The Second Summer Reading List: Books of the Non-Essential Variety

[24 July 2002]

By Valerie MacEwan

A Brief Summer Reading List, Fiction for Women

“Literature: proclaiming in front of everyone what one is careful to conceal from one’s immediate circle.”
— Jean Rostand

Ah, sexist me, doing book reviews for women. It’s just that I have to be honest, if I didn’t categorize these novels, some poor misguided Tom Clancy fan might accidentally buy Anna Maxted’s Getting Over It thinking it was about the first covert ascent of Mt. Everest by ex-CIA operatives.

A few quick disclaimers: 1.) I kinda’ enjoyed a majority of these books. 2.) I actually read them while sitting under an umbrella at the beach. 3.) For the most part, they’re not literary masterpieces. They have their faults: some of the heroines whine about their dead-end jobs and ramble on forever about the size of their thighs, many of them are too dependent upon their lovers for validation, and the common theme seems to be “getting your shit together and learning to trust yourself”. But they’re fun books to read. Articulate, today-centered stories that divert the readers attention from their mundane daily tasks and amuse the hell out of them.

Women’s fiction. Sure, those Harlequin throbbing- groin- heaving- bosom- pulsating- clitoris- Barbara- Cartland ,et al, stories are still as popular as ever. Women pirates still rule the Seven Seas. And not only do we have debauched, deflowered and out of control 19th century women, we have those piteous tortured modern souls who are victims of their own uncontrollable destiny, the women found in Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steele, Nora Roberts, Liz Carlyle . . .

Welcome to the Sex-in-the-City-Bridget-Jones-Nanny-Diaried-Ya-Ya’d modern woman who says she won’t take crap off anyone but who melts when she sees a really cute butt. While Doris Betts, Anne Tyler, Suzanne Strempek Shea, Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, and Annie Proulx (add your favorite author to the list) offer some truly fantastic literature, that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking no-brainers, novels you can read in an afternoon if the little tykes will just leave you alone long enough, or, to put it simply, if everyone else has their basic wants and needs fulfilled and can maintain some level of independence for just a few hours. Call it what you will: At the beach reading, or while the baby naps reading, sitting in the parking lot waiting for Grover Junior to finish soccer practice reading, lunch break novels—definately not classic literature. It is moderately well-written, entertaining, and while it may go a long way toward insulting your intelligence, you give it permission to to take the road there.

Women’s fiction has no complicated plot construction. Basically, here’s what you get: A young woman, threatened by—gasp—the prospect of life without marriage or true love, decides she must a.) lose weight, b.) get a better job, c.) experience multiple orgasms, d.) learn to understand her family dynamic, e.) acquire a true love who wil eventually want to marry her. All these novels climax (get it?) with an amazing sexual foray of one kind or another, leading to true enlightenment.

Behold, my list of some such books.

Anna Maxted
Getting Over It
Running In Heels
In Getting Over It, Helen Bradshaw’s father dies suddenly of a massive heart attack. Helen, assistant editor for trendy GirlTime magazine, is floating along, skimming life’s surface like driftwood, changing direction according to the tide’s flow. At first she considers her father’s death an inconvenience, an interruption. They weren’t particularly close. We know, as we read, that she is in denial and that the death will soon disrupt and confound her entire life. She handles the changes with humor; making flip observations, sleeping with the wrong men, and denying the general disarray of her life.

The book has its flaws. Helen is not a particularly likeable character in the beginning. I found myself wanting to shake her and tell her to get her shit together. And each time she screws up her chances with Tom, the veterinarian she is truly destined to love, I wanted to just tell her to get over herself. Ahhh. That’s what the title means.

Maxted is truly funny. Running in Heels gives readers a humorous look at the lies women tell themselves and the consequences of the truth. Maxted writes with a frantic pace and I found myself trying to read as quickly as I could. Reading her books will leave you breathless, like you’re trying to catch up with her.

Mirian Keyes
Lucy Sullivan Gets Married Watermelon
Last Chance Saloon
Rachel’s Holiday
In the US, all are published under various HarperCollins imprints.
There’s a marvelous British publishing trend which involves women writers living on the dole, writing a break-through novel, and becoming incredibly wealthy. Mirian Keyes, is a recovering alcoholic who, just out of rehab, wrote a novel, got it published, wrote five more books, and became, within five years, the 62nd wealthiest woman in Great Britain.

Keyes novels read best chronologically backwards. Her first novels are wordy and a bit self-indulgent but still, all in all, totally a pleasurable experience. Reading Angels first will assure you of her ability to tell a great story. Her fantastic sense of humor matures and shines in this book. After Angels read the next four in order and witness her honing her craft. She’s just going to keep getting better and better.

Angels—my hands down favorite of Keye’s books—is one of the most clever books I’ve read in years. Keyes takes on LA culture with such a panache. Keyes has her formula for fiction. You know it when you’re reading it, know where the novel is headed, but it doesn’t stop you. You wait for those cliche’ moments, when the heroine finally gets the great sex she so well deserves, when the man in her life becomes all he can be, and the world turns on its proper axis. She’s a fun writer, entertaining and astute but not intellectually taxing.

Keye’s Last Chance Saloon adds a new twist to the formula by adding a dear friend of the heroine, a best friend with Hodgkin’s Disease who battles cancer and the common perception that, because he is ill and gay, he must be HIV-positive. Rachel’s Holiday is spent at Ireland’s answer to the Betty Ford Clinic, where Rachel encounters group therapists, learns self-knowledge, and, of course, comes face to face with the man of her dreams. Indulgent, entertaining fiction in which many women will find pieces of their lives and a sense of commonality, a thread of sameness.

Jojo Moyes
Sheltering Rain
William Morrow
A bit heavier than Maxted and Keyes, Moyes explores relationships in a more British upper-crust manner. Actually, it’s “manor”. She takes decidedly heavier tone with women’s fiction and this lends a bit of 19th century feel to the 21st century storyline. But, as with other women’s fiction, the heroine finds true love, has great sex, learns to get along with her mother, and finds out how to have a rewarding relationship with her teenage daughter.

Joanne Harris
Five Quarters of the Orange
Okay, this isn’t no-brainer fiction. I slipped this one in for the literary thrill of it. Another English novelist, well, actually she’s half-French, Joan Harris consistently delivers beyond the pale fiction. Fortunately readers were not disappointed when she followed her first book, Chocolat with Five Quarters of the Orange. Reading Harris is like spending leisure time with an old friend, sit back and let her tell you a story. Harris doesn’t really fall in the “women’s fiction” category, the formula fiction of Keyes, Maxted, or Moyes, but it’s hard to resist slapping a truly great book in this list of fun stuff.

I just received a review copy of Harris’ next book Coastliners to be released by William Morrow in September. It warrants a complete review, not a blurb in this booklist, so check back in a couple months for details about it. She’s doing a six-city author tour and is scheduled for Raleigh-Durham, so maybe I’ll get to see her.

Alisa Kwitney
The Dominant Blonde
Women’s fiction for the terminally inane and easily amused. For readers who resist cognitive thinking, rational plot development, and words with more than two syllables. Read this book if you don’t want to think, because, if you actually “thought” about it, your head would explode. Lydia, the main character, is “blonde and a size 10 for the first time in her life.” Oh, and she has really huge, magnificent, man-shattering boobs. So, when she goes on vacation with her boyfriend, life just gets better and better, despite the fact that the boyfriend drowns. But it’s okay, because Lydia gets to have raunchy sex with her true-dream-stud while they are both locked in a decompression room after a diving mishap. It’s all about the multiple orgasm, folks, and Lydia gets to have them standing on her head, lying down, back against the wall, you name it.

Debbie MacComber
Between Friends
Set in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it’s a story about the friendship between two women, Jillian Lawton and Leslie Adamski. Jillian-wealthy, Lesley- not. Lesley lives in hometown America, gets pregnant, marries, has unfaithful husband while Jillian goes to college and becomes an idealist in New York City. The book is produced in an interesting diary-type format. The clever layout adds to the book’s appeal. It’s probably one of the better plots of the books included on this summer list.

Marsha Moyer
The Second Coming of Lucy Hatch
William Morrow
To be released in August 2002, order ahead, be first in line to purchase it.
This is hands-down, slap your grandma, good reading. A great book. Truly entertaining. It maybe follow the formula but Moyer is a step or two ahead of the rest with her dead-on observations and strong characters.

Lucy’s husband Mitchell is killed while working on their farm. A sudden, violent death—we all know that farming is the most dangerous of all professions, at least that’s what I’ve read—Winston’s memory becomes tangled with Lucy’s idea of herself. The story winds around Lucy’s figuring out who she was when she was married, before marriage, and who she’s going to be now that Winston is gone. But it’s not a sad book. It’s a coming-into-yourself book of a woman, a welcome dialogue about being true to one’s self. Moyer, a new voice out of Texas, has a firm grip on plot and dialogue and I’m going to be the first one in line for her next novel.

Moyer goes where the insipid only dare to tread and serves as an excellent prototype for quick, funny women’s books. Reading Moyers takes the trite out of the women’s formula fiction. She’s got a sense of humor reminiscent of Clyde Edgerton with a dash of Doris Betts. Which reminds me, if ya’ll haven’t read Edgerton’s Red Dog like I told you to last summer, get it now and read it this year.

While I was in Barnes and Nobles last week, patrons were asked to give a round of applause for Tom Speight, who just completed reading seven books of his personal summer reading list. Tom, probably nine years old, stood beside his mother in the check-out line, just ahead of me and beamed gloriously as an entire store full of grown-ups stopped mid-stride and clapped. Everyone congratulated him. An older gentleman walked up to the boy’s mother and gave her a $5 bill, I kid you not, and said, “Here, buy Tom another book.”

What a classic moment. Now, can’t we do that for ourselves? Grownups, attention please. “Little ol’ Eloise Prescott, aged 39, just finished book number nine of her summer reading list. Let’s all give her a big ol’ round of applause.” Read this summer, escape into the unknown.

Next week: Another kind of women’s fiction, the literary variety . . .

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