5 March 2020

Nice books for bleak times

Posted by Gayle Lazda

I don’t generally go in for cheerful books – I spent Christmas reading Nevil Shute’s 1957 post-nuclear-war novel On the Beach and thinking about climate change, if you were wondering how I'm doing. But sometimes I accidentally manage to pick up a book so joyful that even my bleak outlook on life is momentarily altered. I wouldn’t go so far as to say these books are cheerful: they are, the way I see it, all about the essential loneliness of existence, and how the only way to fight it is by making connections with those around you – romantic connections, friendships, acts of kindness to near strangers. They’re full of families who actually like each other, quiet enduring friendships, couples who weather storms and make it out the other side. If you’re feeling bleak – and honestly, why wouldn’t you be? – these books will be a welcome intervention.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

‘To those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine…’ So runs the newspaper ad that kicks of this absolute joy of a novel. Four women who barely know each other take up the offer of an Italian castle for the month of April; they’re each running away from something – boredom, husbands, the possibility of future husbands – and in the dream-like setting of a Mediterranean spring, everything sorts itself out for the best. In John’s recommendation (the reason I picked it up in the first place) he calls it ‘impossibly buoyant and fragile,’ which describes its charms perfectly.

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford

A book so delightful I burst into tears on finishing it. Originally published in 1933 and recently rediscovered and reissued by the brilliant Handheld Press, Business as Usual tells the story of Hilary Fane, a young woman from Edinburgh who, in her year of independence before her planned marriage to a busy surgeon, moves to London and gets a job on the Book Floor of an Oxford Street department store. It’s all told through her letters home and interdepartmental memos, and it will make you wish you still wrote letters, and lament the fact that, even if you did, they’d never be as witty and charming as Hilary’s. If this is all sounding a little whimsical and twee, I promise you it isn’t; in between the jolly anecdotes about life on the shopfloor, it touches on the darker aspects of life as a single woman in London – damp, cold digs, making rent, unwanted pregnancies…

Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession

A book about a friendship between two quiet men who like board games and comfortable silences. It is, from the first paragraph, extremely funny (‘Leonard was raised by his mother alone with cheerfully concealed difficulty, his father having died tragically during childbirth…’), but also at times, a painfully tender account of not quite fitting into the world.

Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin

The story of best friends Guido and Vincent and their respective romances with Holly and Misty, told in zippy, witty prose that makes me want to be best friends with everyone involved. It’s a tender, big-hearted account of small human failings, and things working out for the best anyway, dotted throughout with delicious meals – peach mousse, tea trays of toast and honey, a wedding night dinner of spaghetti with butter and garlic – a clue to Laurie Colwin’s other life as a food writer. If you read Norah Ephron’s Heartburn and wished it had been kinder, this is the book for you.

Books mentioned in this blog post