Better Than Cake – Proper Comfort Reads: Keyes and Kinsella

Comfort comes in many forms. Hugging your loved ones, taking a bath, opening a bottle of wine, watching a good movie, or eating as much cake as you can get in your mouth.

All of those work for me, but the cake is not a good idea if I’m trying to stick to my low-carb diet. When I say comfort reading, I mean that the books are so absorbing, so gripping, they help you escape from the world for a few hours. If I’m having a hard day and there is no wine (or cake) available, these writers make is all better. Today this post is all about those funny, warm, and – above all – entertaining books  which tell a bloody good story. This is the second in my series on amazing books I recommended, have a look at my first one: Louis de Bernières and Liane Moriarty.

When I choose my books they have to tick five boxes – you can click here to see a reminder of the the rules If they don’t meet the criterion – they aren’t getting in.

NB I add links to Amazon for all the books mentioned – if you go on to buy that book I get a little commission.

Marian Keyes

Marian Keyes is my absolute go to number one author if I want a bit of escapism and comfort. She ticks the boxes for all of my rules with most of her books – mainly because l I don’t want them to end. Luckily, she writes lovely, long novels which keep me going for a good while. Not only do I have to slow down when I reach the end, I have read all of her books three or four times and I always pre-order the next one even if I don’t know what it’s about. I have everything written by her including collections of her articles and her cake recipes.

I have a particular soft spot for the Walsh family. Five of Keyes’ books centre on Mammy Walsh’s daughters. I read the first, Watermelon, many years ago and fell in love with them all straightaway. Set in Ireland, the family is led by the redoubtable Mammy Walsh with her long suffering husband Jack. They have five daughters, all of whom at some point have had their poor mother’s ‘heart scalded’ with worry. All of them are hilarious. There’s a lovely little interview with Marian Keyes talking about the Walsh Family on the Penguin Website.

  • In Watermelon, Claire Walsh, the eldest daughter, gives birth to a beautiful baby girl. On the same day her husband leaves for another woman – the skinny cow who lives in the flat below theirs. Claire flees back to the arms of her loving family in Ireland to recover her strength. But going back home after being independent for so long is harder than anticipated. This book made me SCREAM with laughter.
  • Rachel Walsh’s struggles as a drug addict in rehab is the story of Rachel’s Holiday. More on this one below.
  • In Angels, previously sensible and boring middle daughter Maggie runs away to Los Angeles to have an adventure. She gets off with a lesbian, and flirts with movie stars, much to the consternation of her family.
  • Anybody Out There

I’m putting the big link up for this one. It’s a beautiful book. Very sad at times, you’ll be gulping back tears, but oh my goodness is it funny. It is the story of Ana, previous ditsy hippie stoner, who is recovering back home following a dreadful accident in New York.

I don’t want to give away any of the story so I won’t tell you the plot. I do want to quote these lines which had me crying with laughter. Here, Mammy Walsh, driven to distraction by the selfishness of her girls, shouts:

One of you five bitches has stolen my Multiple Orgasm. It’s like the time you stole all my combs -‘ this was an often-repeated resentment – ‘and I was going to mass as it was a holy day of obligation and I had to comb my hair with a fork. Reduced to combing my hair with a fork!’

Imagine my delight when I went to see the lovely Marian Keyes being interviewed and I got a chance to ask her a question. I mentioned this quote and she confirmed this was, indeed, based on the experience of her own mother, (it was so real and so funny I was sure it was based on real life) who once had to comb her hair with a fork because her children had pinched all her combs.

The way this novel deals with grief is simple, engaging, and at all times moving; but counterbalancing that theme is a an exciting plot based on the marketing of an exclusive make-up line, as well as further insight into the family dynamic of the Walshes. It really is a lovely book and you will find yourself thinking about the characters long after you have finished.

  • The youngest daughter, Helen, stars in The Mystery of Mercy Close where she tries to make a success of being a PI. I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as the others, probably because I live with someone who suffers chronic depression and this felt a little too close to home. But it was worth a read to get to meet Mammy Walsh again and to hear how the other sisters are getting on.

So which of this series am I going to put on my list? Well, it has to be Rachel’s Holiday. All of them are great, but this is the one I must have read five or six times. Like all of Keyes’ books there is great tragedy and despair to be found. You can’t call any of her books lightweight, despite the fluffiness of her covers. (They are less fluffy now)

I can’t quite explain how she does it. In her novels Keyes covers domestic abuse, addiction, rape, abortion, sudden paralysis, depression, anxiety, suicide, miscarriages, divorce, and terminal illness; and yes, these things are dealt with in an unflinching – never sentimental – way, but she STILL manages to make you laugh. And they always have happy endings. I agree with Keyes, life’s tough enough without sad endings.

Rachel’s Holiday is a really good example of this. Oh my gosh I love it so much. So it opens with Rachel in New York. She is a good time girl out for a laugh. She and a fellow Irish friend paint the town red, drink, and take drugs at parties and basically make the most of their youth.

It is so clever how Keyes slowly and delicately manipulates you into recognising that Rachel is a flawed and unreliable narrator. It’s written in the first person and Rachel’s voice is so lovely, so vibrant and outraged at all the ‘killjoys’ who surround her, it takes a while before you realise how screwed up she is.

She ends up in rehab. This is the point when everyone remembers Keyes was an alcoholic who was in rehab. I’m not sure how relevant this is, but the descriptions of what goes on in the centre certainly have an undeniably gritty realism. And oh! The characters Rachel meets there. Although I first read it – God it was published in 1997!! – years ago, I still vividly remember Jackie, and John Joe, and of course the delicious Luke in his tight denims.

I wish I could explain why I keep going back to this book. I think why I like this one the best (although Anybody Out There is almost as good) is the way initial judgments are peeled away and exposed as superficial and foolish. Characters constantly surprise you and firmly held initial impressions are shaken to their core. I remember weeping when one character is slowly guided to realise that his alcoholism has turned him into the father he hated. He now terrifies his children the way his father terrified him. Keyes’ sympathy and tenderness in that scene is so delicately expressed you won’t forget it.

Then, after being drained emotionally, having cried your eyes out over tragic scenes like this, full of despair and horrified realisation, while the tears have barely dried on your face, you will be chuckling at the next chapter. One springs to mind: Mammy Walsh apologises to Rachel because she thinks she ruined her pants when she put them in the wash. She holds up a G-String. Rachel explains that they are fine, it’s a G-String and it’s supposed to look like that. She responds:

‘You brazen HUSSY! That might be the kind of thing they wear in New York, but you’re not in New York now and while you’re under my roof, you’ll cover yourself like a Christian.’

I love this – it’s such a mum thing to say. But Keyes takes the humour of this scene and turns it into something dark and emotional. Rachel can’t bear her mother’s anger and runs out of the house, putting herself in danger. It’s a crisis point which forces her to realise she needs to grow up, and approach her relationship with her mother on adult terms. Until she does, she can’t address the issues that have led to her addictions. I’m simplify it majorly, as this is only a thread in the complexity of Rachel’s character – but it was an interesting lesson to me on perspective – and dealing with your mother!

Keyes has written other novels not about the Walshes and of those my favourites are: Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married, It’s a book for the young at heart, I think, as ultimately it’s a romance. Lucy Sullivan, living with two other women in a flat hates her job and dreams of meeting the man a fortune teller told her she would marry soon. She adores her father and has a difficult relationship with her mother. The part I felt was particularly well done was the slow development in Lucy’s relationship with her father. Is he the man she thought he was? Is her mother really a hard-hearted killjoy? Why does Lucy think a man isn’t worth dating if he doesn’t mistreat her? It was questions like this which lifted the novel out of the run of the mill romance genre. Although the romantic bits are sweet and will leave you smiling goofily.

The second is  This Charming Man, which explores the impact one man – Paddy de Courcy – has on three different women. This book will make you shake in horror and fear but you can’t put it down. Also, little details like the girl in the newsagent/video shop (who cynically and hilariously mocks middle-class women who roam about the moors getting wet in the rain because they have been unlucky in love) pull you out of the horrors for a bit so they are not unbearable.

If you haven’t read Marian Keyes, please do, and start with Rachel’s Holiday. You can then go and explore all the others. If you have a long journey, are on your beach holiday – want to escape the kid/partners/work etc, they are ideal. I love opening them on my Kindle and it says ‘Typical time to read: 10 hours and 46 minutes’ ahhhhh bliss.

Sophie Kinsella

You may be familiar with Sophie Kinsella from the very famous ‘Shopaholic‘ novels, which were made into a pretty good film. The first in the series is called The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic. There are eight in the series and I enjoyed them all. They are light, fluffy and entertaining – perfect for holiday reading. You can buy the whole set here.

But I felt that series got enough publicity. I want to talk about Twenties Girl. This was brilliant and I have lost count of the times I have read it. Lara attends the funeral of her Great Aunt Sadie who has just died at the age of 105.

At the funeral, Lara meets the ghost of her Aunt Sadie, in the shape of a very demanding, Charleston dancing, girl from the 1920’s. She insists – as Lara is the only person who can see her – she must help her find her necklace. She won’t take no for an answer.

I’m not going to tell you this is filled with poetry and Shakespearean quality imagery, but it is fluently and charmingly written, with characters who leap off the page at you. The dialogue is natural and funny and the plot sweeps you along. I’m always a sucker for an ‘exposing corporate business men who are screwing over the little guy’, though I know it’s not Chaucer. But it’s not supposed to be!

This is why I don’t understand why people are so derogatory about women writers like Keyes and Kinsella. What people (men) don’t seem to appreciate is they are bloody good story tellers. And though the vocabulary may change, and the syntax might be more complex, all great writes – from Tolstoy to Chekhov, from Dickens to Woolf – have to tell a good story.

The other Kinsella I am going to recommend is The Undomestic Goddess. I remember gorging on this one blissful holiday in France when the children were obsessed with the swimming pool. I would set myself up on a lilo in the pool to keep an eye on them, and then read this for ages with the sun beating down. Lovely.

This has such a great story. Samantha is a super-high powered lawyer who is about to be nominated a partner of her firm. This is something she (and her family) has worked towards for years. She works ridiculously long hours and is vibrating with stress. Then something disastrous happens – she misses an important memo which has catastrophic consequences – on a level with Nick Leeson’s effect on Baring’s bank.

Stunned and in complete shock, Samantha walks out of her office in a daze and gets on the first train she sees. Long story short, she ends up working as a housekeeper and cleaner in Lower Ebury. As Samantha doesn’t know how to cook or clean she has to work hard to stay undercover.

Lovely story, pacy plot and a happy ending. A great comfort read!

I’d love to know what you think of these books, if you’ve read them, and if you go and have a look following my recommendations do let me know if you agreed with me!

Happy reading, Warriors!

 

 

 

 

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18 thoughts on “Better Than Cake – Proper Comfort Reads: Keyes and Kinsella

  1. Pingback: Thriller Queens: Sophie Hannah and Clare Mackintosh – Middle-Aged Warrior

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