I am loathe to be prescriptive about what books you ‘ought’ to take on holiday. Because, for all I know, your perfect literary beach partner might be a bloodthirsty thriller, awash with rain and mangled corpses. Not everyone wants lighthearted – all that sunshine might leave you gasping for some dark relief. (In the same way, you shouldn’t be too prescriptive about holidays. “Oh you simply MUST stay at this villa” (what if you prefer a hotel?), “You’d love it here, you never have to leave the hotel complex” (actually, you can’t think of anything you’d like less than spending two weeks in one place and not actually visiting the country), “I don’t think that Paris/Copenhagan/Los Angeles is very ‘you'” (if you’ve not been there. how can you possibly know?). You get the gist.
BUT… because I read as much as I possibly can (which is nowhere near the amount I’d like; curse you, sleep – why must you intrude?) I am sometimes asked for recommendations. And if I was to write you a reading list, it might look something like this…
My first tip would be to consider taking/downloading one book which pertains to where you are going. So, you might, were you off to the Amalfi coast (above) take Beautiful Ruins (I read this on holiday and cannot praise it enough). Pack any of the wonderful Inspector Montalbano series or The Leopard when travelling to Sicily; Captain Corelli’s Mandolin to Kefalonia (too obvious? Take Gerald Durrell’s hilarious My Family and Other Animals, set on Corfu – it’s a Greek island…); anything by Daphne Du Maurier to Cornwall (ditto Hardy to Dorset: I read Far From the Madding Crowd there one Easter – it took me weeks to recover from what I still darkly refer to as “the coffin episode”); anything by Colette if you’re off to France (or Fitzgerald’s glorious Tender is the Night).
You want…relationships and romance (but it has to be good, please): The State We’re In by Adele Parks
Let me declare a prejudice here: Adele was the star attraction at the first ever GLAMOUR Gbookclub event the other week (which is my literary baby) – and she was amazing, thus I am now, officially, a big fan. This book had a huge pre-publicity buzz – and the reviews promise it lives up to the hype (as do I). It starts from the very simple premise: what if the person sitting next to you on a plane is the, perhaps, that person. You know, the one destined to change your whole life. Jo is an eternal optimist – en route to Chicago to stop the marriage of her ex who she is now convinced is meant to be with her. Dean is successful, cynical and studiously avoiding any semblance of genuine feeling.
It is not what I was expecting. It is wise, bittersweet and compelling – it’ll make you lose your stop on the train and weep on the tube. (Okay, it did me.) Parks is brilliant at rendering the intricacies of human relationships – and there are some truly poignant insights into marriage, childhood, loneliness and what makes us the people we become
You want…a clever satire which is also eminently readable: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
If you like Tina Fey, you’ll love this. Bernadette is a genius, prize-winning architect, a recluse, a schoolgate menace, an adored wife and a mother, to the brilliant Bee. And then she vanishes. And Bee must find her. It’s a rollicking tale, utterly invigorating, sophisticated, and totally hilarious. This picaresque comic masterpiece is, quite simply, a complete pleasure. (And at its heart: the love between mother and daughter.)
You want…an eminently modern family saga, please: The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell
The Bird children – all four of them – have an idyllic childhood in the perfect Cotswolds country cottage perfect. Until one Easter weekend, when an event occurs which is so devastating (no spoilers here), that the family is fractured, and slowly torn apart. Criss-crossing thirty years, the story reveals the unravelling – and possibly salvation – of the family. Jewell is a terrific, natural storyteller.
Yes, it has the alternating his and hers viewpoints. Sure, it’s the tale of a marriage told from two very different viewpoints. Yep, it’s so tense it’ll make you chew your fingernails (metaphorically or otherwise). But – here’s the catch – you know where it’s going from the start. Clever, eh? The Gilberts have been together for over 40 years, have a picture-perfect home and family. She loves to cook. He loves to cheat. Their relationships unravels at a terrifying – and ultimately deadly – pace. It’s like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? re-rendered. Gripping. As a psychological thriller, it’ll take some beating (as will your heart as you lie on your deckchair).
You want…the latest from one of America’s brightest young things: Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
Kate and Violet are twins. But they share more than most. They are psychic – except strait-laced Kate has repressed her abilities. So when Violet predicts an earthquake in St Louis – contrary to the scientific opinion of Kate’s geophysicist husband – it stirs up all manner of emotions and family ‘issues’, not to mention Kate’s own latent psychic abilities. Improbable? Indeed. But, as ever from the author of Prep and the tremendous The American Wife, hugely readable. Plus, it zig-zags back and forth in time, which allows Sittenfeld to flex her knack for capturing adolescence.
You want…a rollicking espionage novel: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
Ah, Ian McEwan. So reliably brilliant. You know it’ll be thrilling, tense, wonderfully rendered in his glorious prose. (I always feel that I am doing my brain a favour when I read McEwan – that my use of English language might get better via osmosis). Sweet Tooth is no exception.
Bishop’s daughter Selina is bright, awash with principles and beautiful. It is – this being the 1970s – the latter which wins her access to MI5, via – naturally – the bed of her Cambridge tutor (this is the ’70s – brace yourself). Her mission: to recruit a promising young novelist, with the aim of making him the mouthpiece of the establishment. Espionage meets literary criticism? McEwan makes it work.
The sun seems to have seeped into the pages of these classics. The pages of my copies are yellowed, spines cracked, sand and the odd blade of grass lodged between the pages. I would expect the same of any copy – even a brand new one, so redolent are they of long summer days – those perfect English summer days of lawns and strawberries and Wimbledon (side note: Murray, you have MADE this summer), the thwack of leather on willow, deck chairs and picnic blankets and daisy chains and lying on the grass in the shade of the pear tree, reading, reading. reading. For me, these are the summers of my childhood and adolescence. (Who knew this would become a love letter to my summer reading? And yet here I am, getting all misty-eyed and planning to move to the country so my daughter can have the same idyllic memories that I do. Note to my husband: this, too, will pass. I always feel like this during the summer. And then autumn sets in, and I thank God I live in hustling, bustling London with its 101 things to do.)
What links these three books is that they each capture that awkwardness of child becoming an adult – held in abeyance during the indolence of long,hot, lazy – almost oppressive – summer days. They are, I warn you, shot through with melancholy,
Sometimes, circumstances conspire to ensure you read the perfect novel at the perfect time in the perfect place. It was like this for me with The Greengage Summer. I was 14, we were in France, and I devoured this story of Joss and her siblings – stranded in a French guesthouse when their mother is taken ill. Left to the charge of feckless Mademoiselle Zizi and her lover, the charming Elliot – to whom Joss finds herself irrevocably drawn. Godden captures, perfectly, that unsettling first love, and when a girl finds herself “suddenly beautiful” and a woman. Timeless.
A mere slip of a book, Bonjour Tristesse tells the story of spoilt 17-year-old Cécile, who, over the course of one summer on the French Riviera, plots to depose her father’s mistresses – with ultimately tragic results.
The Go-Between is an elegy to the end of childhood innocence – or coming-of-age, if you prefer a less gloomy spin – set during the long, hot summer of 1900. 13-year0-old Leo is invited to stay at Brandham Hall, home of his wealthy schoolfriend Marcus, and is drawn, unwittingly, into being the eponymous go-between in the forbidden love affair between Marcus’s sister Marian, and tenant farmer, Ted.