1. John Irving: A Prayer for Owen Meany
I do feel that, when it comes to dating, I should simply ask potential Mr Underscores to read and review this book. A love of Owen Meany, Nick Cave's Boatman's Call, Yorkshire tea bags and 6 Feet Under are positive indicators of innate compatibility. I'm not going to try to sell the book to you - I shall simply say that you will laugh till you weep and that the ending will leave you dumbstruck. The book is not perfect. To be frank, a good editor would have culled a hundred pages or so, but even that doesn't tarnish my obsession.
My ex, Son of Satan, who had the temerity to impregnate a German illegal immigrant whilst (supposedly) being in love with me, gave his mini-kraut offspring the middle name of 'Owen' as a tribute to the book's charismatic anti-hero. My Dad was a big fan of Owen Meany too. I have fond memories of him sitting in the garden in his Woody Allen hat and baggy cords, smiling to himself as he read it. I re-read A Prayer for Owen Meany every two years or so, and I never seem to tire of it. It is such a big-hearted book, full of warmth, hope and love.
2. Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird
A close second. I think it is the domestic storyline of this book that I identify with so much - that of motherless little tomboy Scout's childhood: her battles with her brother, the frosty and disapproving aunties and her total adoration of her wise, principled yet distant father. I've always had a fascination with all things 'Deep South' too - I would love to spend a month or so exploring the south. To Kill a Mockingbird is beautifully written, there is a lyrical innocence to Scout's narrative, but it also has a pleasingly eerie touch of Southern Gothic (a genre I adore). Harper Lee herself is such a modest and gently romantic character - writing one perfect book and then retiring to her Alabama porch, eschewing all publicity. I like that. It has such dignity and humility, I think.
3. Dodie Smith: I Capture the Castle
This is a nostalgic choice. I have adored this book since I was about 14. Its protagonist is Cassandra Mortmain, is a dreamy and romantic girl who lives with her eccentric family in a crumbling, ruined castle. Despite the lush setting, it is an impoverished and dreary existence until two wealthy brothers move to the village. Cassandra adores both of them (ahhh, how prophetic). But, in a cruel twist of fate, the brother she truly loves does not feel the same way about her. He falls for Cassandra's enchantingly beautiful, yet shallow sister, Rose. The book captures the exquisite growing pains of first love and it is full of luminously beautiful descriptions of the English countryside. Cassandra is a charming and witty narrator. I read the book again recently, and found it darker than I remembered (that may be the whole 'brother' thing) This is another book with a bittersweet ending, but a hopeful one, I think.
'I love you. I love you. I love you.'
Well, that was my top three. These are other favourites (in no particular order).
4. Daphne Du Maurier: My Cousin Rachel
I have often wondered why this dark, sinister and twisted tale is so overlooked. Du Maurier considered this to be her best work, but it exists very much in the shadow of Rebecca. The protagonist, Philip, falls in love with Rachel, the widow of his benefactor cousin. Philip initially suspects that Rachel murdered his cousin, by poisoning him with laburnum. However, despite these fears, the plain and quite severe Rachel begins to cast an almost hypnotic spell over Philip - he becomes utterly obsessed with her. Then, after signing over his estate to Rachel, Philip too begins to fall ill. Is she poisoning him too? The book holds you enthralled to the very last page. It is about time someone made a film of this book.
5. F Scott Fitzgerald: Tender is the Night
Ah! A vivid, beautiful tale of doomed love and mental illness set amongst the idle rich in the South of France in the 1920s. This is allegedly based on Scott and Zelda's own marriage, which makes it all the more fascinating. I love it. I read it in the summer term of my last year of university, when I was quite obsessed with a boy whose name I can no longer remember. I remember ripping a page out of the book and slipping it under his door one night. I do recall he was a Geology student, so the romantic gesture and the lyrical poeticism of the text were probably wasted on the chino wearing, cider drinking, rock-obsessed cove.
'Tangled with love in the moonlight she welcomed the anarchy of her lover.'
6. Nancy Mitford: Love in a Cold Climate/ The Pursuit of Love
I am fascinated with the Mitford girls - all of them. I'm reading these books again at the moment. Witty, wry and utterly charming. I can't help but identify with Linda's unfailing ability to always fall for the wrong man. Until, of course, she meets french fanny rat, Frabrice.
"But she was filled with a strange, wild, unfamiliar happiness and she knew she knew that this was love. Twice in her life she had mistaken something else for it: it was like seeing somebody in the street who you think is a friend. You whistle and wave and run after him and it is not only not the friend, but not even very like him. A few minutes later, when the real friend appears in view, you can't imagine how you ever mistook that other person for him. Linda was now looking at the authentic face of love, and she knew it, and it frightened her. "
7. Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina
First read when I was 17 and read only once, but the story has always haunted me. More doomed love. There is certainly a recurring theme to my favourite books.
8. Elizabeth Jane Howard: The Cazalet Chronicles
A fascinating series of books charting the tangled lives of an upper/middle class English family between the wars. I moved into this house in a bitter, bleak Northern December. The place was a ruin, had no heating, only lukewarm water and piercing drafts in every room. My dad bought me an electric blanket. It was the only source of warmth and comfort I had. (Amazingly, I lived like that for almost 2 years). Anyway, I had also just discovered these books. I would go to bed early, snuggle down into my bed piled with vintage eiderdowns and cosy up with the Cazlets. It was heaven.
9. Maggie O'Farrell: After You'd Gone
Another book that captures the magic of falling in love, and the utter despair of losing it.
10. Jane Austen: Persuasion
Generally, I am not an Austen fan. I find her writing a little snippy and shallow. But, this, her last novel, seems to have a much sadder, darker more introspective style. It is about lost love, missed opportunities. There is a simplicity about Persuasion that I adore - this is often attributed to the fact that Austen was ill when she wrote the book, and consequently did not have the energy for constant re-writes and editing.
Persuasion tells the story of Anne, a woman of 27, who is considered to be a 'spinster', as she never married. Anne is haunted with regret, as years before she unwillingly turned down the love of her life, as he was deemed to be an unsuitable and unworthy match. Years later, her beloved turns up again and Anne is consumed with longing for him. Sadly, he seems utterly contemptuous of her.
There was a terribly understated and moving version of Persuasion filmed recently, with the wonderful Sally Hawkins. Click here for the trailer.