The Secrets We Kept is a fictionalised version of the publication of Doctor Zhivago. You don’t have to have read Doctor Zhivago to enjoy it; I know, because I haven’t. Set in the 1950s, in the Soviet Union and the United States, we follow Boris Pasternak and his mistress, as well as typists for the CIA, as the novel takes the rough journey to publication. This thriller is full of danger, espionage, illicit relationships, and intrigue.
I listened to the audiobook, read by the author herself, and apart from a slightly dodgy American accent, she did a good job. Nell Stevens fell in love with Mrs Gaskell, 19th century author, and friend and biographer of Charlotte Brontë, and while researching Mrs Gaskell for her PhD, fell in love with an American man. This is the story of two complicated relationships, one in the 1850s, and one now. Stevens is very open, raw even, about her own relationship and the life of a PhD student, and her retelling of Mrs Gaskell’s attachment to Rome and one particular person she met there, was very compelling. Mrs Gaskell’s North and South is a great favourite of mine, and I was keen to come to know my beloved Charlotte Brontë’s friend, but there are also interesting thoughts about marriage, singleness, parenthood and purpose, that give the book broader appeal.
For bookish people, the idea of running a bookshop is something of a dream; kind of like running a cafe for people who enjoy baking. The reality, of course, doesn’t quite live up to the imagination. Shaun Bythell runs The Bookshop, for second-hand books, in Wigtown, Scotland. It’s often freezing, the part-time staff are eccentric, the customers frustrating, and the changing industry, worrying. Bythell is an amusing curmudgeon, and the day to day details of second-hand book selling are fascinating. He isn’t a fan of librarians, for very narrow, retail-related reasons, and, understandably, is far more concerned with the business of books, than their power in people’s lives, but on the whole this is a funny, heart-warming, and eye-opening year in the life of a small town Scottish bookseller.
I do love a good book about books, and especially that rather more rare item, a good one about libraries. The Library Book tells the story of the Los Angeles Central Library, from its beginnings to today, focusing on its disastrous fire in the 1980s. There are quirky characters galore; librarians, library patrons, and the man who was accused of setting the library on fire, as well as plenty of stories that tell of how important this particular library is, and always has been, and of the bright future for libraries all across the world.
I thought the film was pretty bleak, so I wanted to read the book to see if it was different. If anything, it is significantly more bleak, but also simpler, and somehow more affecting. Florence Green is a widow who opens a bookshop in a small, not especially lovely, coastal English town. It’s not a happy story, not even a little, and it isn’t about the power of books, really, either. It is, however, a quietly powerful story of relationships, strength, and quirky personalities.
Surely an English, period movie about a bookshop is going to be right up my alley. Florence Green, a widow, decides to fulfill a dream and open a bookshop in a small town by the sea, despite no encouragement from her lawyer, banker, or the townspeople. The scenery is lovely, as are the costumes, and Florence and the reclusive Mr Brundish are endearing characters, but I felt that the film didn’t quite live up to its promise. I still enjoyed it, but I can cope with a bleak and sad ending. If you want bookish and happy, stick to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Largely set in Massachusetts, A New England Affair is an imagined version of T.S. Eliot’s relationship with Emily Hale, which began when they were both young Americans in 1913. It’s about a love that never found its moment, though it endured for many years, and the frustrated longing, and soul searching are poignant. It is a call to communicate clearly, live fully, and to see the beauty in the ordinary.
I thought I would like this much more than I did. There are lots of bookish elements, and many references to Jane Eyre, and I really enjoyed the beginning, but at times I found the characters painfully unpleasant, which made those sections drag. A young woman who works in her father’s bookshop is contacted by a reclusive author, who asks her to write her biography. What follows is an over the top mystery, with a satisfying ending.
The Invisible Woman is the story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens. With so many letters destroyed, and lies told to maintain the public’s view of the great author, much of this story is guess work, or background history. I quite enjoyed the social history, and the details about Dickens’ work, but the lack of information about Nelly, the way she was erased from history, left her largely without personality, and the relationship between her and Dickens, without heart. I think I would have enjoyed an imagined version, told as a novel, better than this bringing together of scant facts and possibilities.
In 1960s rural Australia, kind and gentle farmer, Tom, wife has left him again, this time taking the young boy Tom raised, though the child wasn’t his. A glamorous older woman moves into town, a survivor of Auschwitz, determined to open a bookshop. Tom and Hannah find love, but making a new life is complicated. There is sweetness and humour here, and a lovely setting; I think it would make a popular movie. For me, there wasn’t enough character development, the villains were unconvincing (not the Nazis!) and I just wasn’t captured by this story.