The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell

The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell was such an unexpected delight. Provided to me by NetGalley and the publishers (both of whom I thank for the opportunity to read and review), I confess the rather unusual and slightly formal title didn’t prepare me for the marvellous and very different content.

The novel is essentially two books in one, both of which are framed by the conventions of the world’s most popular genre: romance. The main narrative centres around two sisters: Lilly and Neave Terhune, and it’s primarily their voices that tell their utterly compelling story of growing up and entering the adult world pre and post World War II in small town America. The second narrative, which interweaves Lilly and Neave’s story, is called The Pirate Lover and it uses the usual romance conventions of the stricken heroine, wealthy, dashing and dastardly hero and a terrible villain to tell its tale of love, loss, and triumph over evil.

30319080While The Pirate Lover is a rollicking romance in the grandest sense, played out in Parisian salons and the high seas, what occurs between the characters is echoed meaningfully and with chilling consequences in the sisters’ story. Both narratives also deal with the social expectations of women; how marriage is regarded as an inevitable outcome that should socially elevate them. Independence of thought action and through being financially independent is an outrageous prospect for women yet it’s precisely this that nevertheless, Lilly and Neave embrace. In this regard, both stories, but particularly, Lilly’s and Neave’s, portray a particular slice of cultural history – including, through their brother Synder, pop culture history (and I love the way Pywell plays with the devaluation of that; how it’s discredited as meaningless froth by most) – in really evocative and accurate ways.

Lilly could not be more different to her more forthright and yet romantic sister, Neave. When Neave is still quite young, she is hired by a wealthy woman to read to her daily, and it’s the relationship between the woman and Neave and the stories and books they share (and those they don’t – Neave steals a romance novel), that provide Neave with not only imaginative foundations, but emotional ones as well – which, for better or worse, will guide her throughout life.

In the meantime, Lilly embraces life, refusing to think too deeply about people’s motives or lack thereof or enter into arguments. Lilly is there for the moment; understanding and reflection can, if it does, come later… if not too late.

Establishing a successful business together, proving that women aren’t just ornaments or objects of men’s desires, Neave and Lilly, with their bond that transcends life, use their knowledge and business acumen to empower other women towards autonomy and freedom: social, economic, romantic and sexual.

But it’s the very same ability to forge careers and be single-minded and pragmatic, that also drives them towards men who don’t have their best interests at heart. When Lilly disappears, Neave’s world – real and imagined – collide in ways she never could have foreseen. Deadly danger stalks her and the family she loves and, unless she is able to utilise the help she’s being offered from beyond, then she, and the business she and Lilly worked so hard to build, is doomed.

While the novel draws on romance conventions, it also deconstructs and plays with them, weaving elements of magical realism, fantasy, history, crime and other genres into the tale. The writing is lyrical and lovely and, even if you think you don’t “like” romance” (all books are at heart, romance, even if it’s with the reader), the parallel stories – one very literary, the other more clichéd, draw you in and have you turning the pages.

My one slight issue is I felt the last quarter of the book took the magic realism element a tad too far. While I was happy to go along for the afterlife ride, it reaches a point where it’s difficult to suspend disbelief. Without spoiling the tale, there were elements to certain characters and the focus they were given at the end, which detracted slightly from what should have been their primary purpose – a purpose we’d been led to believe was the reason they still existed (albeit on another plane) in the first place. It strained even the credibility required to accept what was happening (which had been easy up until then).

Nevertheless, this is a tiny gripe about such an original, beautifully written and lovely story with lead characters to whom you lose your heart. Recommended for readers of romance, history, and damn fine books.

 

 

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The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick

30107954The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick is a simply magical story about a sad and rather lonely widower, named Arthur Pepper who, a year after his wife dies, finally faces up to the emotionally painful task of sorting his beloved Miriam’s clothes. Among her belongings, he finds a quite beautiful and ornate charm bracelet. Unable to recall seeing it, let alone his wife wearing it, Arthur can’t help but be intrigued by what the charms signify and wonders if they could possibly represent an aspect or aspects of his wife, about which he remained blissfully unaware.

When he concludes that the engraving on the small gold elephant charm is actually an international number, the normally orderly and ordinary Arthur does something extraordinary: he rings it. What he learns from that phone call sets Arthur on an incredible journey into his wife’s past and the woman she once was. But it also takes the usually reticent Arthur on his own voyage of personal discovery as he meets people who wouldn’t usually cross his path, travels to exotic locations and finds his normally tight boundaries challenged and shifted in ways he’d never conceived. The more he learns about his wife’s past, the more he learns about himself, them as a couple and even as a family. Scared his life up until now has somehow been fraudulent, a lie he ignorantly lived, Arthur is both anxious but determined to uncover the truth: who was his Miriam and why on earth did she settle for him, if she even did?

Heart-wrenchingly lovely, unexpected in wonderful ways, this is a novel with soul and more than a little charm. I found myself thinking about it for days afterwards and cannot recommend it enough. Lyrical, insightful and moving it is a reader’s delight.

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A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman

25612964This is a simply magical book that, as the title suggests, covers a year in the life of ninety year old Marvellous Ways, a fantastically named, sprightly, imaginative and kind old woman with a unique take on life.

Born in simpler times, Marvellous, the daughter of a “mermaid” and the man who adored her, she is a vulnerable and strong child and later woman who endures and sees much in her long life and yet never loses her faith in the universe and people. A recluse by choice and circumstances, Marvellous’s life is simple and self-sufficient, but she is wonderfully complex. Content with her own company, and in tune with nature and the rhythms of the seasons, she is able to adjust easily to changing circumstances. When a young, former soldier and drifter, who also has a fabulous and somewhat ironic moniker, Francis Drake, washes up on the shores of her riverside home believing life as he knows it is over, Marvellous (who has been expecting him) shows him why it isn’t and teachers him about life and love and why, even when we believe we cannot, we go on.

Segueing from past to present, allowing stories of Marvellous, Drake and others who enter their orbit to unfold, the prose is sublime – poetic, really – and the events, encounters and the scenes heart-wrenchingly lovely. From before the wars to mid-last century, this is a tale about age and the ages, love, loss, faith, friendship and so much more. As I read, I felt as if Marvellous, Drake and their stories nuzzled their way into my heart and, when I finished, I knew it was there they would remain.

This is a gorgeous and very special book that will stay with you long after the final page.

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My Grandmother Asked My to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

After reading and loving A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, I really didn’t want to leave his voice or the world he creates with his haunting words. So, I picked up My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (or that she Sends Her Regards and Apologies, depending which edition you get), unable to resist the quirky title, and was delighted I did.

24469230In this novel, Backman introduces the reader to the almost preternaturally bright, precocious and quite lovable seven year-old Elsa. Bullied at school, aware of her differences and trying to pretend her clever and busy mother’s pregnancy to her new and perfect boyfriend aren’t bothering her, Elsa is a child that arouses passionate responses in those who meet her – and, if she doesn’t right away, she ensures they soon will. The reason for her quirkiness, intelligence and strong awareness of what constitutes social justice becomes apparent almost immediately. Not only is Elsa equipped with a great mind and wonderful imagination, both are fiercely and lovingly cultivated by her outrageous and smart grandmother.

Every night, Elsa’s beloved and feisty grandmother, takes her to the Land of Almost-Awake, a land that she and Elsa have nurtured and developed, populating it with a history, other places and peoples for as many years as Elsa can remember.

When Elsa’s grandmother dies (this is not a spoiler, it is in the blurb), she entrusts to Elsa an important quest. In order to fulfil this quest, Elsa must not only face the monsters that have terrified her for years, but even vanquish them. Like the heroes in the Land of Almost-Awake, she must make friends of strangers, allies of enemies and reach out to those who need her more than the other way around. Most importantly, she must find the courage she sometimes lacks and be braver than she’s ever been before – lives depend upon it. In doing so, she learns about herself, her mother and her grandmother; history and the present melding in unexpected, dangerous and delightful ways.

Drawing on reality as much as imagination, Elsa’s quest and the people she encounters and dreams, also explore the eternal questions of life and death, conformity versus uniqueness and why we wear masks – to both hide and protect our true selves. The novel also explores the complexity of families and why and how sometimes the family we choose is made of stronger bonds than those we are born into.

This a beautiful novel that draws on invented and well-known tales (Harry Potter features strongly) and has a cast of original and compelling characters. Inhaled this book – I think anyone who loved Backman’s others will as well.

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A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman

I wasn’t certain what to expect when I first started reading A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman, despite the fact it came highly recommended to me by a darling friend whose reading choices I always love. The main protagonist, the 59 year-old forcibly retired Ove, seems to possess no redeeming qualities. Rude, prone to shouting and a level of intolerance of others’ failings that’s extraordinary in one who has not only held down a job for thirty-odd years but can also boast a successful marriage, I almost didn’t continue after the opening few pages… he’s just so damn unpleasant. But, there was also something a little familiar about Ove; a sort of defensive masculinity that you sometimes see in men of a certain generation (my father, my grandfather), as not only work, but life can render them redundant; make them feel as if they have no purpose anymore. It makes you want to hug and hold them and remind them of their value, especially when they most push you away. It’s testimony to Backman’s writing that after my initial reservations quickly dissipated, you feel exactly the same way about Ove – even when he shouts and slams doors… maybe even more so.9781476738017

Page by page, scene by scene, Ove, the very personification of a grumpy old bastard, is gradually revealed to us. The facilitator of this slow stripping of the layers that make up this complex, sad and angry man is a new neighbour, the pregnant “foreigner”,the pragmatic and delightful, Parvaneh and her normal (by-anyone-else’s-standards-other-than-Ove’s) family: her klutzy, gentle husband and two delightful daughters.

Resisting them at first by refusing to use their names and preferring the labels he so readily bestows on everyone to avoid intimacy, and by being a downright curmudgeon, Ove is slowly drawn into their lives and into facing the painful and joyous memories his own has thus far created. The novel then segues between the past and present, unfolding the life of the man called Ove, the morally upright and uptight hardworking grouch who nonetheless captures the heart of the laughing, beautiful and quite wonderful Sonja; the man who defiantly drives a Saab and defends one-eyed emaciated cats, young gay men, and any who find themselves unwitting victims of bureaucracy. We’re introduced to his neighbours, those who enter and exit his life; the hows, whys and wherefores, and suddenly, Ove and his surliness not only make sense but also become both irresistible and essential.

I don’t want to say too much more except that I laughed, cried, sighed, sobbed and had my heart filled and my soul nourished by this unapologetically sentimental but also biting tale of an ordinary man who proves over and over again that what is right is right and what is wrong is wrong. Even the similes, which litter the pages with problematic regularity, ceased to bother me as they beautifully and accurately paint not only the colourful picture that is Ove, but his world-view as well.

Part fable, part sardonic treatise on the modern condition and those who recklessly abuse and use it and others, I can’t stop thinking about this gem of a book with hope, community and a man called Ove at its heart.

 

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