Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Reunited--Brit Chick Lit Extravaganza

Okay, well, maybe not extravaganza, since it was only two books, but while I was away on vacation last week, I opted not to take anything "heavy" with me and instead took books by two of my absolute favorite authors--Anna Maxted and Marian Keyes. I first fell in love with them during the Bridget Jones' Diary explosion of the late 1990's; British chick lit became my #1 go to for reading. The dry British sarcasm and the much-longed for setting of London and its surroundings drew me back time and again until I'd inhaled everything they'd written to date.

After becoming a mother and turning my sights to first every book on parenting available and then to the likes of Jodi Picoult and Phillipa Gregory for my more mindless (read: enjoyable but highly formulaic and predictable) reading, I lost sight of Maxted and Keyes, only recently discovering that they had both published again since I last picked them up. So I grabbed This Charming Man & A Tale of Two Sisters at the library before heading off to Hawaii and devoured both books by the pool over the course of 3-4 days.

What I love about these two authors is that while they definitely have a Bridget Jonesian breezy chick lit feel to them, they also tackle some straight-to-the-heart issues that impact women in real and often painful ways. There are strained familial relationships, infidelities, fertility issues, alcoholisms, depressions, career turmoils. Each author creates characters who are fully fleshed out, compelling and utterly believable. They write the type of books that you fall into.

Endings with these two, admittedly tend towards the almost unrealistically happy, no loose ends remaining and perfect satisfaction for all involved. But really, when you're on vacation, isn't that what you want? And while it's not entirely 100% believable, it's also not without precedent--all of Shakespeare's comedies end, regardless of how outlandish, with happiness, marriage, celebration, the fulfillment of the main characters' wishes.

A Tale of Two Sister, by Anna Maxted, chronicles the lives of Cassie and Lisbet, who, though sisters and friends, could not be more different. Raised by bumbling and emotionally closed-off parents (this seems to be a running theme through most British chick lit), the ramifications of their upbringing lead them to one miscommunication (or failure to communicate) after another. Then when Lisbet, who has no desire to become a mother, finds herself pregnant, after Cassie and her husband have been trying for upwards of two years---things for the sisters start to fall apart.

I had a hard time with this book, much as I enjoyed it. Having recently put an end to my own disappointing journey through infertility, watching the lives of these two women play out was particularly painful for me at times. The sadness and sense of loss that weaves through the novel was particularly striking to me, but in a way gave me a small sense of closure on my own journey, although it in very little way resembled Maxted's story. Watching characters work their way through the tangled emotional web of infertility and the depression that comes with it, making you a stranger to yourself and others, reassured me that I was, in some small way, not alone.

Marian Keyes' This Charming Man, though a quick and at times, hilarious, read, also tackles some serious issues--most notably domestic violence. Each chapter starts with an excerpt from some later point in the book, a tableau of abuse, which spreads out like an undercurrent through the lives of the main characters. These shocking images wind their way through the stories of four women, two of them sisters, but all of them connected through their experiences with one man named Paddy de Courcy, a leader of the New Ireland political party.

Keyes' four narrators are beautifully distinctive, not only in their experiences, but in their voices. I love the way Keyes creates character through voice--multiple narrators without highly specific narrative styles tend to fall flat, in my reading experience, so I loved that you could tell each woman's voice within the first line of their chapter. Each woman is dealing with her own relationship to Paddy de Courcy (whether it was in the past or present) and the turmoil the relationship has introduced into her life--depression, infidelity, anxiety, alcoholism, etc. For "light" reading, there were times when it felt particularly heavy, but at the end, incredibly satisfying.

I'm so glad I reconnected to these authors and almost "squeeee'd" outloud when I saw that Maxted has another book I was unaware of, called Rich Again, and that Keyes just published The Brightest Star in the Sky earlier this year. They're going straight to the top of my list...