Cathy Rentzenbrink has been a successful writer for some time but way back when Waterstones was still in full possession of an apostrophe, I was the reviews editor for their magazine and she was a bookseller who regularly reviewed for me. She was a joy to work with: enthusiastic, reliable, always happy to help me out when I was in a tight spot and her copy was an editor’s dream. Dear Reader is her reading memoir. If you love books, and I can’t imagine why you’d be reading this is you don’t, it’s an unadulterated treat.
Lying on the floor in her new home, nursing a sore back with her head on a book, Rentzenbrink decides she needs a break from the unremitting misery of the news cycle and decides to do what she always does in times of trouble: revisit her favourite books. Appropriately enough, the one she’s resting her head on is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca – she and her family have recently moved from London to Cornwall to be close to her parents – but she decides to begin at the beginning, opening the wardrobe door into Narnia, a favourite refuge.
Using the framework of her reading, Renzenbrink tells us the story of her life, from her peripatetic childhood – often the new girl in school laughed at for her cleverness – to her return to Cornwall where both she and her mother were born. It’s been a far from easy one. Many readers will already know her name from The Last Act of Love in which she wrote about her brother, knocked down one night on his way home to the family’s Yorkshire pub when Rentzenbrink was seventeen. Matty remained in a persistent vegetative state for eight years. Rentzenbrink chose to study in Leeds, wanting to be as close to him as she could, moving to London with her first husband after graduation and eventually applying for a Christmas temping job at Waterstones, a step on the path to becoming the writer she’d always hoped to be.
Rentzenbrink divides her book into chapters of her life, each woven through with her reading, followed by a section devoted to favourite books on an appropriate theme. She’s a warm, open and empathetic writer, enthusiastic in her bookish recommendations. Inevitably the bookselling chapters chimed most with me, packed with anecdotes from her time as an events manager my favourite of which is this:
The afternoon that Lauren Bacall – tired and bored – wanted to dwell longer in that same backstage area and asked me to explain goods-in to her while we both sat on kick stools will be something I remember for the rest of my life
Who wouldn’t treasure that memory?
She and I are very different people – Rentzenbrink’s an extrovert, I’m the opposite – but there were a multitude of ‘me, too’ moments in her book, from the solace of reading during the most difficult times to not being able to remember being taught to read. I’ll leave you with the one that resonated most:
I still feel like a bookseller by inclination and habit
A sure-fire Christmas bestseller, or I’ll have to eat my old bookselling hat.
Picador: London 9781509891528 240 pages Hardback