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.
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.