Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Love Always (or, more accurately, in praise of Harriet Evans)

We sit and listen to the minister in the small chapel with big glass windows, no adornment, no incense, everything plain.  Outside, the wind whistles across the moors…  At Granny’s request, there is no eulogy.  That’s the only thing that is weird.  No one gets up and speaks over Granny’s body, there in its oak coffin in the aisle of the church, and it feels strange not to talk about her, not to say who she was, how wonderful she was.  But that was her instruction and, like all the others, it must be followed to the letter.  (Love Always, Chapter 4)

I first read Harriet Evans’ work last year when I picked up her 2009 novel I Remember You.  Apparently, Woman & Home (UK) called it “a fabulous feel-good story of friendship lost and love regained”.  I, personally, would call it a troubling story involving pain, betrayal, disturbing themes, bitterness, isolation, and friends being nasty to other friends about their sartorial choices, totally misrepresented by the paperback edition’s sparkly pink and purple cover with stick-thin cartoon lovers approaching each other across a bridge.  I loved it.  (And how I cheered to see a geeky Classicist as the heroine!  We humanities nerds are underrepresented, you know.)

Of course, I sought out and read the rest of Evans’ novels: A Hopeless Romantic, Going Home and The Love of Her Life.  All of them with standard-issue chicklit covers.  All of them full of difficult themes, complicated people and unpleasant behaviour. Evans’ characters frequently have a destructive streak — not in the bog-standard “flawed person with heart of gold who will inevitably find redemption through love and promptly transform into a romantic hero(ine), thus signalling the end of history” sense, but in a decidedly realistic way.  Redemption comes, if it comes at all, with a great deal of effort and the knowledge that things are unlikely to be effortlessly smooth up ahead.  Rather like life, then.  Although I do always wonder whether Evans’ heroines entirely deserve the humiliatingly thorough dressing-down they always seem to get from those around them at some point in the story.  If it were me, I would probably tell everyone to sod off and then go home and hide behind the sofa for a while, emerging occasionally for more tea.  The book wouldn’t have much of a plot after that.  Luckily, in these novels, these episodes seem to spur the heroine into sorting her life out once and for all, which does make for better reading.

Anyway, I hugely enjoyed all of them — despite the effect on my nerves — and accordingly approached her latest novel, Love Always, with very high expectations.  I was not disappointed.  The story of Natasha Kapoor, her disintegrating marriage, failing business and toxic family is beautifully and bleakly drawn.  As the plot alternates between the present day — with the tense and painful aftermath of the death of Natasha’s artist grandmother, Frances — and the Cornwall of the 1960s, the passions and resentments at work in the text are so powerful that the romantic storyline, when it comes along, seems pale and decidedly less interesting.  This doesn’t reflect on that particular storyline per se; it’s rather lovely.  It’s just that it has so much competition.  The past life of Frances and her husband, the brilliant philosopher Arvind Kapoor, and the tragic death of their younger daughter Cecily — whose diaries provide a half-naive, half-knowing commentary on the events of that particular summer in 1963 — all of this is more than enough to keep the reader enthralled.  I particularly love the character of Arvind, a kind but somewhat distant father and (it emerges) extremely tolerant husband in 1963 and a rather imperious invalid in the narrative of the present.  His interactions with Natasha are some of the most touching passages of the novel.

In an earlier piece on chicklit — that nebulous and unsatisfactory term — I wrote about happy stories done well.*  For me, that must surely be the nearest to a mission statement such an ill-defined genre can possess.  All the signs indicate that Harriet Evans’ stories are indeed being marketed as chicklit, and they are done extremely well, but they are not happy stories in the sense that, say,  Jill Mansell’s novels are happy stories.  The latter deal with difficult issues, but they are ultimately comforting (which is a virtue all of its own); Mansell’s books are so enjoyable partly because they are optimistic and reassuring.   Evans’ creations take a far stonier path towards happiness, and the awareness of what is lost — loved ones, relationships or even comforting illusions — remains acute.  Yet another example, if another were needed, of the richness and diversity of the stuff that lurks under those pink, sparkly covers.

Love Always, Harper Collins, 502 pp., ISBN: 978-0007350223.  For more details about Harriet Evans’ work, visit her website.

*  At this point I would like to issue an apology to Sophie Kinsella.  I said in that piece that, due to product-placement-induced rage, I never read anything with “shopaholic” in the title.  Well, I since have, and the Shopaholic books are rather subversive and very, very funny.

9 comments on “Love Always (or, more accurately, in praise of Harriet Evans)

  1. Moira
    May 3, 2011

    Those bloody pink sparkly covers have an awful lot to answer for … This is obviously another in a long line of books that risk being torpedoed by the cover design – and the need of people to pigeonhole books. I wonder just how many people have missed out on a really good read because they (a) were put off by the cover and (b) ‘don’t read chicklit’?

    This sounds like my sort of book – with a bit of bite, and leaving you wondering what direction it’s headed in.

    I know what you mean about the ‘good dressing down’ thing though. I’ve mentally christened it “The Knightley Moment” – only Jane Austen, of course, achieved it in just three words: ‘… badly done, Emma …’

  2. kirstyjane
    May 3, 2011

    I really do think you’d like it, Moira. It is one of these books that takes a hard look at how people tend to be, rather than how they ought to be. Really, you start wondering if the marketing people have actually glanced at the book — that cover must be losing it quite a few readers, not to mention springing a bit of a shock on some of those who do reach for it.

    I’ve noticed that the Knightley moment (love the term) is practically a trope among chicklit authors. I find it nail-bitingly unbearable in many books. It’s worth putting up with in some, and yet I wonder why it inevitably has to be quite such a dogpile…

  3. Hilary
    May 3, 2011

    Loved this review, Comrade K – perhaps we should make a point of coming to the rescue of books from inappropriately sparkly, My-little-pony-coloured covers. This was a particularly fluffy one, even down to the typeface (don’t get me started ….). In contrast to the cover of ‘Who’s Afraid of Mr Wolfe’ yesterday – not sugar-almond coloured, much better matched to the content.

    This does sound like a candidate for rescue. Really enjoyed the way you excavated the good things from this novel, well-hidden as they are.

  4. ChrisCross53
    May 3, 2011

    It does sound interesting. Regarding the cover, this may be a heretical view, but I think it is quite pretty, and while it may put some people off, it may also attract readers who would usually look for something lighter and fluffier.

    The covers that really, really annoy me are those headless women on the front of historical novels… and anything with an open door or gate set in a lush garden offering a glimpse of hidden secrets in the past..

  5. Jackie
    May 3, 2011

    This does have an extremely cheerfully colored cover, though the central figure looks like it was originally a model on the runway. I wonder why so many books aimed at women have either this type of illustration or those of a costumed figure, minus the head, a la Phillpa Gregory/Elizabeth Chadwick?
    I’ve heard of Harriet Evens, but have not read any of her books.They sound less like escapist fiction than morality tales, but I might try one just to see what they’re like.

  6. kirstyjane
    May 3, 2011

    That’s the beauty of them, Jackie — they aren’t escapist in the sense of being an easy read, but they aren’t morality tales, thank heavens. Far more complex. I hope you will give one a try. I would recommend this one especially or The Love of Her Life.

    Incidentally, Natasha Kapoor is a jeweler — I thought of you as you mentioned in another context how fictional jewelers/goldsmiths seem to make unrealistic money (whereas she has a hard time keeping afloat!) I would be interested to know what you make of the art themes in this one.

  7. kirstyjane
    May 3, 2011

    And thanks very much Hilary and Chris for the lovely replies. All views welcome, even (especially) heretical ones…

  8. Hilary
    May 3, 2011

    Ooh yes, Chris! I know just what you mean about being made to stare straight at someone’s stomacher. Might was well have a big gold arrow pointing at it with a caption saying ‘Bodice: rip here.’ Overdone!

  9. Nikki
    May 8, 2011

    I’m always shocked when I pick up a cheerful looking book and open it up to find something completely different (like The Girl’s Guilde to Modern European Philosophy which I read last year). I admit, if it’s too sugary and glittery I avoid at all costs! I really love Mansell though and I often have her on standby if I’ve been reading a lot of dark and heavy stuff. I think I’ll check out Evans though, sounds like an interesting take on the genre.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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