I haven’t been very well in the last couple of months–various new aches and pains and discomforts and a couple of random fevers; tests and scans come back OK for now; lots of “could be stress, could be anything” and late night browsing what “anything” might be (which is a bad thing to do, don’t do this). So I sought something chill to read (I’m about of a 10th of the way through Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines (2020) which is brilliant and tangled and febrile, so the opposite of that really)–and writing about detective fiction is sort of my job. So for me convalescent reading means children’s fiction or romantic comedy, or “chick lit”, and back in the early 2000s when I was in my early twenties and all the problems I thought were so big really weren’t, in retrospect, I read everything Marian Keyes was writing, which back then was published in cool-toned pastels, mint and turquoise and lemon sorbet–the very image was soothing and cooling.
I don’t know how well-known Marian Keyes is in the US–she’s an Irish author, and has also written columns for magazines and whatnot in the UK and Ireland, and been very open about her struggles with depression and alcoholism. Her books deal with serious things–bereavement, domestic violence, infidelity, divorce, addiction, depression–through women’s perspectives, and the age of these women has gone from mid-20s to 40s along with her career. Despite the serious topics, her best books are also warm and light-hearted and very specific in terms of character and situation; they come across as character-driven rather than issue or formula-driven, I guess. (Although there are various bad men and dreamy men, of course). It’s a difficult balancing act and it doesn’t always quite work out–one of her books I found unbearably twee, and another unremittingly dark (though perhaps I would have thought differently about it had it been packaged differently?), and another far too convoluted to get into.
My favourites of her books have always been those dealing with the Walsh sisters–Watermelon (1995), Rachel’s Holiday (1998), Angels (2002), Anybody Out There? (2006), and The Mystery of Mercy Close (2012). Keyes is fluent and funny when writing about this close-knit but bickering family–its dynamics and jealousies and warmth are very lived-in, as the sisters figure out their own paths while navigating their family influences and identity.
Again, Rachel is a sequel to Rachel’s Holiday, in which Rachel was a young Irish woman living in New York and enjoying a party lifestyle until her use of cocaine and other drugs spilled over into addiction; her “holiday” is her stint in rehab, coming to terms with her denial and finding her way out of self-destruction. In Rachel, Again, we find out what happened next with her–we meet Rachel some years later, and a lot of big things have happened–tragedy and loss on different levels, miscommunication and misunderstanding, moving on and falling back. Rachel is now back in Dublin, enjoying her new garden, close to her family, who retain their character, working as an addiction counsellor in the same rehab centre she attended in Rachel’s Holiday, and sorting out a functional relationship, when she finds she has to figure out how to deal with her past when it suddenly re-emerges.
It’s a thought-provoking novel, and it is funny at times! Keyes at her best has a light hand with commentary on contemporary culture’s foibles and trends, and there is some genuine suspense regarding Rachel’s romantic destiny. But what it made me think about was the ‘after the happily ever after’ bit that we hardly ever get to see with chick-lit, and how reassuring it is that people don’t just float away on mint and turquoise and lemon clouds, that life goes on even if it’s hard, and also the balancing act of figuring out how to give yourself grace while taking responsibility for your actions. I probably won’t read it again, but it did take up my head for several hours, which I am grateful for.
Title quote from Pulp’s ‘Live Bed Show‘ (1995)