My mother and I reading a book- the same book, just as it so happens- circa 2013 or earlier.
I’ve missed books this past month. My courseloads have been heavy since day one, and up until now finishing my schoolwork has taken up almost all of my free time. Having the freedom to once again do whatever I want with my evenings is a little hard to wrap my head around sometimes. I can curl up with a book for forty-five minutes without the thought of impending homework hanging over my head! Now that I have books back in my life, I have time to write again. It’s hard to describe the joy these two things bring me.
As I get older, I’ve started to develop a similar taste in books as my mom. We tend to like female-voiced contemporary novels, ones that fall into the genre of Women’s Fiction. Our reading habits are semi-similar, too. Both of us need to alternate between genres when reading; for example, we can’t read two historical fiction books back-to-back. As a result of having similar tastes in books, my mom and I often end up reading books that the other has read previously. Therefore it comes as no surprise that we have quite a few mutually agreed-upon favourites. This post delves into a few that we both think are pretty darn good.
The Marriage Bureau: True Stories of 1940s London Match-Makers by Penrose Halson:
Photo Credit: amazon.ca
One of the many benefits of working at a library is coming into contact with a wide variety of books. For example, Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War may share a shelving cart with DIY leather-working manuals and Neil Patrick Harris’ autobiography. Such a wide selection allows me to discover dozens of interesting new books, such as The Marriage Bureau: True Stories of 1940s London Match-Makers.
This non-fiction book tells the story of London’s first marriage bureau. Basically the 20th-century equivalent of dating apps, people out of luck with love could register with a marriage bureau and meet eligible singles who shared similar interests and lifestyles. For example, a wealthier woman might request to meet men who enjoyed hunting, or a widower could ask to meet women who were patient and liked children. Founded in London in 1938 by Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver, this marriage bureau helped over three hundred couples tie the knot. And what truly amazes me? Only three of those three hundred unions resulted in divorce! I love real-life love stories and the early-to-mid 20th century, so I ended up really enjoying this book. Each successful match made my heart happy; the often comedic roads to love made me chuckle. The label on The Marriage Bureau‘s cover recommends it to fans of Downton Abbey, The Crown, and Call The Midwife. I know some of you fit that description!
My mom likes love stories, too, and eagerly picked this book up once I’d finished reading it. It certainly has her seal of approval! When I originally placed a hold on The Marriage Bureau, the librarian handing it to me asked if the book was for my mom. Nope! Just a teenager who’s already hooked on period romances.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer:
Speaking of period romances (actually, all three of the books in this post are period romances), I enjoyed this period romance so much that I put it on my Christmas list. Another library find, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a fictional story told entirely through letters. These letters document the relationship between a book club on the British island of Guernsey and a writer named Juliet. Fascinated by the book club’s strange name and the story of its founding during the German occupation in WW2, Juliet begins regularly corresponding with its members. What started as plain curiosity grows into a series of newfound friendships as Juliet finds in Guernsey an idea for a book, a family, and love.
Lovers of reading will find themselves among kindred spirits in this book. Reading sets the foundation of each character’s interactions, whether discussing a favourite author or the impact the Literary Society had on them. It truly is a celebration of books and the ways they see us through the darkest of times. The book aspect aside, the plot would be equally entertaining on its own. I loved getting to spend time with and learn about Juliet through her letters, as I often find that written correspondence reveals more about a person than the spoken word. Letters allow the writer and their recipient to be more intimate than a normal conversation would allow. Many memorable moments are spontaneous, but a thoughtful anectdote or phrase will make a lasting impression because of the effort that went into crafting the perfect sentence. And just like texting, it’s often easier to confess secrets when we know that the person isn’t standing right in front of us. By the time they reply, they’ll have had time to mull over what we’ve said and respond with a level head instead of whatever first comes to mind. Through the letters Literary Society members exchange with Juliet, we can gleam more about their relationships than a narrator could have told us. It’s the little things- casual inside jokes, increasingly affectionate letters, an observation from someone looking in- that show us what the characters really mean to each other. Each character has a distinct writing style and personality that makes the letters-only format enjoyable instead of monotonous. At times you do have to imagine a bit of context, but it only makes sense since the characters know each other far better than we ourselves know them. The ending of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is really sweet, and if you’ve stayed for the entire book you’ll be satisfied with Juliet’s happy ever after.
There is a movie adaptation of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society on Netflix, but I haven’t watched it all the way through because it’s not the best book-to-screen adaptation I’ve seen. I understand that it must have been hard to turn the letters and all they reveal into a cohesive plot, but in doing so much of the book was reduced to the cutting room floor. It may be better to watch if you haven’t read the book at all. It stars Lily James and has a good plot (just not one that entirely matches the book it was based off of), and would have otherwise been right up my alley.
Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen:
Photo Credit: Goodreads
One summer when I was around nine years old, my mom took my sister and I to swim at our hotel’s pool. My sister announced that she had to go to the bathroom not long after we’d gotten in. Seeing as we were the only people using the pool, my mom said that I could wait there as long as I promised that I wouldn’t go in the water until they came back. They went back up to our hotel room, and I quickly became very bored. My mom’s book- a grown-up book- still sat on her deck chair. With nothing to lose I picked it up and began reading. Though I didn’t make it very far before they came back, the mental image of someone in the book splitting a person’s head open like a watermelon has stayed with me ever since. When I discovered the vacation book, Water For Elephants, about six years later, I decided to read it and finally learn the entire story. This is what I found.
In the midst of the Great Depression, aspiring veterinarian Jacob’s final exam before earning his degree is disrupted by the news that his parents have been killed in an automobile accident. Distraught, Jacob hops a train and discovers that the train in question belongs to a circus, who eagerly signs him on as their new veterinarian. Working with the animals introduces Jacob to Marlena, a talented performer unhappily married to a husband prone to constant mood swings. Forbidden feelings bloom between Jacob and Marlena against the backdrop of the circus and its financial difficulties. Switching narration between young Jacob and an elderly Jacob living in a Seniors Home, Water For Elephants is a rich story filled with heart that paints an intricate picture of the days of the Great American Circuses.
Though I was initially disappointed by how little I remembered of its first few pages, I ended up grateful that I stuck with it. Water For Elephants is one of those books that is impossible to put down. There’s little violence (don’t worry, that whole “split their head open like a watermelon” thing is an isolated incident) and the plot isn’t always action-packed, so it must be the writing style and the characters that captivated me so. One of my favourite characters was Jacob because he genuinely cared about others and the animals under his care. He felt conflicted about his feelings for Marlena, but he wasn’t annoying in his what do I do stages and acted when he saw an opening. (But I also knew beforehand that Robert Pattison played Jacob in the movie adaptation of Water For Elephants, so that may have clouded my judgement.) The allure of the “Great American Circus” served as an interesting landscape for the plot to play out on. Even I wanted to join the circus when I was little, drawn to visions of acrobats, lions, and magic underneath the Big Top. This book gives me that opportunity by taking me behind the curtains of a circus during their heyday. All in all, I’d say that choosing to read a “grown-up book” when I was little to pass the time wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
My family has a special relationship with books. We fill our bookshelves with bright colours, talk up our favourites to each other over dinner, and never take a vacation without stopping at a library along the way. Getting someone to read a book you’ve recommended and then having them enjoy the book as much as you did forges a special bond between the two of you. You’re part of an awesome members-only club that you now get to share with someone you love. Sharing these three books with my mom makes the relationship between us that much stronger. I can’t wait to see which books we’ll discover next.
(Since I first drafted this post back in the Fall, I can now add The Toronto Book of the Dead and The Toronto Book of Love to that list, as my mom tackled the first book in the summer and is finishing the second as I type this. The author of those two books, Adam Bunch, releases a weekly newsletter about Toronto’s history that I highly recommend. Topics range from Toronto’s first post office to the real “De Grassi” kids to the background of the man who designed the Eaton Centre. All of his weekly entries are clear, concise, witty, and very informative. You can check out his website at adambunch.com to see a sample if you’re interested. Speaking of history, I’m hoping to start writing posts about Canadian history to get myself back into the habit of posting more regularly. If there are any topics you’d like me to research, let me know in the comments!)