Tag Archives: Shelf Life

Shelf Life by Livia Franchini: A list for life

Cover imageI’m an inveterate list maker. It’s my way of organizing myself and remembering to do things. And I always make a list before shopping. Who knows what I’d come home with otherwise? Hardly surprising, then, that I was attracted to Livia Franchini’s Shelf Life which tells Ruth’s story through the shopping list she made the week her fiancé dropped his bombshell and left her.

Ruth and Neil have been together for ten years. He’d spotted her through the window of the travel agent he worked for just yards from her nursing school, engineering a meeting through her friend Alanna. Ruth had been working as a senior nurse at a care home catering to the aged rich for some time when Alanna popped up in her live again after a long absence. Theirs is an uneasy friendship: Alanna is a girly girl, given to confidences, indiscretions and beautiful with it; Ruth is intensely private, responsible and mousey. Struggling to find a way to live on her own after Neil’s departure, supposedly to a Cornish mindfulness commune, Ruth hides her misery the best she can. When Alanna announces her own engagement, Ruth’s astonished to be asked not only to be her maid of honour but to arrange the hen party which sees her entering a foreign land of cocktails, clinging dresses and hedonism. Things take a dark turn that night and another the following morning as Ruth nears the end of her list.

Taking a shopping list as a structure for your debut novel is a daring tack to take – lots of potential for clunkiness – but Franchini handles it well. I began her novel looking for the link with each item but her story drew me in so that I forgot about all that. Ruth’s character is well drawn and carefully constructed, her friendship with Alanna smartly done. There’s much more to Alanna that you might at first think. Neil has his own say, leaving you wondering why Ruth hadn’t kicked him out years ago then remembering her loneliness. Woven through Ruth’s narrative are email exchanges, texts and chats from Ruth’s schoolmates, most of which work well but some felt a wee bit contrived. Through it all runs a vein of nicely judged humour culminating in the hen party which sets readers up well for the shock that ensues. With its poignant depiction of social awkwardness and isolation, Shelf Life is far from the slightly fluffy read I’d somehow assumed it to be and all the more interesting for it.

Books to Look Out for in August 2019: Part Two

August’s first instalment progressed smartly through the twentieth century while staying in the United States but this second preview lacks any neatly cohesive thread, I’m afraid. You may have noticed that it’s the centenary year of the Bauhaus school of design, the background for Theresia Enzensberger’s Blueprint which opens at the beginning of the 1920s. Luise dreams of becoming an architect, enrolling herself in the Bauhaus university where she’s taught by Walter Gropius and Wassily Kandinksy. While her art school friends immerse themselves in their work, street fights are breaking out in Berlin. ‘From technology to art, romanticism to the avant-garde, populism to the youth movement, Luise encounters themes, utopias and ideas that still shape us to the present day’ say the publishers. I already have my eye on Naomi Wood’s The Hiding Game which shares the Bauhaus theme but I’m tempted by this one, too.

Back to the States for the next two titles beginning with Lot by Bryan Washington, set in Houston where a mixed-race boy, working in the family restaurant and fending off his brother’s blows, is coming to the realisation that he’s gay. ‘Bryan Washington’s brilliant, viscerally drawn world vibrates with energy, wit, and the infinite longing of people searching for home. With soulful insight into what makes a community, a family, and a life, Lot explores trust and love in all its unsparing and unsteady forms’ say the publishers promisingly.

Luis Alberto Urrea’s The House of Broken Angels is set in San Diego where Big Angel is about to hold what may well be his last rowdy birthday party when his mother dies. Big Angel’s half-brother is in attendance at what is now both a party and a wake, all too well aware of his mixed race. The weekend passes in a celebration of both lives and the telling of a multitude of stories. ‘Teeming with brilliance and humor, authentic at every turn, The House of Broken Angels is Luis Alberto Urrea at his best, and cements his reputation as a storyteller of the first rank’ say the publishers.

It’s its structure that attracts me to Livia Franchini’s debut, Shelf Life, which comes highly rated by Sophie Mackintosh who described it as ‘whip-smart and slyly heartbreaking’. Thirty-year-old Ruth works in a care home and has just been dumped by her fiancé. As she works her way through the week’s shopping list item by item, she tells her story which reveals a life spent looking after everyone else but herself. Sounds a bit thin, doesn’t it, but as a lover of lists I can’t resist the lure of this one.

I’m signing off August with Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything, which begins in 1989 when Saul Adler is hit by a car on Abbey Road. Apparently unscathed, he visits his girlfriend who insists on photographing Saul on the famous crossing then dumps him. Saul takes off to Berlin, two months before the Wall comes down. In 2016, he’s hit by a car on Abbey Road, dipping in and out of consciousness as a group of people gather at his hospital bedside, including his ex-girlfriend. ‘Slipping slyly between time zones and leaving a spiralling trail, Deborah Levy’s electrifying new novel examines what we see and what we fail to see, until we encounter the spectres of history – both the world’s and our own’ Very much like the sound of that.

That’s it for the second batch of August’s new titles. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have caught your eye, and if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…