I tend not to read much in the way of comfort books but back in the worst of the pandemic I found myself reaching for something heartening. Assuming others might feel the same, I put together one of these posts which proved very popular. Given that it seems that covid has not done with us yet, I’ve assembled another five books that might offer a little escape, all cheery or hopeful reads, all with links to reviews on this blog.
Antoine Laurain’s The President’s Hat begins with an accountant treating himself to a solitary meal in a brasserie. Just as he’s tucking into his plateau royal de fruits de mer, François Mitterrand and his ex-Foreign Minister take the table alongside him. After Mitterrand leaves, Daniel discovers he’s forgotten his hat. Rather taken with it, he decides to wear the hat, finding the courage to stand up to his irritating boss the next day. When he leaves it on a train, a young woman on her way to an assignation finds the hat and with it the courage to break off her dead-end affair. Recognising its power, she leaves the hat on a park bench and watches as an elderly man puts it on his head. Pierre Aslan, a perfumier, recovers his celebrated nose but loses the hat in a restaurant where a disenchanted member of the French upper classes mistakes it for his own and suddenly finds his inner socialist. Eventually, and satisfyingly, the hat comes full circle. I’ve given this little gem to several friends in need of cheer over the years.
I wonder if the eponymous character in Matias Faldbakken’s The Waiter might have had an easier time if he’d picked up Mitterrand’s head gear. The Waiter sees himself as a facilitator alert to diners’ needs, proud of his work at The Hills, an Oslo institution reminiscent of the grand Viennese cafes. He’s an observer, more than a little judgemental in his assessment of his customers, and something of a neurotic, thrown into a tizzy when things aren’t just so. The appearance of a young woman he dubs the Child Lady throws a spanner into his carefully maintained works. Over the next few days, one regular becomes disconcertingly familiar, another orders his meal backwards and our usually punctilious waiter makes several mistakes, some of them worryingly deliberate. There are some wonderfully slapstick episodes including the Waiter’s collapse in the face of an appalling lapse in sartorial taste while under the influence of far too many espressos. A thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment.
No waiters to fret over Edward and his companion in Isabel Vincent’s memoir, Dinner with Edward, an account of her friendship with the recently widowed, nonagenarian father of a friend who cooks delectable dinners for her in his New York apartment. On her first visit, Vincent is met by the dapper Edward who welcomes her into his home filled with enticing cooking aromas. What starts as a weekly dinner date, replete with an immaculately prepared cocktail followed by several courses, deepens into a close and enduring friendship. Each offers the other consolation with food, appreciation and conversation, continuing to do so over several years until their meetings grow less frequent as Vincent finds herself in love and Edward’s health inevitably begins to fail. A lovely, heart-warming book which Edward was able to see in print before he died.
Friendship with the hope of something else is the theme of Anne Youngson’s epistolary Meet Me at the Museum which sees a woman who’s recently lost her dearest friend, corresponding with the widowed curator of a museum. Many years ago, when Tina and her best friend were schoolgirls, they wrote to Professor Glob asking him to tell them about his wonderous discovery of an Iron Age man perfectly preserved in Danish peat. Mourning her friend, Tina addresses a letter to Glob knowing it’s highly unlikely he’s still alive. It’s answered by Anders, the curator of the museum housing the Tollund Man. His slightly clipped if helpful response might have been the end of it but Tina has more questions to ask and soon an exchange is established which both come to eagerly anticipate. Youngson is careful to lead them slowly through this friendship into an intimacy that neither enjoys with anyone else despite never having met. A quiet contemplation of the power of love and a reminder that change, should you want to make it, is possible at any stage of life.
It’s the warm, inviting tone of Ann Patchett’s These Precious Days that makes it a comfort read for me. This collection of essays begins with a loving appreciation of Patchett’s three very different stepfathers then ranges widely from a discussion of book covers from both an author’s and a bookseller’s perspective (she co-owns a bookshop) to the intimations of mortality prompted by her election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The long, titular essay is the story of a friendship, intensified when Sooki is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Patchett’s husband finds a clinical trial at his hospital which Sooki can join and, with characteristic generosity, Patchett insists she moves in. Then covid hits, thrusting these three comparative strangers into an unexpected intimacy which ripens into the closest of bonds. Full of insight, humour and compassion, Patchett’s essays explore family, writing, marriage, love and friendship in the intimate style that fans of her fiction will recognise.
What about you – any books you’ve found comforting you’d like to share?
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