I heard Marian Keyes talking about her new book Grown Ups on one of my favourite podcasts and she was so fantastic that I put the book on my wishlist and was given it for my birthday. I’d never read her before, always thinking her books were ‘chick-lit’ and so not for me, but they are not and it turned out that this was honed, intelligent writing at its best, with the study of character, motivation and behaviour second to none. I was immediately absorbed into the world of a chaotic Irish family and their children, could not put it down and went on a mission to tell as many friends as possible that they absolutely had to read it. I haven’t enjoyed a book so much in a long time.
The novel starts with a dinner party that goes disastrously wrong, then goes back to some months earlier and works its way forward. This works brilliantly and when the book finally catches up with itself towards the end, I found myself going back and checking the prologue, and delighting in how cleverly the same text is repeated in the longer scene at almost the finale of the book. The story centres on three brothers, Johnny, Ed and Liam Casey, their wives and their children. They have the misfortune of truly awful parents, which draws them together in solidarity, and Johnny’s wife Jessie, who is a businesswomen, mother of five and a force of nature, also insists on regular and extravagant family get-togethers that she pays for, despite her spiralling spending and worries about the business. Jessie was previously married to Rory, who tragically died aged only 34, and his wonderful family cannot have been all that wonderful, as they disown Jessie when she re-marries. All the couples in this book have a lot to deal with and a lot going on. Some of the characters are truly awful, some are naively taking a long time to see what is staring them in the face and others need professional help to deal with addiction. This is gripping stuff and is a masterclass in writing.
On to some actual chick-lit. My neighbour Ali’s lovely Mum Aileen lent me A Night on the Orient Express by Veronica Henry, which I read in 24 hours one weekend whilst staying with friends. It is the story of a number of couples, or couples-to-be, taking the train to find love, to cement love, to get to know the children of the partner they love, or to figure out what to do with their lives after grief. It is all tied up in a neat bow at the end, and, like much romantic fiction, you leave them at the church, as it were. The cynic in me would like to go and visit them ten years on, to see how they have fared. However, it really did what it said on the tin, and was an absorbing escape from thinking about work. What I enjoyed most about this book was the detail of the Orient Express itself and the descriptions of the experience – from cocktails, to dinner, to the sleeping compartments and even the shop. The problem that this left me with, is that I now really want to go on the Orient Express, as well as to Venice.
Finally, for some more August escapism, I read The Detective’s Daughter by Leslie Thomson. This is the story of a women murdered a few days before the wedding of Charles and Di in the 1980s, whose killing has remained unsolved. It starts with the death, some thirty years on, of the detective who could never let go of the case, and his daughter finding the case files as she goes through his things. She runs a cleaning business and clearly has some issues herself to deal with, but gets sucked into the case, as she realises the connections between her business and the murdered women. She hooks up to find the killer with a deeply dubious character, who most sensible people would run a mile from, and who, on a number of occasions, I thought was going to murder her. But it turns out that her instincts were better than mine on that one, thanks to lots of very well done red herrings, which I swallowed whole. As artists, tube drivers, dentists, little old ladies and cleaners come together, it builds to a fabulous crescendo, and I was racing through to the end needing to know how it played out, even when, at the very last, it became clear to me who the killer was. A great example of crime fiction, doing all the things it should.