I own up to it. I was wrong.
The last time I blogged about the books I’ve been reading I was a third of the way through Rachel Joyce’s ‘Perfect’, and it wasn’t quite working out for me. I wasn’t liking it as much as I’d enjoyed her previous one. I found the characters too snobby and it wasn’t moving along enough.
But then… something wonderful happened. It all became very tense and grotesque. The mother of the girl who the narrator’s mother runs over in her Jaguar suddenly takes centre stage. She starts laying on the guilt and the emotional blackmail thicker and thicker – and soon she’s visiting the family’s posh house every day – having her nails painted, drinking all the Warninks and having a high old time. Then she demands presents and reparation in all kinds of ways – most incongruously in the form of a Wurlitzer organ, which she sees in the window of a department store.
Over the course of one hot summer Beverly has her revenge on the women who were snooty about her, and pushes everything too far. Everyone’s life seems to fall apart before 1972 is over, and suddenly the shadow story in the present clicks into focus and we realise what has become of the children now they’re grown up. It was terrific in the end – a really involving and scary book. I still think the first third is too slow, compared, though. And the easy demonization of the non-middle class characters is a bit problematic. Aside from that, my opinion changed around completely.
And since then I’ve been continuing with my impromptu quest to read as many as I can of the top twenty bestselling paperbacks of the moment. Over Easter weekend I tried out Danielle Steel for the first time. ‘Until the End of Time’ is a split-level romance set in 1975 and the present day – and it flirts pretty heavily with the concept of reincarnation. At first I was groaning at the clichés (especially about the NYC fashion world) and all the unfortunate repetition and hammering home of plot and character points… but by the end I was enthralled by it all. I love the story of the Amish girl who writes a wonderful novel and falls in love with her Greenwich Village editor. It’s a surprisingly sweet, uncynical tale that springs up between the cracks in the cliché-strewn prose.
One of my favourite discoveries in the Top 20 though, is historical novelist Dilly Court. I was once told by someone who knew, that hers is the massively successful ‘clogs and cobbles’ genre. IE, popular romantic historical fiction in which the characters are working class. Something about the way, in British fiction, the class system still manifests itself – so that, for example, working class characters in literary fiction are often marginal, demonized, or criminal, and are deemed to belong only to ‘genre’ fiction - makes me seethe… It’s almost as if the popular / literary binarism only exists in order to chime with out-dated notions of class…
Anyhow – Dilly Court’s ‘A Loving Family.’ It’s a rollicking Victorian adventure – featuring orphans, happy-go-lucky detectives, raffish rakes, and satanic schemers. As in three (three!) of the bestsellers I’ve recently read, the lead female characters set up their own bakery and cake shop. There are exotic Spanish ladies sold into slavery; genial strangers with mutton chop whiskers who become guardian angels; unholy rites in underground caves, murders and missing wills and a rash trip to Bombay by the heroine in order to save the life of her soldier boyfriend. There’s more pluckiness in evidence here than you could shake a pair of clogs at. All the stock characters from every Victorian novel get to make an appearance – even the rickety-legged urchin, and the gaga, benign old lady who sits on all the secrets and gets coaxed out of her mucky house and crowned queen of the whole novel. I loved every moment of it. Like everything else I’ve been reading recently it has a terrific momentum and pace. Everything is about that narrative drive, always moving forwards – uncovering new secrets and twists and pitching the characters into further, delicious complications.
All these bestsellers I’ve been reading have very little in common in terms of genre and setting – they’re very heterogenous. (Apart from the curious coincidence of bread-baking and cake-making. Is there something there about comfort eating as a theme in straitened times, and the value of old-fashioned wholesomeness, perhaps?) What they do have in common is the unswerving fidelity to narrative drive – and hurray for that.