Almost exactly 18 years ago, at the tail end of a miserable August, I read The Pursuit Of Love for the very first time.
I was 12 then, and I hated everything. It was too hot, I was too hairy and inhabiting my own body felt like living in a bomb. I spent the summer holding my breath and waiting for the explosion to happen, assuming I would emerge from the smoke looking like Tawny Kiaten in a Whitesnake video, and someone would immediately fall in love with me. It seemed like the only reasonable trade-off for sudden, swollen breasts, lank hair and the urge to hide under the nearest table whenever anyone looked like they might try to talk to me. But that summer, the only explosions I experienced were happening on my greasy chin.
At the time, I thought my mum had two broad goals: to stop me from doing anything I actually wanted, and to keep my new and terrifying breasts trussed up and strapped down in the most unflattering bras that M&S would sell. But she was far more understanding than I thought. After she left a copy of Nancy Mitford’s novel on my bed (“Muuuuuum! Why do you keep going IN MY ROOM? My things are there!”), I resisted it with bad grace, assuming it was a trap to make me a better Catholic, or wear longer skirts. Eventually, I picked it up out of boredom, and was instantly, entirely transported by the story of Linda Radlett, her overwhelming teenage longing for love and how she found it.
The Pursuit Of Love has been a very good friend to me. I usually read it again at the end of summer, or whenever I am anxious and life is overwhelming. It has become part of my own romantic story. The man I am marrying bought me a first edition as a Christmas gift. My godmother is reading from it at our wedding in October, and we used the classic orange Penguin cover on our invitations. It reaffirms all that I adore about love, families, friendship and hope in the dark.
I don’t think there is any greater recommendation than, "I loved this book – and it loved me back"
I thought of all these things when I read a piece about the novelist Jonathan Franzen, which referred to bestselling novelist Jennifer Weiner’s work as "subliterary". Surely the only qualification for great literature is that the words make you feel things you wish to feel again? I’ve never felt the urge to pick up The Corrections for a second time – and I don’t understand why Franzen is celebrated and considered more worthy than the writers I reach for recurrently: Nancy Mitford, Marian Keyes, Nina Stibbe, Nora Ephron and Jilly Cooper. There’s a fog of snobbery around fiction – especially commercial women’s fiction – and it hides the real reason why we read. Because it brings us joy and provides a prism through which to explore our own emotions.
Out of curiosity, I asked my Twitter followers what they like to reread – and six hours later they’re still telling me. The Pursuit Of Love has many rereaders, possibly because it’s nice and short. Plenty of adults still read Anne Of Green Gables, Mallory Towers and the Harry Potter series. Terry Pratchett, Jane Austen, Stephen King and Sue Townsend are also well thumbed and beloved. A couple of people even told me that they reread Franzen, which has made me think about giving The Corrections another go.
And I discovered a number of titles I hadn’t heard of, and can’t wait to read. “Pure comfort on a page,” is how my friend Lauren describedThe Lost Art Of Keeping Secrets, and that was the recurring theme. Readers revealed that their favourite titles made them feel like their favourite friends do: happy, safe and occasionally a little weepy. I don’t think there is any greater recommendation than, “I loved this book – and it loved me back.”
At 12, when I was lonely, miserable and spotty, I dreamt about being a Great Writer. I dreamed about writing the sort of books I would never read, collecting literary prizes and dazzling everyone by being difficult, and coming up with profound truths about the human condition. At 30, I still dream about being a Great Writer, but I no longer wish to be dazzling and difficult. All I want is to come up with a story that contains enough joy, hope and humour to make one person reach for it at a time when they need to feel comforted. I own many books that I have yet to read, bought because they seemed impressive and fitted with my idea of the sort of person I ought to be. But the stories I read over and over again are the ones that make me feel happy about who I am.
1 (with a bullet!) The Pursuit Of Love, Nancy Mitford
2 The Lost Art Of Keeping Secrets, Eva Rice
3 Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire (for some reason, it was that particular Harry Potter that kept coming up!), JK Rowling
4. Heartburn, Nora Ephron
5. Pride And Prejudice, Jane Austen
6. Riders, Jilly Cooper
7. Anything by Agatha Christie
8. The Shining, Stephen King
9. Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh
10. Breakfast at Tiffany's, Truman Capote