Three book recommendations for this December from each of Lippy’s regular book reviews: Madeleine, Olivia, and Eva.
Although certainly not reminiscent of the current British weather, my winter book recommendation is Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, in particular, My Brilliant Friend. Set in Naples, the Neapolitan Quartet follows two best friends from ages eight all the way through to adulthood. They grow up together, and go through momentous life events such as marriage and childbirth. They drift apart and come back together, and help each other as children, teenagers, young women, and elderly women. Elena, the narrator, is an academic child, progressing onto university and moving out of her hometown thanks to a supportive teacher and the reluctant willingness of her parents to allow her to study. Lila, her best friend, is more troubled, but equally as smart. She isn’t supported as much in terms of education, and although she yearns to learn and progress, she instead marries young and has a young while also having to work. There is a constant stream of envy between the two friends: Lila envies how Elena can learn and leave their hometown, Elena envies Lila’s beauty and the male attention she receives. It’s a beautiful homage to growing up, to female friendship, and to the pressures of marriage and motherhood. What makes the books even more enticing is the unknown identity of the author, having never done an in-person interview, and conducting only a few written ones.
This book isn’t particularly wintery, but it’s definitely the best book I have read all year – it’s impossible to put down – making it perfect for staying indoors in the warmth this December.
Donna Tartt’s 1992 debut novel The Secret History was widely acclaimed upon its initial publication, being praised by the likes of Bret Easton Ellis. The novel, which follows a young university student named Richard Papen attempting to navigate the social and academic world of a small college in rural Vermont, has joined the likes of John Williams’ Stoner and AS Byatt’s Possession as novels depicting the university experience. Unlike Stoner or Possession, however, the characters’ actions in The Secret History are driven not just by a desire to succeed, but by the murder of a student.
The novel opens with a description of a group of Classics students standing on a cliffside in midwinter, watching one of their friends fall to his death. It then cuts back to several months prior, in which Richard Papen arrives on campus at Hampden College after transferring from a chemistry program at a school in California. He joins the Classics program, a choice which permits him entry into a series of classes with only five other students, all taught by one professor, the enigmatic Julian Morrow. Richard, as the only student on financial aid, is forced to begin a series of lies about his background.
For Richard and his fellow students, under Julian’s guidance, the study of Classics soon becomes an obsession, and they become completely cut off from the wider student body. Instead, the students form a series of codependent relationships that ultimately culminate in murder and blackmail. As Richard becomes more desperate to connect with his classmates, the violence around him escalates. His lies start to have consequences as it becomes apparent that those around him are also keeping secrets. Motivated by love and a deep desire for stability, Richard is drawn into a world of crime and excess.
The Secret History, which was loosely based on Tartt’s own experiences as a student at Bennington College in Vermont, takes the setting of an isolated college and explores it as a microcosm of class conflict and loneliness. The novel takes place almost entirely over the course of a single winter, and the descriptions of the snow and winter collegiate rituals help to make The Secret History a perfect December read. Ultimately, The Secret History is a novel about obsession, love, and the extremes that people will go to for a sense of belonging and safety.
When we think of Christmas, we tend to think of the joy of decorating the house and the time we spend with family. Even the ‘Scroogiest’ of people feel shielded from the world’s worries when they see the smiles on kids’ faces. However, Christmas inherently evokes a kind of dual emotion, of joy but also sombre melancholy regarding the challenges we face every year and the people who aren’t celebrating the holiday in comfort. This quiet sadness in the world we live in, despite the festivities, is encompassed in Claire Keegan’s ‘Small Things Like These’.
We follow Bill Furlong, his wife and five girls as they get ready for the busy season of Christmas. Working as a timber merchant, he has an established overview of his struggling, poor village, and we see him having many friendly interactions; the narrative’s characters paint him as a caring man. Drawing from Ireland’s religious background, one day Bill discovers a young girl called Sarah who struggles to walk and is looking for her baby. A devastating realisation washes over Bill as he is confronted by the horror of the ‘Laundries’ enacted by the church. These were schemes that made women and children with no families or prospects work until they died, an echo of what could happen to the five little girls he cares for back home. These ‘Laundries’ are suggested to be covered up as when he questions the position of the girl, he is dismissed. However, in the face of this societal cover-up and the burden this girl would pose upon his already poor family, he takes her in. And why does he do this? Out of the pure kindness that was shown to him and his mother growing up. His 16-year-old mother gave birth to him out of wedlock, the outcome being that she would be sentenced to the laundry. But as a maid of a large, generous family, they take pity and take her in, raising her and the child. Despite still being poor, this kindness and hope is embedded in Bill, a reflection of his decision to try his best to do what’s right.
I read this novella a year ago and I still found it resonating within me as I decided on a pick for our Winter Reading List, sitting in a Café Nero in Leeds, looking at the frantic shoppers trying to make Christmas the perfect holiday. The meaning may start to be lost in the modern obsession with the self and materialism, but Keegan helps you realise the small kindness you should aim for in the holiday that bridges the joy and the pain of the world.