Whether you’ll toast a relationship, mutter “Down with love!” to institutionalized diktats RE: romance, or decline to debate the topic, here are our best reads … whatever your plans. (Once again, two out of three UC employees—unbeknownst to one another—suggest the same author. Thus, Ferrante is February’s “trending topic.”)
I’m reading James Salter’s Light Years right now, which is a good choice if Valentine’s Day makes you feel like rebelling against love. It’s an unsettling, beautiful book about a married couple bored of each other and their fabulous lives. Salter shows how you can love everything about someone and still not really know—or care to know—them.
For a more affirming love story, try The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. The romance makes up just a small part of the book, but it is so tender and surprising that it has stayed with me many years later. Two kindred spirits find each other late in life, and despite their vast differences manage to really see and understand each other. Barbery seems to suggest that not only are these serendipitous connections possible, life is brimming with them and they’re ours for the taking.
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Colm Tóibín is one of my favorite writers, and I have been reading his beautifully crafted new novel, Nora Webster. I admire writers able to use subtle, spare language to draw the reader into the emotional world of their work. Tóibín’s prose is quiet, his phrases are simple, even mundane. Yet every sentence suggests something beyond it, a great weight of experience, or emotion held in check.
The plot is no more dramatic than the prose, but the emotional intensity of the story is gripping. Nora Webster is about a young widow in a small, convention-bound Irish town, where everyone knew and respected Maurice, her much-loved husband. Tóibín’s spare style is perfect for conveying the painful, contradictory emotions beneath the controlled surface of Nora’s life. She struggles to come to terms with her sorrow, and the loss of autonomy and privacy that came with being a married woman. Every social interaction forces her to acknowledge that once-insignificant choices like what color coat to wear and whether or not to join in the singing at the local pub will be judged by her neighbors according to the exacting standards of what is appropriate for the young widow of an educated man.
Another book that maps the emotional lives of women, Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is the third of her four books tracing the lifelong friendship of two women who grow up together in a working class neighborhood in Naples. The story so far has been an unsparing depiction of all aspects of friendship: the trust, generosity, and love that binds the two women, but also the jealousy, dependence, conflict. Ferrante’s novels are a remarkable, and all-too-rare acknowledgment that friendship is every bit as sustaining and important as romantic or family relations, perhaps even more so.
I’ve also just started the third book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. The first two books in the series, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name are some of the most engrossing and beautiful books I’ve read in a long time (credit to translator Ann Goldstein, as well). The characters are all so fully fleshed, with unique personalities and desires, especially the two central women, Lila and Elena. I’m eagerly awaiting the fourth book this fall.
If you’re looking for a themed read this weekend, you have to check out Alexis Coe’s Alice + Freda Forever. It tells the true story of two teenaged girls in nineteenth-century Memphis whose love had a grisly ending. Alice Mitchell planned to pass as a man to marry her lover Freda Ward, but when their letters were discovered, their families forbade them from speaking to each other again. Distraught at losing Freda, Alice publicly slashed her ex-lover’s throat, and started a national news and courtroom sensation. The book is beautifully designed and illustrated throughout, showing us the letters that passed between Alice and Freda, newspaper articles, and courtroom documents.
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