For my first #FridayReads of 2022, I’ve decided to go with two mainstream books, one a well-known classic from a Pulitzer prize-winning author who I’ve read and enjoyed before, and one a debut novel that I bought because I liked the cover.
‘Olive Kitteridge’ by Elizabeth Strout (2008)
I came to Elizabeth Strout via her later Amgash novels, ‘My Name Is Lucy Barton’ (2016) and ‘Anything Is Possible‘ (2017) both of which are short but intense but enticingly readable novels. Here’s what I wrote about ‘Anything Is Possible’ shortly after I read it.
I found myself having to ration out the book so that I wouldn’t consume it in a single sitting.
Yet this isn’t page-turning in the conventional sense. There’s no complex and clever plot to unravel, no sense of threat or intrigue to tease yourself with page after page. There is just life as we all live it.
What makes it compelling is not that I want to know what happens next but that I want to know these people and, in the process, I want to know more about how their experiences mirror mine.
In each chapter, I get to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s not a first-person experience but rather a guided tour with the authorial voice capturing every emotion, memory and reaction with an empathy so deep you could drown in it.
I have the third Amgash novel, ‘Oh William!'(2021) on my TBR and I’m looking forward to it, but before I read it, I wanted to go back to the novel that won Elizabeth Strout her Pulitzer, ‘Olive Kitteridge’. It was written eight years before ‘My Name Is Lucy Barton’ and I’m curious to see whether the qualities I admire in her later books were already present in ‘Olive Kitteridge’
‘Saving Missy’ by Beth Morrey (2020)
I was drawn to ‘Saving Missy’ by the stylish cover. The design is strong and clear. There’s a dog and an old person, some lightly but artfully drawn shadows that lift it from being a Chick-Lit cliché and the fonts entice rather than shout. What’s not to like?
I have a virtual shelf in my virtual library called ‘Old People’, which has twenty-eight books on it, half of which I have yet to read. I can see why being old is interesting to old people, if only because there’s so much about being old that no one seems to want to talk about, but I think it’s also interesting for the folks who haven’t gotten there yet.
Way back in 1991, when I was a mere stripling of thirty-four, I remember being captivated by Rose Tremain’s ‘Sadler’s Birthday’, a book about a very old former butler, approaching his death in the house his former employers left to him. I’d never read anything that made being old feel so real and so inevitable and yet also so natural. I was amazed to find that Rose Tremain was only forty-eight when ‘Sadler’s Birthday’ was published.
These days, perhaps because the Baby Boomers are all old now but still have enormous purchasing power, there are many many books about old people, but few generate the hype that surrounded the launch of Beth Morrey’s debut novel. I flinched a little at the promotional material that described ‘Saving Missy’ as a coming-of-old novel but the cover called to me so I sent for a sample of the ebook. The opening paragraphs hooked me:
It was bitterly cold, the day of the fish-stunning. So bitter that I nearly didn’t go to watch. Lying in bed that morning, gazing at the wall since the early hours, I’d never felt more ancient, nor more apathetic. So why, in the end, did I roll over and ease those shrivelled feet of mine into my new sheepskin slippers? A vague curiosity, maybe – one had to clutch on to that last vestige of an enquiring mind, stop it slipping away.Morrey, Beth (2020-02-05T22:58:59). Saving Missy: The Sunday Times bestseller and the most heartwarming debut fiction novel of 2021. HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Still in my dressing gown, I shuffled about the kitchen making tea and looking at my emails to see if there were any from Alistair. Well, my son was busy, no doubt, with his fieldwork. Those slippers he bought me for Christmas were cosy in the morning chill. There was a message from my daughter Melanie but it was only to tell me about a documentary she thought I might like. She often mistook her father’s tastes for mine. I ate dry toast and brooded over my last conversation with her and for a second bristles of shame itched at the back of my neck. It felt easier to ignore it, so instead I read the newspapers online and saw that David Bowie had died.
At my age, reading obituaries is a generational hazard, contemporaries dropping off, one by one; each announcement an empty chamber in my own little revolver.
In the end, I opted for the audiobook version because it’s narrated by Harriet Walter.