As school’s nearly out, here are my top three holiday reads of all time:
- Fear of Flying by Erica Jong (which I read in Fuerteventura, 1995)
- The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (New Zealand, 2000)
- And… last but not least… Lace, by Shirley Conran (Cornwall, 1999).
If you’ve never read Lace, you’re in luck, because according to this week’s Grazia it’s being re-released this summer. So now a whole new generation of readers will meet Maxine, Kate, Judy and Pagan, and Lili, the film star who gathers them together in New York in 1978, and demands to know: ‘Which one of you bitches is my mother?’
There’s lots of glamour and wealth in this novel but a hard edge too; it doesn’t shy away from the sordid, though it doesn’t luxuriate in it either. It’s a big fat page-turning saga, with much more of a sense of history and place than you might expect, given its reputation as a bonkbuster; there is a whole lot more to it than sex. Its characters don’t just wear beautiful clothes and pursue high-flying careers; they belong to their times, and the times shape their lives.
The brief prelude, featuring a thirteen-year-old Lili, is pretty grim, and gives you just enough of a glimpse of her tough past for you to understand why she is so hostile when she meets the four women later on. And then you’re swept back to a Swiss finishing school in 1948, to meet the four women in the early days of their friendship, already with some foreknowledge of the troubles that lies ahead… I hope that makes it sound like a good read. It is!
Big 1980s reads: A Woman of Substance and The Thorn Birds
Lace came out in 1982, though I didn’t read it till much later. The book that made most impression on me around the time Lace was published was Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance, which came out in 1979.
A Woman of Substance charts the long climb of Emma Harte from poverty and shame to wealth and power – at a price. She is unmarried, pregnant and still in her teens when she leaves her job as a maid at Fairley Hall in Yorkshire, but goes on to build up a vast international business empire and take her revenge on the lover who let her down. Now there’s a satisfying story arc – none of this business of marriage being the most a girl can aspire to.
That driving ambition is mainly what I remember about it. Emma Harte doesn’t have all that much luck with her men, and her children turn out to be a quarrelsome bunch, but she doesn’t let disaster lay her low; she comes back fighting and goes all the way to the top, and her motto is, ‘to endure’.
And then, of course, there’s Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, published in 1977. The Australian outback! The priest! The scene where Meggie has to have all her hair cut off! The dress the colour of ashes of roses! Forbidden love! Why hasn’t someone filmed it? It’s nearly 20 years since the telly mini-series with Richard Chamberlain. You know what, I might just have to go track it down and read it again.