Pride and Prejudice and the Search for Perfect Comfort Reads

I’ve been bouncing from Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series to a few books from the romance genre to Elizabeth Von Arnim’s The Enchanted April to Pride & Prejudice in the search of a comfort read which I can slip into effortlessly and wrap myself in. In Pride & Prejudice my search has finally come to a rest.

I’ve been thinking over what it is about Miss Austen’s well-loved work which clicked for me right now. Every reason that I can think of seems to stem from the familiarity with the story – the knowledge of how things turn out. As long as I do not know how it all unfolds I am beset with a sort of anxiety, a sort of nervousness that ensures that the bulk of my focus is on discovering how it all ends – Will the characters find eventual happiness? Will they have wizened up to the deviousness of that particular character? Will he live or will he die? Will he grow to love and accept her? Will she learn to speak up for herself? As long as these questions hold my interest everything else is sort of like the scenery you pass by when travelling in a train – you spy an interesting sight that you’d like to explore more but are helpless in the face of the onward tumble into the journey.

However, this time around with the knowledge that Miss Bennett most assuredly finds her happily-ever-after and with the knowledge of the general lay of the land I am finding myself enjoying each and every word that Miss Austen has written much more. I am making new discoveries – that while Pride & Prejudice could certainly be held as the original exemplar of romance novels it’s also quite a bit of a satire on the times that Miss Austen lived in; that Miss Bennett is a bit of a nitwit and perhaps not as picture perfect as I’d previously thought; that Mr. Collins is really delightfully ridiculous. This re-reading that I’m in the midst of is resulting in a deeper delving into the characters and that is one aspect that I am enjoying hugely. Mr Bennett seems somewhat callous in his utter indifference to his wife; Mr. Wickham’s earnestness and eagerness in sharing his past and blackening Mr Darcy so readily, his immediate latching onto Miss King as soon as she inherits – all seem a bit suspect and seem to be a clear and early signal of his unsavory character.

And yet if it was the element of familiarity that is contributing so much to my enjoyment and consequent labeling of Pride & Prejudice as a perfect comfort read then I’m compelled to think that this would be true of genre reading too. Genres with their tropes and elements that are constant across stories would afford that same familiarity with the promise of a new packaging. One would not have to confront the anxiety of uncertainty. All the energy could be focused on the way the character is developed or the lyrical quality of the text or the bigger themes being discussed in the novel or any of the other elements which go into developing a story.

The only genre I can speak with any sort of authority is the romance genre – having read quite a few stories over the course of the past few years. And yet, as I think back over my recent reading experiences of the romance genre I find the above anything but true. I find myself becoming increasingly impatient with the tropes – the hero who values his freedom too much for a commitment, the happy sparkly girl who captures our brooding hero’s heart, the heroine who quietly loves the hero from a distance and continues being his best friend while the hero potters around and takes the length of a book to realize he actually loves her too – and so on and so forth. I am besieged with the desire to yell at all of them and to tell them Enough-Already! Get a life! I’ve been prepared to be enchanted and yet the magic of Eloisa James, Carla Kelly and Susan Elizabeth Phillips have failed to work this time around. Perhaps, that is the subject for another post. In this one, I am just thinking that perhaps at certain times genre-reading could fail to exercise its usual charm and magic.

Familiarity of course is just one element of a comfort read. I think I’ll continue using Pride & Prejudice to discover the other elements that constitute a perfect one.

In the meanwhile I’d love to know your favourite comfort reads. And also your experiences with genre reading and how well (or not) you think it lends itself to comfort reads.

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society

The first time I fell in love with “The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society” was when I read its title.  I loved saying it out loud and loved the way its long title filled my mouth. The alliterating Ps and the juxtaposition of literary & potato compelled me to say the name out loud again and again. The title, thankfully, was just the beginning – a precursor to a delightful and heart-warming story.

Set against a post World War II England, The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society is an epistolary tale – a story told entirely in letters. Juliet Ashton, the protagonist of the story is an author who is not sure of what to write next. While trying to search for an appropriate subject, she receives an unexpected letter from Dawsey Adams of Guernsey – a group of islands in the English Channel which was occupied by the Germans during World War II. Dawsey had chanced upon an old Charles Lamb book of Juliet’s and wanted to learn more of Charles Lamb’s works. Thus begins a correspondence which leads to a flurry of exchanges between Juliet and Dawsey and Juliet and other members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society of which Dawsey was a member too.

In a way the book is a portrait of a people occupied by enemy forces during a war. In many ways, such an experience is just like any other experience in that it too changes you and shapes you. The difference I guess is that it’s also one of those experiences which by the virtue of being what it is sharpens and brings into focus the kind of person you really are. Or that is what I got from the book anyway. Despite being set against this backdrop, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is not a story which depresses; it is one which uplifts.

Part of the charm is the atmosphere evoked by the descriptions of Guernsey – the mist covered seas, the vibrant greens, the flowers which seem to grow up even in the cracks of the streets. A part of me wanted to transport myself to the island and experience its beauty for myself.

The other reason why I fell in love with the book is the characters. I wanted to be friends with them and wanted to talk with them beyond the story. There’s innate warmth to the characters which makes them feel like people you can depend on in times of trouble. Each character has his or her distinctive voice – each of their letters has a different tone. Let me talk about two of them.

Dawsey Adams – antithetical to a swashbuckling, sweep you off-your-feet kind of a hero Dawsey has a quiet competency which attracts you. Everyone turns to Dawsey in times of need or when something needs to get done. A simple man who feels keenly for Charles Lamb’s fate, Dawsey is the person who will never take the center stage but will be the one on whom everyone depends. There is a sheer goodness about this character which is compelling.

Isola Pribby is another character I promptly fell in love with! A complete busybody she loves the Bronte sisters and thinks men are more interesting in books than in real life. Loud, colorful and loyal, she reminds you of an eccentric friend whose heart is in the right place. The book is full of such characters. Quirky, they’re the kind of people you wish were your neighbours and are the kind of people with whom you’d want to build a community.

How could I not love characters who say things such as books having an inbuilt homing instinct which lands them in the hands of the perfect reader. And this brings me to my next point – people who love books especially should definitely read The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society. The discussion of Wuthering Heights made me wonder as well about the defining moment which makes us fall in love with a particular book. Is it a specific moment or is it more of a feeling which swells up as we progress through the story? Even more, WHY do we fall in love with some books and not others? Is it because the author has a knack for putting into words things we struggle with or is it a combination of a lot of things? Maybe that’s a topic for a different post all together!

All said and done, I’d strongly recommend this book to anyone who’s in the mood to be delighted and would like to grin. A lot. Because of course humour is the other thread which weaves itself throughout the story. Charming and thoroughly enjoyable, I defy anyone to NOT feel good once they’re done with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society! Go, pick your copy!