I suspect we’re all in need of a comfort read now and again and never more so while the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic that currently has us in its grip. I can’t promise that all five of these novels are entirely free of strife or upset – for me it’s hard to find good fiction that contains none of that – but they’re all either entertaining, heartwarming, something to lose yourself in or all three. Here, then, are five consoling reads that might help get you through difficult times, each with links to my review on this blog.
Set in the near future, Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore playfully meshes the old reading world with new technology in a quirky edge-of-your-seat story of bookish folk. Clay Jannon works the night shift at the eponymous bookstore, logging its few customers, most of them oddly attired and in an urgent, distracted state. Curiosity aroused, Clay sets about unravelling the puzzle of the Broken Spine, the society to which all the shop’s customers belong, in a story that encompasses a fifteenth-century sage, extreme Google geekiness, the search for immortality and a bit of consternation about cassettes (remember them?) all served up with a good deal of humour.
If you’re in need of being reminded that things do get better, I’d suggest Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage which tells the story of Mattie, once met never forgotten. It begins in 1928, ten years after British women who met a property qualification were enfranchised. For many in the women’s suffrage movement the battle’s over but not for Mattie. Evan’s story romps along replete with period detail, wearing its historical veracity lightly while exploring themes of social justice with wit, humour and compassion. It never loses sight of the fact that while some women were given the vote in 1918, the vast majority were not, nor that when they were the battle was still far from won. I loved it, and if you do, too, may I suggest reading Crooked Heart to which Old Baggage is the prequel.
Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop is narrated by a young woman not entirely sure of her place in the world. Hitomi looks back over the year she spent in Mr Nakano’s shop selling second-hand goods alongside Takeo who joins Mr Nakano on house clearances. As Hitomi and Takeo stumble into the most tenuous of relationships, Mr Nakano’s sister cheers them on from the side lines. Kawakami’s four principal characters are wonderfully drawn – eccentric, idiosyncratic and thoroughly engaging but the star of the show is undoubtedly our narrator, the awkward but endearing Hitomi. Very little happens in this delightful novel but it’s an absolute joy and the ending is all you could hope for.
Elinor Lipman writes the kind of sharply observed, absorbing and entertaining fiction that‘s just the ticket when you’re after an intelligent bit of escapism. With its story of a young woman, her widowed father and the high school yearbook left to her by her mother, Good Riddance is the literary equivalent of a smartly turned out rom-com. It follows Daphne, a close-to-thirty woman, flailing around for something to do with her life after her unfortunate marriage, who has the carpet pulled out from under her feet a second time. Lipman narrates her story in Daphne’s sometimes waspish voice, serving it up lightly laced with a few farcical moments and a good deal of sly wit. It’s a pleasingly perceptive comedy of manners whose slightly old-fashioned style would suit Frasier fans well.
I could have picked The Dutch House, the more recent of Ann Patchett’s novels which would fit the comfort reading bill well but instead I’ve plumped for the lesser known Commonwealth. It’s the story of a family, one which increasingly extends itself as marriages multiply and children are born. Patchett is an expert in show not tell: as her novel criss-crosses the years, from the opening christening in 1964 when a gatecrasher helps change the family’s history to the present day, stories are told and re-told – sometimes with illuminating differences. With its pleasingly rounded characters, meticulously constructed structure and thoroughly absorbing storytelling all underpinned with a gentle but wry humour, Commonwealth is a wonderful novel whose ending completes a beautifully executed circle.
I’m sure you have a few novels you turn to when in need of comfort and distraction. I’d love to know what they are.