Here's what I love about reading: There will always be good books to read out there if you just know where to find them. I've used Pinterest, Goodreads, and even Instagram to find my next read, and recently my efforts led me to a New York Times Bestselling novel published in 1978 that had otherwise completely escaped my notice.
The Passing Bells Trilogy by Philip Rock starts out feeling a little too much like Downton Abbey. It honestly felt as if Julian Fellowes had created Downton based on Abingdon Pryory! And while I enjoyed Downton Abbey (and watched every episode), The Passing Bells could never be mistaken for a soap opera, as Downton often was. While there is romance and the development of beautiful, enduring relationships, that is not what these books are about. They are about real life, real love, and the effects of time and history. As you follow each character's experiences and point of view, they become real to the reader, representing not only a bygone time, but also the lives of the people who experienced our history firsthand. The writing is artful, and the descriptions, especially of wartime, were simply powerful.
The first book takes places during WWI, the second between the two wars, and the third during WWII. The author's portrayal of the Great War and the men who fought and died in the trenches was genuine and enlightening. I realized in those pages how little I knew about the first World War and how much my interest in WWII literature had overshadowed this important part of our history. Since I finished the trilogy, I've been learning more about it. I started by watching American Experience: The Great War on Amazon Prime (which I highly recommend) and reading a classic: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.
"This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war."
I am embarrassed to say that I'd never read Remarque's classic wartime novel before, and I think it is a mistake that it was not taught at my high school! Told from the perspective of young men who enlisted in the German army, I can absolutely understand why it is known as "the greatest war novel of all time." The author captures the terror or war right alongside the humanity of the soldiers. I've never read literature that so eloquently showed the devastating, needless loss of life or the hypocrisy of war and the stark contrast of trying to live life one day and fight at the front on the next. It's just an incredible, heartbreaking, powerful story, the kind that will change your life for having read it.
"He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence:
All quiet on the Western Front.
He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come."
I've loved Natasha Solomons since I read The House at Tyneford back in 2012 (a book I credit with getting me on the path of readership I am on today), but this book was something else entirely. House of Gold by Natasha Solomons follows a wealthy Jewish family (modeled after the Rothschilds) in the years leading up to and during WWI. I simply cannot imagine the amount of heart that must have gone into writing this book, especially concerning the treatment of Jews throughout Europe during the time period and the specifics of the money markets and political turbulence. It was so well researched that the characters truly came alive and their stories became real.
I just finished reading Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro, a powerful story well told and artfully woven into the history of genealogy, DNA testing, and early fertility medicine, and the whole time I was reading it, I kept thinking of my own recent discoveries about my family history.
My Nana was adopted as an infant, and knew very little about where she came from. She passed away several years ago, but her story always felt like it was part of my own, and I wanted to know more. We had a last name, a place of birth, a story of two sisters both giving up their daughters for adoption. It didn't seem like a lot to go off of on its own, but then we added DNA testing.
A friend of mine was able to help me interpret the results we had on Ancestry.com, leading right to my Nana's biological mother, Margaret. I will always remember coming across a picture of Florence, Margaret's sister, and seeing a family resemblance so strong that I was moved to tears. It really was like discovering a missing piece of myself.
Not long after we made those initial discoveries, my aunt forwarded me a message she had received on Ancestry from my Nana's biological cousin.
"I see that you have a match with Margaret, my father's sister. I know the basic story about [your mom] and her adoption. Would love to connect with you for stories and pictures..."
We started corresponding through email and over the phone, and she sent me pictures and shared stories that I had to remind myself belonged in part to me as well.
"We all carry inside us, people who came before us." -Liam Callanan
There are still a lot of missing pieces to the puzzle. Nana's biological father remains a mystery as well as the motives that led to her adoption. I recently sent a letter to a woman who we suspect to be Nana's half-sister, and I am excited to see what will come of that as well. But it is still incredible how much more we know now than we did just a few short months ago.
I can't necessarily explain why it matters so much to me that I can look into the eyes of these people who came before me and learn more about my origins. I haven't felt any sense of change in my identity, and I'll never know the full story or be able to meet my ancestors in person, but it's still a part of who I am. And they are faces and stories that belong to my family and my history.
Middlemarch by George Eliot is a novel I have started and abandoned multiple times in my life, but this turned out to be the year when I finally read it cover to cover, all 900 and some odd pages! I'm a much more seasoned reader than I was the last time I attempted it, but it still took me a good, long while. This time was different as well because I came a cross a book called My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, and I thought to myself, if this woman can love Middlemarch as much as I love Pride and Prejudice, I certainly ought to give it a go! I ended up reading both, starting one before my California trip and finishing the other after our New York Trip, but although it was quite a time commitment, it was truly well worth it.
"But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."
-the final sentence of Middlemarch
The whole time I was reading Middlemarch, I was in complete awe of Eliot's command of the human experience. Labeled a "Study of Provincial Life," it perfectly depicts the breadth of humanity in terms that make the characters relatable, even today. The author has such a strong command of characters that you recognize them and completely buy into the reality she creates. And what's more, it's as if Eliot herself acts as the omniscient narrator, and her pearls of wisdom offered as commentary on the story are true to life and so incredibly perceptive.
I will say that this is not a book to read if you're looking for romance- it's really the opposite of the "marriage plot," and instead of being an escape, it often demands personal introspection. And don't even think about watching the 1994 Middlemarch miniseries in an attempt to get the gist of the book without reading it--it tries to force romance that it isn't there and completely misses the genius of George Eliot in the process!
So I ended up loving Middlemarch, but it's 900 pages long--I couldn't really expect anyone else to read it based on my recommendation just so I could have someone to discuss it with. That's why I am so glad I read My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead as soon as I was finished.
It felt like I had my own little book club with Mead and Eliot and we became friends through the process of "discussing" the book together. The author writes in a way that is autobiographical of her own life, discussing her reactions to the book and its influence on her life, but she also includes sufficient biographical information about George Eliot to add meaning to Middlemarch and answer questions about her influences and inspiration. Here are some of the insights Mead shares that resonate perfectly with how I felt reading the book AND how I feel as a reader:
"Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it's a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself... There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree."
"She makes middlemarchers of us all."
"...and as all our loves, realized or otherwise--all our alternative plots--go to make us who we are, and become part of what we make."
"This notion--that we each have our own center of gravity, but must come to discover that others weigh the world differently than we do--is one that is constantly repeated in the book. The necessity of growing out of such self-centeredness it the theme of Middlemarch"
"Even so, all readers make books over in their own image, and according to their own experience. My Middlemarch is not the same as anyone else's Middlemarch; it is not even the same as my Middlemarch of twenty-five years ago. Sometimes, we find that a book we love has moved another person in the same ways as it has moved ourselves, and one definition of compatibility might be when two people have highlighted the same passages in their editions of a favorite novel."
Have you read it? And if not, are you considering it now?
What is your defining classic?
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
221 years ago, in August of 1797, Jane Austen completed her first manuscript, titled First Impressions, but it would be 15 more years before that the book was finally published. We know it today as Pride and Prejudice.
I think of that book with something akin to reverence. Her wit and determination as a writer have inspired me throughout my life, and I am drawn to the story and characters. It truly doesn't matter how many times I've seen the movie or read the book, I'm ready for more. Always. I love it like my mother and grandmother loved it before me, and it's part of who I am as much as any memory of my own. That's why I keep reading Pride and Prejudice fiction, why I keep going back for more.
And since this month is significant for P&P fans and I just finished reading yet another Pride and Prejudice retelling, I am providing you with my list of favorite P&P fiction with the hope that you'll get as much enjoyment out of it as I have. But while I consider myself to be a pretty fair and trustworthy critic when it comes to books, I should warn you- I have enjoyed almost every book of Pride & Prejudice fiction that I have ever read, even if the writing itself is actually subpar. I can't help it! I never want the story to be over and I miss the characters like old friends.
“Confession: I have read Pride and Prejudice two hundred times. I get lost in the language, words like: Thither. Mischance. Felicity. I am always in agony over whether Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are really going to get together. Read it! I know you’ll love it.” -Kathleen Kelly, You've Got Mail
Only Mr. Darcy Will Do by Kara Louise
What if Mr. Bennet died before Elizabeth ever went to Pemberley with her aunt and uncle Gardiner? That's the angle of Only Mr. Darcy Will Do, and it does provide for very interesting speculation. But of all the Pride and Prejudice retellings that I have read, this was probably the most poorly written. The author didn't even attempt to match Jane Austen's voice and her storyline was painfully predictable. And while I usually wish I could stay with Darcy and Elizabeth just a bit longer and see how their lives go on after Wickham and Longbourne and their I do's with Jane and Bingley, this book had me ready for the story to end well before it finally did. And yet, in spite of all of that, I loved it.
This isn't a book you'll find easily, but you can borrow my copy or get a used one cheap online. And if you still want to read it despite my honest and harsh review, I think you and I are made of the same stuff :)
Other Pride & Prejudice Sequels, Spin-offs and Retellings
I've created a Pride and Prejudice fiction bookshelf with a list of other titles you might consider, but here are my top three:
Unequal Affections by Lara S. Ormiston | Retelling. Perhaps my favorite new Pride and Prejudice novel. I happened upon it in that article titled "The Very Best Pride & Prejudice Books: Spinoffs, Sequels, and Retellings." Of all the recommended books, this one caught my eye. The very idea of getting to see Darcy and Elizabeth court and change and fall in love is exactly what I missed so much in the classic original. Pride and Prejudice is by far the superior novel, but this retelling made the girl in me who grew up with P&P just giddy.
The story veers from the classic at Darcy's first proposal- What if Elizabeth had been so shocked by his feelings, that she immediately began to question all of their interactions and her judgments of him? If you can accept that Lizzy would have been able to suppress her passionate outburst that followed Darcy's condescending proposal, the rest of the story offers an alternative in which we see the characters go through some serious self-reflection. I especially love how metacognitive the author's portrayal is. From the perspective of the characters, we see their thought processes, their paradigm shifts, and their realizations. We see their concessions and their hopes and fears and motivations. We see them fall in love, and it's perfect.
Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James | Sequel. I've read a lot of P&P fiction- This one was a fun variation because it was a murder mystery. I thought the author was very true to the original story and to Jane Austen's style of writing... BUT the story wasn't very captivating. It was interesting to gain perspective on how trials were handled during that time period and to see more of the etiquette and propriety expected as well. I enjoyed how the lives of our friends at Pemberley briefly and unexpectedly intertwined with the Elliots from Persuasion and the Knightleys from Emma. I was glad to catch up with all the original characters, but wasn't very intrigued by the murder mystery. I do love the Masterpiece Classics miniseries of the same title (available on Netflix!).
Austenland by Shannon Hale | Spin-off. Chick lit for modern Jane Austen fans. A woman obsessed with Mr. Darcy has a once in a lifetime opportunity at an immersive Jane Austen resort. She gets to live in the big house, wear the empire waisted gowns, and the whole experience will end with a ball. And we get to live vicariously through her, because what P&P fan hasn't dreamed of living the life of a regency heroine?
And you have to love the author's dedication: "For Colin Firth. You're a great guy, but I'm married, so I think we should just be friends." :)
The Houseguest: A Pride and Prejudice Vagary by Elizabeth Adams | Retelling. What if Georgiana Darcy had met Darcy at Netherfield and befriended Elizabeth Bennet early on? Elizabeth Adams shows how this one small change could have changed much of the storyline for Elizabeth and Darcy. The story started out slow, as if it took the author a while to find her voice or get her momentum going. But once the retelling started to stand on its own feet, it really became a fun read! Perspective changes between characters, allowing insight into Elizabeth, Darcy, and even Caroline Bingley's point of view. The ending and epilogue are just the closure P&P fans are looking for. Loved it, and finished with a smile on my face!
And if you like these types of books, may I just recommend Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson? It was both a little bit cheesy and often predictable, but it's the perfect book if you're looking for an easy regency romance with a happily ever after (no P&P strings attached).
P&P Baby Books
And just because it's never too early...
When I was younger, my mother liked to plant Impatiens along the walk to our front door. My grandma had large Gardenia bushes in her backyard, and the smell of them always reminds me of her. Bougainvillea, Hydrangeas, Peonies, Ranunculus- Every flower has a different smell, every flower as a different meaning, and I love how the look and the smell of a flower can mean something different to everyone, recalling memories and linked so close with emotion.
We've had more flowers in the house than usual this year, but I'd certainly love to make it a more regular occurrence! I love the way they brighten up a room and they way they make me feel. That's probably why I loved Cut Flower Garden by Erin Benzakein so much. It's the most beautiful how-to book that teaches you how to grow, harvest, and arrange your own blooms in season. So naturally it looks like we're going to need room for my extensive flower beds in addition to all of the other plants and animals we've dreamed up for our Autumn Meadow Farm :)
I came across her book thanks to an article in the summer issue of The Magnolia Journal. Erin seemed like a girl after my own heart- she had an idea about growing flowers and went straight to the library to check out every book she could find about them. And the results of her research and hard work are absolutely stunning! She shares all of her secrets in her book AND you can even get seeds for the flowers you fall in love with through her website, Floret Flowers. Erin strikes me as someone who is curious and brave and kind. Reading her books makes you feel like you can be all of those things too and grow your own beautiful flower garden while you're at it.
“There is something magical about experiencing an entire year through flowers... I find I’m much more present in the moment and connected to the seasonal shifts going on around me.” -Erin Benzakein
I also read A Memory of Violets by Hazel Gaynor around this same time, perhaps because I was dreaming of flowers and the idea of a book about London's famed flower sellers seemed like the right fit. The idea for the novel stems from the Crippleage & Flower Girls Mission in London (established in 1866), a charity set up to save the destitute girls in the city who were barely surviving off of their meager flower sales. Going into the book, I had visions of My Fair Lady in my head and a keen interest in learning more about the history of the flower markets in London, but I'm afraid the story wasn't very well executed- always a disappointment when the concept is so intriguing.
For the time being, I'm elbow deep in bouquets of herbs, searching daily for any raspberries that are ready to eat right off of the vine, and patiently waiting for our garlic to dry and cure so I can braid and hang it. The tomatoes are green, the carrots and peppers are almost ready, and thoughts of flowers seem reserved for next spring... or at least until another bright bunch catches my eye while I'm out and about :) But that does give me nearly a year to plan out my flower garden and start saving for all the seeds I have my eye on at Floret Flowers!
Back to one of my favorite genres! And, not surprisingly, I enjoyed each of these four books. Even if you don't typically go for a WWII novel, any of these books would be a good place to start.
We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
I had the hardest time getting into this book, but not because it wasn't well written. We Were the Lucky Ones was the first WWII historical fiction book I read after Annie was born, and I was surprised by how these characters and their stories affected me as I read them from the perspective of a mother. I had to take it slow at first, but I'm so glad I kept at it because this is the kind of story that will stick with me. It is based on true events experienced by the author's own family and their experiences under Poland's German (and Russian) occupation, as refugees, working in Siberian labor camps, living in Ghettos, working with the resistance, enlisting with the allies, and ultimately overcoming it all. It is powerful, moving, and absolutely uplifting- a new favorite for sure. And the author also has a website and blog where she goes into more detail about the historical elements of her story, which is absolutely worth exploring after you finish the book.
The War that SAved My Life and The War I Finally Won