In Nora Ephron’s seminal classic You’ve Got Mail, Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) is obsessed with Pride and Prejudice, just like Ephron was. She reads it again and again and is scoffed at by Joe Fox aka rom-com Jeff Bezos, who is less online but still just as capable for economic chaos and monopolisation, but whatever he played Tom Hanks so you can’t really hate him. She tells him while waiting for her mystery man to arrive how much she loves this book, and how Elizabeth Bennet is “the greatest and most complex character ever written”
Anyway, it is my a source of shame that I don’t really care for Pride and Prejudice. Most 19th-century literature goes completely over my head. Pages will go by and I’ll clock that I have no clue what is going on. For ages, reading was totally inaccessible to me and it was largely because I believed that to be “well-read”, I needed to read all the “classics”, which while holds some truth is actually nonsense as I AM LITERALLY DYSLEXIC! When I was 17, and newly diagnosed, I struggled so much while studying for my English Literature AS exams, I would sob because it just was not going in! Luckily, I got a D so I swiftly dropped it and moved on with subjects more suited to me, and get so much joy for reading for pleasure, without the AQA sticking their mitts in. It’s a win-win.
While I have read it and other similar books, Nora and I just don’t have the exact same taste, but I do feel that way about other books. I love feeling that way about a book and every time I pick up a book, I want it to change my life, I want it to be the best book I’ve ever read, which now after I’ve typed that out is an insane expectation.
Anyway, let me tell you about a book that I feel that changed my life, a sensation I imagine is the same way as Kathleen Kelly feels about P&P; The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. This a book I don’t know how to fully express my adoration for, to do it justice. I don’t know how to say how much I love it without ruining it for you, which is the last thing I want to do. It is the story of a brother and sister, who grew up in post World World II affluent Philadephia suburb, who are haunted by the memory of their childhood home. Any more of plot debrief would make me nervous for ruining it for you. I’m an evangelical for this novel. Whenever asks for a recommendation, this is the number one.
My first read of this book was via audiobook (which if you don’t think is reading you are an ableist snob and a subject for a whole other week), and it is excellently narrated by our aforementioned analogue Jeff Bezos, Tom Hanks. Please, I know you are recovering from the stress of coronavirus, but if you get offered any more opportunities to record any other books, please Tom Hanks, could you? It would make my monthly credit spend easier to pick?
During the lockdown, my reading capacity really slowed down. The world was burning and I could not finish a goddamn book! I’d pick up a book, get ten pages in and be like, nope, let’s watch this TV show I’ve seen a million times before, amazing myself with my capacity to laugh at the jokes over and over again in Friends and Parks & Recreation.
How I respond to stress is to engage with culture, and one of my favourite mediums is books, and the pandemic has really chipped away at my attention span. Again, one of the side effects of dyslexia is a short term memory problems, and it felt like I was 17 again and struggling to compute what the written word was telling me. It has not fully returned as most books seem to tempt my already constantly frayed nerves, so remembering how much I had enjoyed The Dutch House in BC (before corona), I ordered a paper copy, so one afternoon, I sat in the garden and reread it, then loving the taste for it again, I listened to it again, and again and again and again.
The first relisten felt excessive, and then the urge to hear it didn’t go away, the only answer was the listen to it once more. Some part was telling me this was ridiculous but it didn’t feel like there was anything actually wrong with it? I mean, there’s not. It is already paid for source of small joy in a world where that is all you have sometimes. God knows why I need to tell you this or why I sound like I’m justifying an immoral choice.
Again, I’m sure this would make more sense, if you a) knew me b) had read the book, both are great activities, by the way. I thoroughly recommend both.
It’s my perfect book for many reasons. My favourite genre of book is stories set in the early to mid 20th century, like this one, ones with sweeping narratives over character’s entire lives, so like Margret Attwood’s The Blind Assassin, most books by Meg Woltizer or novels from that period. The other Sunday, I raced through The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, and I cannot tell you why I’ve not ordered the rest of the series… Seriously, if Ms Rona has stolen your ability to concentrate, this might be a great antidote; its short, vividly glamourous and suspenseful.
It was fabulous to find out that Ann Patchett is apparently a darling, reading on Twitter that she invited Brit Bennett, a fellow author I love, to stay at her house when she was in the local area on the night of the 2016 US election. They didn’t really know each other, but Patchett didn’t want her to be alone on such a potentially horrific night, which as we all remember, it was!
Well anyway, death of the author and that, but as someone who has absorbed it night after night, I can tell you that she is a WORDSMITH! I know where everything goes, what happens to each chapter, each of the characters feels like an old friend because new ones are out of the question in 2021. It feels real, like its a memoir, not fiction. One day, I might be able to write like her, not a carbon copy, but with the vision. Apparently, she found an obsession with the big mansions near where she used to live. Who among us nosey parkers has not imagined what goes on in other people’s houses, the ones that look like warm domestic bliss, all cosy and wrapped up in what looks like financial stability? If you’ve never and are in the London area, go have a wee look around Dulwich Village. In a panic about getting public transport in a pandemic, I walked to Peckham from my Brixton flat via Herne Hill and smacked right into these obscenely large homes, and yes I could maybe get a whole novel from imagining what goes on in there… Either way, at this rate, I won’t be writing a novel when my attention span is this low.
May we all find a book like The Dutch House soon.