I sat down to work on my blog last Friday evening at the end of what had been, for various reasons, a disappointing day. It was evident that a glass (or two) of wine was only going to go so far when it came to cheering me up, so I decided it was the perfect time to pull together a list of my top five feel-good novels, the ones you reach for when the chocolate and the Pinot Grigio just won’t do. And that’s when the next of that day’s problems hit me in the face. I didn’t seem to own five novels that belonged anywhere near a blog article about “feel-good” books. Surely, I thought, ferretting through my collection one more time, I must be able to rustle up five novels that don’t involve murder, betrayal, grief, mental breakdown or simply general disappointment with life? Hmm, apparently not.
Truth is, I’m just not a hearts and flowers, cupcakes and kittens kind of girl. Present me with anything that has the whiff of manufactured happiness about it and you won’t see me for dust. Love stories with immaculately happy endings? I’ll take Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina all day long. Thomas Hardy had the right idea: things may look hopeful for a while but rest assured, tragedy and heartbreak will be upon you before you know it. All right, so life isn’t quite that bleak; but I do feel more at home with books – or films, or poems – that acknowledge the struggles we all have to endure on our journey, and also the harsh reality that sometimes we don’t even get to the destination we’d hoped for. Novels that lay these truths bare for their readers don’t have to be bleak; they can be comical, entertaining and life-affirming in their own way – I’m not generally a fan of novels that are relentlessly miserable. The stories that make me feel good about myself are in fact the ones that reaffirm my place among a multitude of human beings, all of us coping with our individual challenges and navigating the emotional labyrinth of life as best we can.
As I was writing this I wondered whether I should stick to my original plan and share some books that I would describe as “feel-good”, even if they didn’t fit the traditionally “uplifting” mould, but in the end I decided against it. What makes us bookworms feels good is as unique as our book collections. Maybe it’s the thrills and intrigue of a Dan Brown adventure that put a smile on your face, or maybe it’s a sojourn in Middle Earth. The book that’s lifting my mood today? “Flood of Fire” by Amitav Ghosh, the final part of an epic trilogy set against the backdrop of the nineteenth century opium wars and as intricate a depiction of the rich tapestry of humanity as you’ll ever find. That, combined with the chocolate and the Pinot Grigio, and I’m well on my way to having a very good day.