Sunday, May 16, 2010

Serendipitious read: Sue Gee's Reading in bed

Now, how could I not pick this up, even with its chick-lit appeal cover, given that the quote on the back was, "People say life is the thing but I prefer reading" (attributed to Logan Pearsall Smith)? Ah, a sentiment at once sort of dreadful and yet strangely true.

Reading in bed was a serendipitous pick from the Friends booksale at the Rockcliffe Park Library (by the way, best booksale ever! Not just the annual giant one, but the small shelf of "for sale" books in the branch is always well stocked... This week, I told Philip I only help out there - one of the permanent staff members is recovering from surgery - because I can check out the booksale; I was half-joking).

Reading in bed follows a period of change in the lives of two old friends, Dido and Georgia. Friends since university, the two have been lucky to marry two friends as well, and companionably enter their late middle age together, watching their children, in turn, find mates and settle down (or not). When the novel opens, they are on their way back from the Hay Festival (see? My kind of people) and have recently experienced the unexpectedly sudden loss of Georgia's husband, Henry (In a case of, well, I guess "art following life," Gee's own husband died quite suddenly). This loss for all of them, coupled with Dido's increasing suspicion that her husband is hiding something, ultimately changes the way all the characters in the novel relate to and interact with one another. Georgia muses often during the novel about all the simple and wonderful plans she and Henry had made for their coming twilight years; unfortunately, peaceful retirement this is not.

Sue Gee has a lovely way with dialogue and with internal monologues (this might sound blasphemous, but Gee's way with internal monologue was vaguely reminiscent of Woolf to me). She is equally able to carry off social Dido's sudden withdrawal from friendship with Georgia as she is able to make us sympathise with Georgia's stylist daughter, Chloe, whose grief at losing her father is coupled with a sense of feeling somehow inadequate to her mother, whose bookish ways are alien to a girl who struggled through school with a learning disability. This is a rich book filled with characters (granted, mostly women, although Dido's son, Nick, is also given sensitive attention) at various stages of life, facing turning points they had certainly not expected.

Ultimately, though, this is Dido and Georgia's story, about finding, maybe losing, and finding again, a friend, all through the course of a life. It's about loneliness, in many ways, too: the loneliness of being really alone, and of being alone while somehow surrounded by people.

I was quite touched by Dido's struggles with her husband's dishonesty. Dido's coping mechanisms reminded me a lot of those being used by the character of Alicia on the TV show The Good Wife. I've become quite hooked on The Good Wife, and Alicia's almost unshakable stoicism in the face of disturbing revelations about her husband. I think we've seen her cry once; not that this is admirable, but in the age of TV characters who whine endlessly, soap-opera style, it was a refreshing change to have to maybe guess what someone was thinking based on some inscrutable facial expressions; you know, something resembling real acting. Anyway, there is this heartbreaking section about Dido contemplating her options: she has been angry, and vengeful, but she is essentially a realist, a concilator, "and pretty strong. There is also the question of forgiveness, not a word you hear a huge amount these days - like guilt, which you never hear at all, except to be told you must not feel it." And so she decides to stick it out, as it were, or at least so far (I still have 40 pages left). I found that decision an interesting one, given the times, given the situation, given everything, really.

I really identified with both the more guarded Georgia and the outgoing, now more quiet, Dido, and I kept thinking of a good friend of mine, much closer to Dido and Georgia's age than me, who would likely have been quite surprised to see me reading and enjoying this book. She often recommends titles to me, but then qualifies it with "but people your age might not enjoy or understand that type of ...." (be it situation, problem, humour, etc.). She once did this with A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, too (aging parents being something I couldn't relate to, in her mind). Now, perhaps in some ways I've had some unique life experience for my "age," but that type of readers' advisory really annoys me: as though everyone must "read their age." It's almost the same to me as saying I can't be friends with someone older or younger than me.

[Digression: last night we watched Love that boy, a lovely romantic comedy about an over-achieving King's student who falls in love with her 14-year old neighbour. Speaking of "inappropriate" relationships... Also, the film includes a minor character played by a very young Ellen Page!]

OK. So, I refuse to read my age. And I would refuse, also, to only recommend based on age. If someone in their 60s comes into Rideau, I am as likely to recommend something with a 20-year old protagonist as with a 60-year old protagonist. To me, unless the patron states the age of a character, or a life stage, as a personal preference during a readers' advisory conversation, I wouldn't make it a priority at all. It would be as offensive as saying you can't read something because you don't have children, or live in London, or whatever. Dido and Georgia's very unique situations touched me in a personal way; perhaps a different way than they would another reader (and doesn't every reader reading the same title read a different book?), but I was certainly not bored by them!

Hmm. Read-alikes. I don't read a lot of books "like" this, actually, not in the sense of the story but more the tone and the emphasis on family life. Maybe The children's book? Similar notalgic tone, sense of internal lives of characters, different generations and ages. Or even The rain before it falls?

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