I love getting recommendations from people whose taste I trust for interesting new books or authors. I try to read the latest book reviews and listen to programmes like Open Book and Front Row on Radio 4 in order to discover any new novels or novelists which I might enjoy, but there is nothing like a friend saying ‘Have you read such and such a book - it’s brilliant!’ to send me running to my Kindle to download the title.
This happened a while ago when I was doing a makeover on a delightful woman who runs an independent book shop in Dulwich. This sparked a really interesting conversation about authors we admired and how reading was a significant pleasure in our lives. She asked me if I’d like a recommendation and told me about Mary Lawson, a Canadian author whose book Crow Lake, centres on the lives of people in a fairly remote community in Northern Canada. I immediately downloaded it and enjoyed it very much, as I did two further books by Lawson, ‘The Other Side of the Bridge’ and ‘The Road Ends’ both of which feature some of the same characters.
These thoughts about reading and recommendations have been sparked by a conversation I heard on Woman’s Hour about the dearth of books which authentically represent the lives of older women. Apparently there is a prejudice amongst publishers towards books featuring any main female protagonist over 40 because they believe that such characters are not attractive to the book-buying public. Fay Weldon (now 87 and ever the controversialist) has weighed into the argument to say that no-one wants to read books about older women because they are depressing! Well I would beg to differ.
I am always very interested to see how an older person like me is portrayed whether it’s on TV, in film or in a novel.
As long as the character comes across as authentic and believable then I appreciate that the dramatist or novelist is acknowledging that older people actually do exist and can have interesting, complex and compelling stories to tell. However if the older character comes across as a stereotype (‘hopeless with modern technology’ or ‘slightly dotty and forgetful’ or ‘loveable old rogue’) then I am less than impressed and quickly lose interest.
Which brings me to three recommendations for books which I want to share with you and which I very much hope give the lie to the belief that stories featuring older women are not sufficiently interesting or compelling. I’ve been spending the last few weeks in France and one of my greatest pleasures when I am on holiday is to read during the day. For the rest of the year, my reading is usually confined to thirty minutes or so before I sleep so it’s a huge treat to give myself over for hours on end to the pleasure of losing myself in a story. This year, amongst many others, I have read two books and re-read an old favourite which have strong and authentic older female characters in them, although, as one is an autobiography written by a 62 year old, that’s quite a loose interpretation.
Three Books about Older Women: My Recommendations:
Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard.
I have probably read all of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novels, from the very earliest ‘The Beautiful Visit’ and all four excellent stories in the Cazalet Chronicle to this one which was published 20 years ago when Howard was in her 60s. It’s the story of Daisy and Henry and a late flowering relationship which is not all it seems. I believe that Howard wrote this after experiencing something similar herself which is why the story is so plausible. The book alternates between Henry’s story and Daisy’s told in the first person so that we can understand each one’s thoughts and feelings as their relationship develops. Henry begins the book with the words ’She has left me’, so our interest is immediately piqued to know what has happened to cause the rupture between these later-life lovers.
The Carer by Deborah Moggach.
Another favourite author of mine - I have probably read most of Moggach’s books. This is her latest and it’s a good one! On the face of it this is quite a straight forward story about an older brother and sister, Robert and Isabel whose very aged father needs twenty-four hour reliable care as his health declines. An apparent angel in the (overweight) shape of Mandy appears with excellent references and a big heart. Both brother and sister breathe a sigh of relief and, with busy and complicated lives of their own to lead, they are more than happy to leave their father to Mandy’s ministrations. However Mandy is hiding a very big secret which, in the hands of a less accomplished author, would quickly turn into melodrama. However Moggach skilfully twists the plot and we are left with a satisfying and believable denouement.
The World I Fell Out Of by Melanie Reid.
Reid writes a weekly article in The Saturday Times called ’Spinal Column’ and her writing is the only reason that I buy that newspaper every week. Ten years ago, aged 52, Reid was a tall, fit and athletic journalist enjoying the good life with her husband Dave in a remote farmhouse in a beautiful part of Scotland. Then in a split second her whole life changed when she had a catastrophic riding accident. As a result she is confined to a wheelchair, doubly incontinent and with very limited movement in her hands and shoulders. This autobiography is searingly honest and pulls absolutely no punches about the nature of this level of disability and the impact that it has had not only on Melanie but also the two ‘boys’ in her life, husband Dave and son Dougie. You may think that this is a very hard read, and I will admit that parts of it are deeply distressing, but it’s also a profoundly moving meditation on love and the human condition and there is also much dry Glaswegian wit and humour. Reid is a brilliant writer and having read this book I will never again complain when I have the odd ache, pain or twinge in my back.
If you decide to follow my recommendations, I do hope that you enjoy reading them as much as I did. And if you have any recommendations of your own then I would very much welcome them. Now I’ve finished writing this, I am off to lie under a tree in the shade to continue with my current book ‘An American Marriage by Tayari Jones - it’s brilliant!