How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry

Julius runs an independent bookshop in rural Oxfordshire and, listening to his customers’ woes and desires, acts as an informal therapist. When he dies he leaves a hole in the community and in the heart of his daughter, Emilia. She must decide whether to keep the bookshop open or let her father’s dreams die with him.

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Reading How to Find Love in a Bookshop was much like eating a slice of homemade chocolate cake. It’s sweet and self-indulgent; a slice of comfort-reading that might not be very nutritious but leaves you feeling warm and satisfied.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop consists of multiple romantic storylines which all link in some way to the bookshop. And when I say multiple, I mean multiple: there are at least seven different relationships. Told in the third person from the perspective of several distinct voices, it’s a short book at only 367 pages. Given how many different stories those few pages cover, it’s not surprising that it’s a fairly surface-level read. It’s also relatively sedate – there is little drama or tension other than the question of whether Emilia will keep the bookshop open. Even this is only one of several storylines, so the tension is lost in a sea of other stories. But each character even without much page-time is well-rounded, relatable, and the dialogue is great. It’s impressive we get to know the characters and care about them as much as we do.

It’s also wonderful to read a book that just oozes passion about books.  One character asks another, “Have you got a book about a man who takes ages to realise the person he loves has been right under his nose all along?” “There’s loads of those…” she responds (p.359). It’s a wonderfully self-reflexive moment. “Fine,” Henry seems to be saying, “I may not be doing anything new. But that doesn’t mean I’m not doing it well and I just know how much you’re enjoying it.” Henry herself notes in the suggestions at the back of the book, “For me, the title is more thematic than specific – the idea you will always find something to love in a book shop. It’s about a love of books and reading as much as romance. Books will never let you down: they are there to provide escape, comfort, inspiration…What’s not to love?” (p.373)

Favourite quotation: “So that was why people read. Because books explained things: how you thought, how you behaved, and made you realise you were not alone in doing what you did or feeling what you felt.” (p.297)

How to Find Love in a Book Shop, Veronica Henry (Orion Books, 2016)

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Books with pink covers – Sushi for Beginners by Marian Keyes

Ever the admirer of Desert Island Discs, I found myself listening to Marian Keyes one day. I’d never read any of her books, but writers talking about life and books and music has to be one of my favourite things, so I gave the episode my full attention. I was captured by how warmly and openly she spoke about mental health and addiction and how this finds its way into her writing. Early on, she talks about being pigeon-holed as a “popular” writer, and Kirsty Young asks her why she thinks she’s put in such categories:

“Because I’m a woman. And because, for good or for ill, lots of women enjoy my books, and they relate to them. And in my own little way I feel that they are quite empowering. And I think that anything that empowers women […] has to be slapped down. And so if we like something, by telling us it’s rubbish, it makes us feel a bit silly for having liked it in the first place. And I know so many men will be listening to this and thinking, ‘that’s not true’. But it absolutely is true. […] I am very proud of the books I write and the reach that they have. I’m prepared to put up with a pink cover if it makes me more accessible. I don’t see anything wrong with being accessible. It would sadden me to write a book that was only read by seven people. It’s that choice. But it means then that I am patronised, and categorised as […] not terribly clever.” (5:40-7:40)

Guiltily, I remembered how doggedly I avoid any book with a pink cover. “My God,” I thought, “I’m part of the problem.” My solution: to immediately go out and acquire a book by Marian Keyes. Lacking the funds necessary for a trip to the bookshop, I set off to my local library. I found three books by Keyes. This Charming Man was just too pink. I baulked. The Woman who Stole my Life seemed an improvement, but didn’t immediately grab me. The final book I found was Sushi for Beginners. Not too pink, and about editing, a topic I love reading about. Perfect! The editing of a women’s magazine, to be sure, but better than nothing. It’s also a decidedly thick book at 564 pages. I took this as a good sign.

Sushi for Beginners Marian Keyes

During the first few pages I was nervous. The women in the book talked a lot about shoes and make-up. Horoscopes were mentioned. I was out of my depth and dangerously close to becoming judgmental. I can spot the precise moment Keyes converted me. It didn’t even take long. 18 pages, in fact. “Trix…had the glittery, luscious-sticky look of a devotee of the more-is-more school of slapplication.” I laughed aloud, disrupting my fellow quiet café-goers with my unrestrained mirth. Soon I found myself abandoning the other book I was reading (The Long War) in favour of Sushi for Beginners. Me! Abandoning science fiction for women’s fiction? What was happening to me?

The short answer is that I had discovered that not all women’s fiction has to have bland, stock characters, or predictable storylines. Keyes’s writing is witty and knowing, accessible but not patronising. And the characters are just so likeable. At numerous stages I found myself wishing I were their friend, or thinking, “other people feel like this? I didn’t know!” Yes, the characters talk about men and handbags and lipstick. But they also talk about depression and homelessness. Even the obsession with horoscopes has a genuine, character-driven reason for being there. It’s about the character’s need for control and order, growing out of her disordered, disrupted childhood. It’s not just, “because she’s a woman. And women who read books with pink covers like horoscopes”. Here’s one of my favourite moments of Keyes putting into words those feelings that don’t get talked about:

“She was surprised to find she was happy to be with a crowd and happy to be on its edges. Such contentment was rare: all Ashling knew was that she almost never felt whole. Even at her most fulfilled, something remained forever absent, right at her very core. Like the tiny, pinprick dot that remained in the wash of black when the telly used to shut down for the night. But tonight she was calm and peaceful, alone but not lonely.” (p.45).

There are so many insightful moments like this. Moments that hold a mirror up to your life, for better and worse, and then tell you it’s all ok.

Not all the characters are likeable. They are real people, bitchy, selfish, and they make mistakes. One of the characters ends the novel learning that not all of those mistakes can be forgiven. It shocked me that one of the main characters didn’t end up with the rose-tinted (pink) ending that I was expecting. It stayed with me for quite some time.

My name’s Anouska. I’m a feminist, and I like books with pink covers.

Favourite quotation: “He didn’t know much about girls’ hair, but he had a feeling that it was usually more elaborate than this one’s. Wasn’t it normal to have a kind of interfered look to it? Surely it shouldn’t just hang there on her shoulders, being brown?” p.20.

Sarah Taylor (producer) and Kirsty Young (presenter), ‘Marian Keyes, Desert Island Discs’, BBC Radio 4, 17 Mar 2017 [accessed 25 April 2017]
Marian Keyes, Sushi for Beginners (Michael Joseph, 2000)

But where are the chickens? A novice’s look at chick lit

Katie Fforde’s A Vintage Wedding (2015) tells the story of three women in a Cotswold village who set up a business planning vintage weddings. But who could have guessed from the pink and flowery book-cover that romance would lie around the corner?

This post contains spoilers. But we all saw those plot points coming a mile off, so I don’t feel too bad.

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I hope this chicken compensates for the paucity of chickens in A Vintage Wedding

I just don’t get it. I want to. I want to go with my heart and immerse myself in the indulgent, chocolate-box romance of it all. I should relate to it. I like love. I’ve even had my fair share of dramatic wedding planning, from altering a bride’s dress the day before the wedding to improvising a wedding cake when the first one collapsed just hours before the reception. But there’s something preventing me from taking that leap of faith and falling in love with A Vintage Wedding. Katie Fforde’s novel is marketed as “The Sunday Times No.1 Bestseller”, so it seems that there are plenty of people who do get it.

So I’m going to take a moment to try to understand its appeal. It has three very likeable, well-rounded main characters. There’s Lindy, a young mum with two small boys and artistic flair. There’s Rachel, the neurotic recent divorcée who’s just moved into the village, who has a talent for organisation and choosing between different shades of white. Then there’s Beth, who also recently moved to the area after quitting university, and who believes there’s nothing YouTube can’t teach her. Within a few days of meeting each other they realise that between them they have the perfect skills set to start a business helping people achieve the perfect vintage-wedding-on-a-budget. We’re gradually introduced to their mostly inoffensive romantic interests who perfectly complement each of their foibles. The story doesn’t ever do anything unexpected (apart from a few things working out ridiculously easily) but I suppose that’s part of A Vintage Wedding’s charm. It’s comfort-reading: easy, predictable, the perfect escape. And the story is carried forward if not by plot than by a whole host of likable characters. I particularly enjoyed the cameo by Lindy’s Nan, who responds to a question about how long a wedding veil will take to clean with:”Well, when I’ve gathered the right herbs, when the moon is on her back and the nightingales are singing…” (p.343). I found the tension between Beth and her controlling Mum believable and the way they grudgingly come to understand each other is genuinely heartwarming.

So what do I have to complain about? It was partly that I found the writing incredibly simple. Its style bears most resemblance to a novel I read recently for 8- to 12-year olds (maybe Fforde knows the chickens aren’t very good at reading yet). And I think partly it annoys me because it’s so focused on romance. Yes, I did know that’s what I was signing up for. But I think it’s problematic because the novel pretends to be about female independence and female friendship, but we all know the story wouldn’t be complete without each character getting partnered off. The story attempts to be empowering: “even without our blokes, Vintage Weddings is still amazing!” says Lindy (p.454), but we all know entrepreneurship is not what we’re here for, and it’s no use pretending otherwise.

It was also the fact that the romantic storylines were so predictable. If a man is introduced just with his name, he’s not going to be a love interest. But if a man is introduced and his voice or hair are described, he’ll be a love interest. I wrote down my predictions on p.79 (of 454) and I’m giving myself a 90% accuracy score (I don’t want to spoil anyone else who wants to make predictions, so I won’t say what I got wrong). But I absolutely adore Georgette Heyer, and her novels abound with these “faults”, so it can’t really be that.

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This chicken is lonely because there aren’t enough chickens in A Vintage Wedding

I don’t know if it’s because I was looking for things not to like, but I found sections of it to be bordering on offensive. The first I’ll accept as personal bias, and focuses on an encounter with one particularly unpleasant woman. She’s a bully, and horrible to everyone. But more important than the fact she was horrible, or even that she wore too much make-up, was the fact she was fat. Throughout the book (and she’s referred to a number of times) she’s not called “the horrible bridesmaid” or even the pleasingly alliterative “bitchy bullying bridesmaid” but “the fat bridesmaid”. As if the beautiful waif-like women in the novel (like the one pictured on the cover) simply must be nice, because they’re thin.

My second issue is the depiction of Rachel. Rachel likes things neat and tidy, and she doesn’t like other people coming over and messing up her nice, white house. Over the course of the novel Rachel and her new friends accept her eccentricities and even find them useful—she finds herself well-equipped for dealing with fussy B&B guests, for example, because she’s preempted all of their potential complaints. But Rachel’s neatness and cleanliness are often referred to as both “neuroses” and “OCD”. I’m all for sympathetic characters with mental illnesses being portrayed in popular culture. But I’m not for the casual use of clinical labels without properly addressing the issues. It’s briefly suggested that her compulsive behaviour is to compensate for her lack of control in her previous relationship. It makes sense then, that without the presence of this relationship, she would begin to relinquish her obsessive compulsive behaviours. But I’m still left feeling uncomfortable, and while the message isn’t quite “get yourself a man and you’ll be fine”, I can’t quite shake it from my mind. As a contrast, for a positive view on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder see the Guardian’s take on the realistic portrayal of OCD in Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. Or alternatively, see this article in CBC News about using OCD as a punchline in popular culture (something A Vintage Wedding is guilty of).

My final issue is with sex. I don’t mind too much the romanticised portrayal of women whose eyes are suddenly opened to the wonders of sex through their new partners. I mind that a certain type of behaviour is advocated in the book. Be keen, but not too keen. Show a man you’re interested, but not easy. Outgoing in all other respects, each of the women suddenly become shy and unsure of themselves when speaking to men. When one character does sleep with a man after only seeing him socially a couple of times, it leads to  multiple pages of self-doubt. “In her sane mind she would never have slept with anyone she’d only just met and hadn’t even been out with. It was crazy.” (p.299). “Easy didn’t describe her…The thought of it made her cringe…” (p.300). Ok, you think, the character’s quite traditional, and she’s scared of anything moving too quickly because she wants to put her children first. But the casual judgement extends to other characters too: “Lindy and Angus seemed to have got together quite quickly…but that was sweet. He was her first love, after all.” (p.421). It’s as though Fforde is saying, “I know, it’s a bit damning that a woman is so keen to have sex, but look, it’s ok because she’s had a crush on him for ages.” Perhaps this is one reason I enjoy Georgette Heyer’s novels so much—the sexual mores are unambiguous because they’re set in a time when there were such clear behavioural rules.

In spite of my reservations, reading A Vintage Wedding was an enjoyable few hours. Since my recent experience of romantic fiction is limited to the aforementioned Georgette Heyer as well as Fifty Shades of Grey, perhaps I need to read a few more to understand the genre and get past my own biases. And maybe next time there’ll be more chickens.

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