This Must be the Place – Maggie O Farrell

I have read a number of Maggie O Farrell books and heard her speak at the Edinburgh book festival. I always enjoy her novels and found her to be a very interesting and engaging speaker.

This book tells the story of Daniel Sullivan, a New Yorker who finds himself in Ireland with his grandfather’s ashes and meets Claudette, a beautiful woman living a reclusive existence with her small son. After their chance encounter the pair fall in love, marry and have two children. The story picks up some years later as Daniel finds out about the death of an old girlfriend and racked by guilt sets off to discover the truth about what happened, putting his own marriage at risk. This story sounds simple enough however it is complicated by a fair amount of baggage. Daniel has two children in America he rarely sees and a complicated relationship with his father. Claudette is a former very famous film star who disappeared from that life some time before meeting Daniel. The story is told by various narrators at various points in time. The result is you never quite know what you are going to get next or where you will be next. Although it takes a little getting used to, working out what is happening at any point of time and who knows who by this point, it does actually work really well in building layer by carefully constructed layer a picture of a marriage and the people associated with it. Sometimes as a reader it can feel quite tiring in a book figuring how where you are now but I didn’t find that with this book. Maggie O Farrell is a skillful writer and has somehow put together a seamless novel that is anything but seamless! There are gaps in time that aren’t covered, some characters are brought in for one chapter and never heard of again, we only get snapshots of some stories and in lots of ways the whole book is more Daniel’s than anyone else, yet it works exceptionally well. I really enjoyed it. I can’t say it was gripping as it wasn’t that edge of the seat type read, it was a cosy autumn afternoon read, curling up in front of a fire and losing yourself in someone else life for a while. It is a book about the humanity of marriage, the flaws of a person, the secrets, the individual history of both partners, how they still exist as two stories become one and how this can affect but hopefully  not define or destroy a marriage.

It’s a book well worth reading. I am really interested to hear how my book group found it as we have discussed many times the problems of jumping about in the narrative so I look forward to hearing if they also think it works better than usual on this occasion.

 

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Spectacles – Sue Perkins

Yet again I have neglected the blog and now have three books to add to bring myself up to date! The first is this memoir from Sue Perkins, comedian and presenter, probably most well known for presenting the Great British Bake Off. I have been a fan of Sue since she and comedy partner Mel first appeared on TV presenting Light Lunch. I was a student at the time so fairly well acquainted with day time television and this was a show actually worth watching! This year Sue Perkins was appearing at the Edinburgh book festival promoting this memoir so a couple of friends and I spent a very enjoyable evening listening to her chat about her life so far. She is funny and often self deprecating but so obviously intelligent and vulnerable too. I think we all left thinking she is the type of person you could sit down with over a coffee and just have a really good chat. In many ways her book feels a bit like that, you can hear her voice right through it so you do feel like you are listening to her.  Her love of language and words is very clear so it’s well written and very easy to read. She packs in just the right amount of humor so it never feels like it’s just punch line after punch line. It feels like real life, I realise that’s the point of an autobiography but it doesn’t necessarily mean it always works, in this case it definitely does. There were many times reading it when I literally laughed out loud but also times when I could share her sadness and pain. Of course this is her personal story and by her own admission some of it will be just that, a story. She is,  like everyone,  the owner of her own narrative and has made choices about what and how she will share it with the public. The choices she has made in writing this book have left us with a book that is a pleasure to read and for me reaffirmed the thought that to meet her for a coffee or a long lunch would be both interesting and a great joy.

Three Sisters, Three Queens – Phillipa Gregory

I love reading about the medieval period, the powerful dynasties, the struggles to hold power in a fragile world and the hugely differing lifestyles between rich and poor. It’s a fascinating period which Phillipa Gregory consistently  brings to life in a way that makes you feel that you are part of it, sharing the live’s of her real life characters. Her use of first person present tense allows you access to their private thoughts and her writing skillfully paints a picture of the situations they find themselves in. I think it’s possibly as close to getting in a time machine and going there ourselves as we could get!

I had the pleasure of listening to Phillipa talk at the Edinburgh book festival about this book which was very interesting. She talked about the way women, even the most powerful woman, have often been maligned in history, their history having been recorded by men. It was almost impossible for a woman to become successful in their own rights being branded either a she wolf or a dolt. In her books she tries to give woman a voice, to get beneath their skins and try to imagine what life was actually like for them. The result is an excellent read, we have these stories and these characters which we often know from history brought to life with a fresh perspective. In this book we follow the story of Margaret Tudor, elder sister of Henry VIII and also Queen of Scotland. Gregory takes the facts that are recorded in history and weaves an eloquent story of what it might have been like for Margaret, living in this patriarchal society, forced to marry a much older man, to leave her home and move to Scotland to be Queen. However as well as being the story of her life it is also the story of her relationships with her sister in law, Katherine of Aragon, queen of England,  and her sister Mary, who became queen of France. These three woman, all Queens yet dependant on the men round about them, are living very different lives in so many ways but are also so connected and similar, each fighting for their own survival.  Gregory beautifully imagines their complex relationships with each other in a way that’s allows us to have empathy for each of them. They live in a dangerous world and their united loyalties are tested by their loyalty to their own thrones with devastating consequences. Despite everything that happens their bond as sisters, or woman thrust into roles they haven’t necessarily got any control over, remains to the very end.

I don’t think this is my favourite of Phillipa Gregory’s tudor novels, possibly because Margaret didn’t come across as that nice a person so I didn’t warm to her as I have to other characters. However I did enjoy it, I particularly liked the fact that it is set in Scotland and so many of the places were familiar to me and I also really liked the fact that it covers the same period of time as some of the other books but from a completely different perspective. Definitely on my good reads list.