Recent Reading: Comfort Fiction

I’ve felt the need for some comfort reading lately. I’d embarked on rather more difficult reads (in translation), but found myself floundering, struggling to finish them. Personal circumstances made it hard for me to concentrate, so I turned to what I correctly perceived to be comfortable offerings from women writers.

Far be it from me to suggest that women’s fiction is comfort fiction. Besides, I’ve never quite understood what ‘women’s fiction’ means. Written by women? For women? Discussing women’s topics such as menstruation, childbirth and abortions? Because all of the other subjects in the world belong to both genders and are of general human value and interest.

Nor is my comfort fiction the light-hearted banter of Wooster and Jeeves, although I have been known to turn to Enid Blyton and other childhood favourites when I have a bad migraine.

No, what I mean by comfort fiction is familiar tropes, fiction from a culture where I know the rules. Fiction which does not surprise or challenge me excessively, which does not make me work hard. If novels were food, this kind of fiction overall would be a ham-and-cheese sandwich: nourishing, enjoyable and, above all, safe. [For individual food comparisons, see below.] These are not books that will haunt me and get me thinking long after I’ve finished them. They are perfect holiday fodder (set in England, Greece, France): books to enjoy, whizz through quickly and then pass on to others.

HerHarriet Lane: Her

This book is like a bag of crisps: easy to read/eat, pleasant taste in your mouth and you can’t stop until you finish the packet. Hugely relatable account of motherhood overwhelm, mourning a promising career and the small delights but also pressures of babies and toddlers… So yes, it is the account of privileged, well-educated, Guardian-reading middle classes (and I might as well stand tall and proud and acknowledge myself to be one of them… most of the time). Emma aspires to something more than her mundane domestic tangles and is starting to question if this is all there is to life. She is a little envious of the self-contained, wealthy, aspirational lifestyle that her new friend Nina seems to offer. Nina has suddenly materialised on her doorstep, ever watchful, ever helpful, unaccountably attracted to the boring company which Emma fears she is providing. Of course, we as readers know more, because we get to see the story from the two different points of view. Clever device, but it does get a bit repetitive: one or two instance of it would have been enough to give us that sense of ominous, impending doom. The devil (or horror) is in the detail here: the quiet chill, the small-scale escalation of fears. Cleverly done, if somewhat implausible.

LongFallJulia Crouch: The Long Fall

A great description of the hedonism of backpacking holidays back in 1980, when Greek island hopping still seemed quite adventurous. The author is good at capturing that sense of vulnerability, loneliness and need for camaraderie that we all have in youth, especially single young women travellers, and she also shows how easily things can spin out of control. The present-day Kate, with her glossy lifestyle and attempt to create and maintain the illusion of perfection, was rather more irritating. I am not sure what the anorexia added to the story, other than perhaps blocking her ability to think straight. The rapid switches between time frames are of course a well-known device to get you to turn the pages more and more quickly, to find out what happened and how they are going to deal with the outfall. The ending did feel a little contrived and predictable, but it was well-paced enough to keep me engaged till the end, even if not entirely satisfied. A meat and potato sort of dish, with some of the spices getting lost in the cooking.

Courtney Maum: I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You

HavingFunRichard is a former avant-garde artist who is starting to taste commercial success in Paris but suspects he may have sold out. His French wife Anne-Laure is gorgeous, a successful lawyer, impeccably put-together and keeps a spotless house/cooks divinely. Yet he has been cheating on her with an American journalist, who has now left him to get married. His wife finds out about the affair and all hell breaks loose. Richard mopes and whines for most of the book, but finally sees the error of his ways and, after some self-flagellation and heart-to-heart talks with his parents and remembrance of things past, finds his way back to the marital berth. (That’s not a spoiler, surely – it is evident from the outset what the outcome will be: this is ‘Notting Hill’ or some other British rom-com film territory, after all.)

The descriptions of the boredom and routine that a marriage can fall into are cleverly done, the feeling of being brother and sister, the pit crew mentality of tending to your child: these are all well enough done. But, for heaven’s sake, they’ve only been married for seven years and have just the one child: when did that suffocating routine have time to set in? And why does Anne-Laure have to be quite so perfect to make her husband appreciate her again? She should be angry and slobbish, take to drink and sluttish housekeeping, become irrational and demanding instead of incredibly mature and wise. That would be a proper test of commitment! But you can see that this book was written by a woman and that it therefore contains a huge amount of wish-fulfillment: the erring husband who has to be exhaustively humiliated and come crawling back to his wife begging for forgiveness and attempting many pathetic but well-meant romantic gestures.

There are quite a few enjoyable things about this book which elevate it above run-of-the-mill soap opera type fiction. There are genuinely funny moments, such as the couple to whom Richard sells a painting of real sentimental value, or when his attempt to woo back his wife by drawing graffiti on the pavement outside their house results in his arrest. I enjoyed the often astute observations about the differences between American and French customs, families and lifestyles, even though it sometimes feels like they are coming straight from a magazine article.

In America, wealth is dedicated to elevating the individual experience. If you’re a spoiled child, you get a car, or a horse. You go to summer camps that cost as much as college. And everything is monogrammed, personalized, and stamped, to make it that much easier for other people to recognize your net worth. In France, great wealth is spent within the family, on thefamily. It’s not shown off, but rather spread about to make the lucky feel comfortable and safe. The French bourgeois don’t pine for yachts or garages with multiple cars. They don’t build homes with bowling alleys or spend their weekends trying to meet the quarterly food and beverage limit at their country clubs: they put their savings into a vacation home that all their family can enjoy, and usually it’s in France. They buy nice food, they serve nice wine, and they wear the same cashmere sweaters over and over for years.

Overall, I cannot help feeling that the moments of insight have been toned down, the sharp edges carefully rounded to make this book more appealing to a mass audience. Charming confectionery, but I would have preferred something a little more truthful and substantial.