pushing a stroller and the cover line some variation of “She had the perfect life. Now, all she needed was the perfect man.” I suppose there really is such a thing as Chick Lit – and sometimes it’s the only thing you feel like – but these ten stories about funny and brilliantly flawed women are not that.
Although they all have a female character at their centre, they’re each so original, stunningly written and funny in a hundred different levels, they defy any sort of genre label, especially the pejorative kind. But while we’re on it, why aren’t all those Ian Rankins, Lee Childs and Robert Ludlums lumped together into a genre called Dick Lit? Anywhere, where were we?
The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks:
A young out-of-work actress gets pregnant from a very ordinary encounter with her ex-boyfriend, and it being the ‘fifties, is tossed out of home by her widower father. She takes a single room in a seedy terrace in London’s Fulham and begins to make her own way, befriending the odd assortment of other residents she’s initially terrified of. Plot-wise, there’s overlap Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone but in style, The L-Shaped Room feels more conversational, almost diary-like, which makes it a whizzier read. And so interesting if the early evolution of feminism is your bag.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offil:
This is such a slight volume, but still somehow tells the entire story of marriage, a baby, a faltering career, an emotional unravelling, an affair and a restoration in discrete, often poetic paragraphs. The New Yorker called it “wonderfully hard to encapsulate, because it faces in many directions at the same time, and glitters with different emotional colours” – which is not to say it’s esoteric or irritatingly conceptual, just a series of sharp observations about motherhood and work, the million tiny moments that make up domestic life and the enormous lurching life events (told in a hundred words) with so much desperate, wonderful humour it makes you wonder why any novel needs to be more than 177 pages long.
One of so many paragraphs underlined in mine: “How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.”
When this novel was published in 1982, it didn’t get the attention it deserved for such a unique and perfectly developed story. Its protagonist is an 18-year-old philosophy student who falls in love with the vast, Jewish intellectual North London family of her professor, then one of his sons after the other, with unhappy consequences.
It was Trapido’s first novel and she was already 40 when it came out, but she kept writing, six more books in all, until all of a sudden only two or three years ago, the authors Elizabeth Gilbert and Maria Semple discovered the book and off it went. Gilbert said she wouldn’t “rest until everyone in America has read and fallen in love with this fabulous author.” I feel the same if you substitute “America” for every single person I know.
Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe
“PS, have you tried Balsamic Vinegar of Modena? It’s dark brown. Looks horrible, like medicine, but is nice,” writes the 20-year-old Nina Stibbe in a letter to her sister Vic. This is a non-fiction collection of unintentionally funny missives Stibbe wrote during the five years she worked as a nanny in North London (gosh, sorry, I’ve just noticed we’re on a London theme). Her employer was the editor of the The Times Literary Supplement and the house served as a sort of halfway home for authors and playwrights, including Alan Bennet who always seemed to turn up at dinnertime. Stibbe, who had come down from provincial Leicester, was so charmingly naïve and reading not-even between the lines, a disaster of a nanny with a heavy reliance on turkey mince and canned tomatoes: “The recipe said the coriander was optional, so I opted not.” Stibbe’s now a novelist herself, so you can move on to her Paradise Lodge and Man at the Helm if you enjoy her subtle, idiosyncratic humour.
The Children’s Act by Ian McEwan
Oh my goodness, how does he actually do it – one stunning novel after the other and never a miss. The Children’s Act, McEwan’s second most recent before Nutshell (also unsurprisingly amazing) is the story of a high court judge, deciding whether the teenage son of Jehovah’s Witnesses should be forced to undergo treatment for Leukaemia. Her marriage is unspooling on the side and things get murky when she starts to form a relationship with the 17-year-old patient. It’s currently being made into a film with Emma Thompson as the judge and I’m counting down the days. Also set in London, of course.
Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers:
I’ve read Eggers off and on since A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius but mostly as a back up for when I’m about to go on holiday and can’t find anything else. But his new novel utterly blindsided me with its portrayal of a woman on the absolute brink. She’s a mother in her thirties who loses her job, then leaves her doltish husband and drives to Alaska in a second-hand campervan with her two little children. If there’s still any debate about whether male authors can write true female characters, this one settles it. And one of this list that isn’t set in London!
These two novels should be sold as a set, as two perfect comfort reads, all fun and joy. I Capture the Castle in particular, you could give to a 13-year-old niece stuck on The Hunger Games and with any luck, it will put her on path to the Mitfords, Evelyn Waugh and others in this ‘thirties and ‘forties ilk.
Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud
I can’t remember when or where I first found book, but I will never forget how on-the-edge it makes you feel from beginning to end. It tells the story young, unmarried mother who leaves miserable 70s London (surprise!) for Marrakech, but because it’s told from the perspective of her six-year-old daughter, you gradually infer that it isn’t the long, brilliant adventure her daughter understands it to be. The result is a low, thrumming undercurrent of imminent disaster and a desperation to find out how it all ends.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Some characters you never ever leave you, for feeling so truly real, and Eleanor Oliphant is one of them. She’s a socially reclusive office worker in her early thirties, whose life is ordered and empty (pesto pasta for one, television, persistent eczema). Your heart breaks for Eleanor throughout, and when she begins to make friends with the IT man in her office and he gives her a cat and starts inviting her out for lunch (she orders a cheese scone and cappuccino) you’re almost weepy with the desire for things to turn out. Thank goodness, they do and you put it down with that there’s hope for all of us feeling. And phew, all set in Glasgow.
About the author
Meg Mason is the author of the novel You Be Mother, and a non-fiction memoir called Say it Again In A Nice Voice. Having come late to the business of reading (the first novel she ever finished was Jane Eyre, under duress for the HSC) she has been catching up ever since.