Best of..., Recommendsday

Recommendsday: Novelised Real Lives

The latest instalment of my intermittent Recommendsday series, is a post about a trio of books that feature fictional versions of real life people. It’s a part of literature that I’ve read quite a lot of over the years – and quite enjoy. I date it back to my A-Levels when I derived a lot of enjoyment when studying the Literature of the First World War and reading Pat Barker’s Regeneration and then in spotting all the various poets popping up in all in various other pieces of fiction about the era – and then deciphering who was meant to be who in Siegfried Sasson’s Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man.  The books in this have been read over some considerable time – and I could have held off on publishing this for ages as I have more of these on my to-read pile. But after not enjoying one of the potentials to be added the other week, I got a bit of a bee in my bonnet and wanted to get it out there.  These three fall into some of my preferred areas of reading too – Hollywood’s Golden Age and what I’m going to call the extended post first world war period…

Mr Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe*

Cover of Mr Wilder and Me

After a chance meeting with Billy Wilder while backpacking around the US in the 1970s, Calista finds herself on a Greek Island working as a translator on the set of Wilder’s latest film. Calista is barely out of her teens, young, naive and slightly without a direction in her life. Through the course of the summer, she watches a Hollywood great who is falling out of favour in the new world of Scorseses and Spielbergs, and learns about the sadness that haunts Wilder. I love a book about Old Hollywood and I also love novels that fictionalise real people, so even the blurb for this really, really appealed to me. And it didn’t disappoint. Mr Wilder and Me is incredibly readable – even if after you finish it you realise Calista herself is not a massively well developed character and exists mostly as a way of getting you into Wilder’s world. There is not a lot of drama here – but it doesn’t need it. It’s an examination of cinema, and fame and what you do and how you cope when people think your glory days are behind you but you don’t.

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain*

Cover of Love and Ruin

I really like what McLain does with fictionalising real people. Admittedly, so far she hasn’t done one on anyone who’s life I was already massively familiar with, but I’m not sure I care. Having tackled Hadley Richardson’s relationship with Ernest Hemingway in The Paris Wife, in Love and Ruin, McLain returns to Hemingway’s life – but this time through the eyes of his third wife, legendary war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. It’s a fascinating portrait of a relationship between two incredibly strong characters, neither of whom are prepared to let go of what they want to do (although Gellhorn definitely makes more compromises than Hemingway does). I would happily read another 100 pages of What Martha Did Next – and came away from this with even more respect for her than I already had. Really, really good – and very readable.

The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer*

Cover of The Age of Light

This is the story of Lee Miller – a model-turned-photographer, who was Man Ray’s assistant and then went on to work as a photographer in her own right and one of the first female war correspondents. I liked the idea of this – but ended up feeling distinctly mixed. I didn’t like any of the characters really – but that’s not a necessity. What is a necessity is feeling like there has been some resolution or outcome at the end of it all. And I didn’t get that. I felt like a spent a lot of time in the presence of someone very damaged, but I didn’t feel like I came away understanding her any better than at the start. Or at least not on any deeper level. – just not as good as the other books that I’ve read recently that have been telling fictionalised versions of real people’s lives (or portions of them).

If you want more fiction about real people, can I point you in the way of my post about the Happy Valley Set, Swan Song and also of some of Laurie Graham’s books like The Grand Duchess of Nowhere and Gone With the Windsors, the latter of which like Mr Wilder and Me inserts a fictional person into a real situation and remains one of my favourite books of all time.

Happy Reading!

*next to a name indicates that it came to me from NetGalley, probably some time ago!

Book of the Week, historical, literary fiction, women's fiction

Book of the Week: Swan Song

A tricky choice for my book of the week this week – partly because of a reduced list this week because of exciting things like holidays with friends, but partly because I had little quibbles with everything I read.  In the end it came down to Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song and The Vacationers (apt because I was on vacation!) but as I’ve recommended Emma Straub before, I thought I’d go with Swan Song instead.  And to be fair, writing this post turned out to be really quite easy in the end!

Copy of Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

Regular readers of this blog will be well aware of my love of novels based on real events, and this one takes a look at the downfall of Truman Capote, who after years of friendship (and patronage) with a group of elite high society women, committed social suicide by using their lives as material.  He called them his Swans, and they tell the story as a sort of Greek chorus, switching between their lives, his life and the stories he told them.  Hopping backwards and forwards through time, the Swans recount the various versions of Capote’s childhood that they’ve been told, full of inconsistencies and embroideries, they tell the stories of their friendship with him and its implosion and the aftermath.

This is really good. While it is most definitely a bit of a Rich People Problems type of situation, there is proper scandal, betrayal and heartbreak on all sides here. There are a lot of novels that talk about the unhappiness of rich and privileged people, and although they can sometimes be my favourite books to read, when it doesn’t work it’s hard to muster any sympathy.  But that’s not the case here at all – the women who Truman exposes have all their unhappiness exposed to the world – all the things that they have managed to ignore or put up with to keep their status are suddenly out there in print and although Joe Public might not know who the stories are about at first, the veil disguising their identities is very thin and people work it out – fast. I still can’t make up my mind if Truman knew that what he was about to do was going to explode his life but did it because he was terrified about failing to deliver a follow up to In Cold Blood, or if he thought that the women wouldn’t mind and couldn’t believe that they would be prepared to turn their backs on him.  My main quibble was around the last quarter – which I didn’t think worked quite as well as the earlier part had done, mostly because after the swans have broken with him, using them as a narrative device didn’t work quite as well for me.

There is a big cast of characters here but I was fine, knowing a bit about the story and having read another novel based around this very same issue before.  But my other quibble was whether you’d get lost if you didn’t know anything about this set before – as I was slightly when I read The Swans of Fifth Avenue – which didn’t tell you what it was that he’d done! Swan Song does give you the details on that – which is good, and I think if you keep reading beyond any initial confusion, it will all start to slot in to place. It’s just that the first part is a little bit like Truman’s brain after he’s had a few Orange Drinks and some pills. And obviously there is Wikipedia to help too if you’re really stuck – to be honest I think you can get all you need to know from Truman’s entry and then disappear off down any rabbit holes that strike your fancy!

Last week I recommended a book of fiction so cleverly done that you can’t believe the band isn’t real and actually these two make quite a good pair and overlap in time in some patches – although you may find that hard to believe.  You’ve got Truman and his swans living in the high society world of the East Coast which still feels like a relic of an earlier era, while over on the West Coast, Daisy and the Six are living it up in the new world of rock and drugs and feel much more contemporary.  And both would make great books to read on the beach if you’re about to head off on Spring/Easter break.  And writing post this has reminded me again that I really need to finish writing that Rich People Problems books post – it’s sitting half done, waiting for an opportune time to finish it (and for me to finish reading a couple more books).  Maybe this will be the push that I need!

I’ve had this on the pile for a while – twice in fact as I managed to get a NetGalley ebook copy when I already had a paper copy via the joys of my proper job – but although it came out last summer, I’m sort of timely – as earlier this month it was named on the longlist for the Women’s Fiction prize at the moment. The paperback isn’t out until the end of June so you could preorder it (and Amazon do have that pre-order price guarantee) but the hardback isn’t a bad price on Amazon at the moment if you just can’t wait, and would expect (or hope at least!) there might be a copy in any reasonably sized bookshop – especially now it’s been longlisted for a prize, even more so if it makes the shortlist. And of course it’s on Kindle and Kobo too.

Happy Reading!