Holiday season is upon us at last, so I’ve chosen three books to cram into your suitcase. I would recommend these titles for anyone looking for something with a little more depth than a typical beach read and something that offers a lot more than a romantic comedy, yet they are all ideal for holiday escapism. In books I look for three things; a narrative that captures my attention from the start and maintains it throughout, characters I believe in and become invested in and a genuine interest in what will happen next.
Kathryn Stockett, The Help
I have recommended this book to anyone who has ever asked me what they should read next. Stockett brilliantly transports you to Mississippi in 1962, and does so with an authenticity that can only be achieved by someone who has lived through what they are writing. Aibileen narrates the story of black housemaids, who regardless of being of trusted to raise white children, are racially abused and segregated in every other way.
This attracts the attention of Miss Skeeter, a young white woman who is unable to comply with the values of her society. She grows closer to Aibileen in an attempt to find out why the maid who raised her as a child disappeared. Skeeter’s fondness for the maids that she has come to know encourages her to want to hear their stories and experiences in Jackson, in other words, what it is like to be ‘the help.’ While becoming intolerable to her own mother and friends, the friendship Skeeter forms with Aibileen and Minny, another maid, becomes the centre of the novel. These three women deliver the comedy as they navigate their way through this unlikely friendship. As a reader you feel such closeness to these women as they are the only characters that share with you the realisation that Jackson is built upon racism and hypocrisy, much to every other white person’s ignorance. For the women you feel joy and sadness, hope and loss, but most importantly you believe in them and the stories they tell.
My favourite thing about The Help – it deals with serious themes but makes them accessible, I still felt like I was reading a piece of literary fiction but it also wasn’t too heavy to take on holiday. That’s not to say there aren’t parts that are terribly sad, especially as what is being told is based on facts. I am also obviously partial to anything that empowers women and any writer who puts influential female characters at the centre of their novel.
Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
This book contains one of the best plot twists I have ever come across. I will admit it was purely the front cover that drew me to pick it off the bookshelf when I was browsing for holiday reading a couple of summers ago. However the blurb sounded interesting and it certainly did not disappoint.
The family is at the centre of this novel, narrated by Rosemary as she describes her somewhat dysfunctional one, as her psychologist father conducts an experiment on his children unknowingly. Rosemary is then sent away at the age of five to her grandparents and when she returns, her beloved sister Fern is gone. Soon after, her brother commits a series of crimes, is wanted by the FBI and Rosemary does not see him for years. Fowler couples comedy with deep loss and sadness through her observations of family life. I was laughing as Rosemary describes the recognisable processes that families go through and this is also met with Fowler’s own satirical tone and this made it very readable. However the story and events are so specific to this family, whose lives you become part of as Rosemary lets you in on her childhood, her journey through college and into adulthood that I was reading chapters at a time out of pure curiosity.
My favourite thing about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – the surprise in the plot. I have seen a lot about this book in other reviews but if you haven’t found them yet then you are in for a treat. I had to question whether I had even been paying attention as I couldn’t believe I had missed it. By the end of the novel Fowler has delivered a moral lesson about mankind, how we treat others and what it means to be a family.
Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees
You may not be able to tell from the picture but this book is pretty worn due to the two times that I have taken it on holiday and carried it everywhere with me. This novel is set in South Carolina in the summer of 1964 (yes there is a pattern in my reading choices.) All her life, Lily’s father has led her to believe that she contributed to her mother’s death when she was a child and she continues to live under her father’s abusive roof. However it is when her housekeeper and only companion, Rosaleen, is attacked in the street and left in hospital, that Lily realises she must run away.
Lily and Rosaleen travel to Tiburon, the name of a town scribbled on the back of a picture owned by Lucy’s mother, to find that the picture is the label for a honey maker, leading them to the beekeeping sisters. Kidd maintains your interest as you become just as eager to learn how these sisters knew Lily’s mother as Lily does herself and what they may know that has been kept from her for years.
My favourite thing about The Secret Life of Bees – this book clearly deals with serious issues, race being the most prominent and I am not suggesting that this makes for laid-back holiday reading. However the way that Kidd combines this with the simplicity of beekeeping and the sister’s lifestyle, along with their connection to nature absorbs you into their world. Their home and lifestyle is curious and Lily’s involvement with them as a teenager is moving. Again, women are at the centre of this novel and it is those characters that encouraged me to read it again. Despite their differences and hardships each women displays a determination to maintain their independence and control of their lives while demonstrating the strength that communities of women uphold.