Book Review | The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

The Most Fun We Ever Had is an expansive, immersive look at a suburban, midwestern family over the span of almost five decades. David and Marilyn meet in college, get married, and somewhere along the way find themselves with four daughters; Wendy, strong-willed, witty, resilient; Violet, dedicated, stubborn, straight-laced; Liza, intelligent, introspective, likeable, and Grace, the baby of the family, who is still struggling to find her place in it all.

The world at large is largely absent from this novel, which is very much an interior look at a life without the interference of political, geographical or social concerns. That comes in part, no doubt, from being white, middle-class and monied, and so in a privileged position to distance yourself from external concerns. But this isn’t a criticism of the novel; it’s clear that the lack of a world beyond their own is very much a deliberate choice, and a choice that allows us to take a deep dive into their family life. Lombardo writes with such profound insight on the dynamics of families and particularly the bonds between sisters, but also between couples and parents and their children.

David and Marilyn are, in the eyes of their children – and of those around them – an untouchable couple. Profoundly in love, steadfastly committed over the decades, they set an impossible ideal for their daughters. Lombardo writes about their commitment to each other with such introspective, tender insight, that although it is a narrative trope that is mentioned numerous times throughout the novel, you never get tired of hearing about it.

‘He knew from that second that he would love their children with an inexpressible ferocity. And it only became easier, surprisingly, when they emerged from the womb and started to grow into little people. But he loved Marilyn more. He’d accepted this early on. Each one of his children was a singular, baffling miracle, a joy, an utter delight. But they came from Marilyn.’

But over the course of the novel, whilst their unwavering love for each other remains just that, we come to know it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Life happens in all of its messiness – miscommunications, disconnects, outside temptations. The Sorensons are perhaps an ideal couple, but they have been through tumultuous and testing times.

Lombardo transitions between different third-person perspectives of all the protagonists, which at first was hard to get used to, but as you learn more about the characters, it feels almost seamless. The girls – now young women – talk with candour about crafting a path for themselves in adulthood, while the seemingly untenable ideal of their parent’s love is never far behind them. Over the course of the novel, everyone undergoes their own struggle, struggles that we are privy to through intricate and profound detail.

‘Perhaps all of these moments had to be orchestrated. Perhaps all that adulthood was was repeatedly going through the motions, trying out different arrangements and occasionally landing in cinematic tableaus such as this one.’

This is an epic book, at over 500 pages long, and it feels long, but in a good way. This isn’t a pacy, plot-driven narrative. There isn’t any grit, or twists and turns. But it is nuanced, emotional, and expansive. It’s an impressive debut, that’s for sure. You’ll end the novel feeling like you’ve known this family all your life.

‘It was striking how much less alone that could make you feel, because of course to be peopled at all was a high-order gift, but to find people beyond your people was nothing short of miraculous, finding a person away from home who felt like home and shifted, subsequently, the very notion of home, widening its borders.’

Book Review | The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West

In an essay collection that has the dexterity to be both funny and devastating, Lindy West lays bare the current American cultural climate as one that is built on centuries-old misogyny and toxic masculinity.

The book covers a lot more ground than I was expecting, deviating a long way from the initial premise that gives it its (apt) name. Here, the witches are not the poor, blameless women, slaughtered en masse in an act of mass hysteria in 17th century Salem, but the “poor, blameless” men who can’t put a toe out of line without being set upon full force by the “PC brigade.” And when I say ‘put a toe out of line,’ I mean spout their sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, rhetoric. Because being called out for at best inappropriate and at worst actively violent behaviour is, folks, a witch hunt. Now that’s oppression!

In her opening anecdote, West talks about how her husband sat at a bar one night, while the guy next to him lamented the fact that he couldn’t go dance to his favourite song – banned all because a few nights prior he was persistently grinding on a woman, there with her friends, without her consent. Can’t men even talk to a woman now without being accused of predatory behaviour? My heart bleeds.

And the next logical step in this American horror story is to turn to the commander in chief, President Donald Trump. Trump isn’t, sadly, some kind of random outlier, he is instead an embodiment of ‘apoplectic masculinity itself,’ emblematic of so many men we all have had the misfortune of meeting. He puts a frightening, powerful face to so many of our stories.

‘Every woman knows a version of Donald Trump. Most of us have known more of them than we can or care to recall. He’s the boss who thinks you owe him something. The date who thinks that silence means yes and no means try harder. The stranger who thinks your body’s mere existence constitutes an invitation to touch, take, own and destroy. He’s every deadbeat hook-up, every narcissistic  loser, every man who’s ever tried to leverage power, money, fame, credibility, or physical strength to snap your boundaries like matchsticks.’

In a particularly powerful passage in a later essay, West renders the contemporary American right-wing identity as inextricable from toxic masculinity, the right as the true ‘stewards’ of America, where caring about the environment (e.g. the mocking refrain of the “pathetic liberal obsession” with saving the whales) to caring fundamentally about each other, as all societies should inherently do (why does this even need to be said?) is rendered ‘effeminate and therefore despicable.’

‘If you train people to scoff at community and stewardship,  attending to the needs of others, yes, but also for advocating for oneself – you can do whatever you want to them and they will not complain. You can strip away their ability to earn a living wage, to send their kids to college, to retire. You can undermine their most sacred values. You can allow children to be massacred and they’ll weep for the guns. This is toxic masculinity at its most pitiful.’

‘You can allow children to be massacred and they’ll weep for the guns.’ Let’s just let that sink in for one moment.

By and large, West isn’t saying anything new or anything that isn’t already part of the modern liberal feminist zeitgeist. I am the perfect audience for this book, and yet I’m also not the one who needs to read it. It’s also worth noting that the essays are focussed solely on an American perspective with almost zero recognition of how this patriarchal value system manifests in countries around the world. As a non-American, albeit someone who lives in the US, some of the references – particularly those to 90s celebrities – were lost on me. This isn’t a criticism per se, but international readers may not get as much out of that part of the cultural commentary. There is recognition of some of the intersections – of race, and class – but these could have been drawn on in a deeper, less cursory way.

The collection is a little uneven in its impact and message, charting both pop culture and the political and social landscape, ranging from Adam Sandler movies (a chapter that’s only really interesting if you’ve seen most of them, which I haven’t), to our dire environmental straits with the climate crisis. I was reminded of Jenny Offill’s Weather and the ‘obligatory note of hope’ – how any literature about the climate crisis has to end this way to prevent a reader from sinking it to a pit of despair and gin and never coming out of it. It feels a little hollow to be hopeful about anything right now, while at this ‘low and surreal’ moment in US history. But we have to stay engaged, keep fighting – ‘to believe in nothing,’ West says, ‘is to change nothing.’

What’s important is that when West gets it right, she really gets it right, and the most effective essays are a searing, witty rallying cry. The Witches are Coming is overall an articulate, powerful read that reminds us to keep fighting the good fight.


Book Review | Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton

It might seem silly to be writing a memoir when you’re not yet 30. There’s a snobbery attached to memoirs, an idea that one needs to have lived a long and full life before even thinking about putting pen to paper to eternally memorialise the experience. All I can say is, thank God Dolly Alderton didn’t wait.

For me, and for I imagine countless other women in their 20s, this is a hilarious, insightful, at times awfully sad and incredibly relatable meditation about womanhood, friendship, revelry, romance and, of course, love – in all its many guises.

There are several reasons why I loved this book and read it solidly in a day. I haven’t done that since University, where I was mandated to power read three books a week. The first reason I loved it is because it is funny – laugh out loud funny. Anyone on the cusp of womanhood in the mid/late 2000s will get a twinge of nostalgia at that painfully awkward and, in many ways, unique to the time experience. I, like Dolly, remember rushing home and logging on to MSN, appearing offline and then going back online in a feeble attempt to get the crush du jour to notice me.

‘Early on in our friendship, we discovered that since the conception of Instant Messenger, we had both been copying and pasting conversations with boys on to a Microsoft Word document, printing them out and putting the pages in a ring-binder folder to read before bed like an erotic novel. We thought ourselves to be a sort of two-person Bloomsbury Group of early Noughties MSN Messenger.’

The second reason I loved it is because I love the way Dolly writes. It feels like it’s just two of you talking in a bar late into the night with a bottle of pinot. It’s raw, and it’s honest.  And she captures some moments of life with such an astute eye. How many times, I found myself thinking, have I felt this exact way when on a train (cross-country train travel is one of the things I miss the most about England) –

‘I always thought something brilliant might happen to me on a train. The transitional state of a long journey has always seemed to me the most romantic and magical of places to find yourself in, marooned in a cosy pod of your own thoughts, suspended in mid-air, travelling through a wodge of silent, blank pages between two chapters. […]The clearest moments of epiphany and gratitude have hit me when zooming through unidentifiable English countryside, staring out at a golden rapeseed field, considering what I am leaving behind or about to approach.’

She is unflinching. She talks about the revelry of all-night partying and drinking and drug-dabbling and those hilarious stories that become funnier and more outrageous each time you tell them. But she also talks about the end of the party. The reality of what being everyone’s favourite good-time girl does to you, the persona you have to maintain – to be the first one on the dancefloor and the last one home.

‘The gap between who you were on a Saturday night, commandeering an entire pub garden by shouting obnoxiously about how you’ve always felt you had at least three prime-time sitcom scripts in you, and who you are on a Sunday afternoon, thinking about death and wondering if the postman likes you or not, becomes too capacious.’

And the third reason I loved it is because of the way Dolly describes female friendships; one of the strongest and purest and earliest forms of love. How our female friendships shape who we are and who we become and how true friends are one constant in the face of momentous change. And the devastation we feel when the landscape of these friendships changes forever.

‘I’d like to pause the story a moment to talk about ‘nothing will change’. I’ve heard it said to me repeatedly by women I love during my twenties when they move in with boyfriends, get engaged, move abroad, get married, get pregnant. ‘Nothing will change.’ It drives me bananas. Everything will change. Everything will change. The love we have for each other stays the same, but the format, the tone, the regularity and the intimacy of our friendship will change for ever.

 It’s compulsive, delightful, sensitive reading – and I loved every minute.

Anne Tyler and Zadie Smith

Six Degrees of Separation | Anne Tyler to Zadie Smith

Six Degrees of Separation is hosted by Kate. Each month, everyone starts with the same book and we see where our links take us.

The starting book this month is Redhead By the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler. I haven’t read this one (or any Anne Tyler, actually) – but judging by the Goodreads description, it’s about a reclusive man whose careful routines are disrupted by a teenager showing up at his door claiming to be his son.

Another book that made it onto the 2020 Booker Prize Longlist, like Redhead, is Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid. I really enjoyed this compelling debut – through nuanced characters and a simple plot, Reid exposes the difficulties of talking about race with well-meaning white people.

There seems to have been a flurry of books with ‘fun’ in the title in recent years, and another one I read and enjoyed was The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo, charting the dynamics of a middle-class, suburban midwestern family over five decades. There was a lot of criticism for this novel being over-long and self-indulgent, but I enjoyed sinking into this one with all its complex and nuanced familial relationships.

I adore novels that take us through the expanse of a lifetime, and The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne is one such deeply affecting and achingly funny and sad read, starting in 1940’s Ireland and taking us through New York City in the 1980s AIDS epidemic and beyond.

I’ve never written about theatre on here, but is another one of my great loves, and since this exists in a play text, I think it counts for the purposes of this post – one of the most moving and devastating plays I’ve ever seen is Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which takes place in New York in the 80s and also charts the effects of AIDS on the story’s protagonists. When such a time comes that we can enjoy live theatre again, I hope more audiences get the chance to see it.

So while we’re on the topic of adaptations, I’ll end with Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, her 2000 debut novel charting the friendship of WWII veterans living in London, and is an epic exploration of modern British life and the racial and cultural dynamics at play. The novel was adapted both in a 2002 BBC serialised drama, and taken to the stage in London a few years ago.

Thanks for reading my February Six Degrees!

Book Review | Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory by Raphael Bob-Waksberg

Book Review | Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory by Raphael Bob-Waksberg

This collection of short stories – simultaneously full of caustic humour and emotional devastation – is very clever. And I don’t mean clever in a trying-to-be-clever way, in a way that’s itching after English-student dissection and critic bamboozlement and literary prizes. Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s debut is highly attuned to the intricacies of love, in all of its many incarnations, and plays with surreal and off-beat turns of plot and genre.

Like in any collection, there are stories that worked better than others. I admire Bob-Waksberg’s playing with form, from rhyming couplet long-form poems to lists, but the ones that worked best for me were a little more traditional in their approach. In ‘A Most Blessed and Auspicious Occasion,’ a couple take on wedding planning in a short story that manages to satirize the wedding industry in an alternative universe where how many goats to slaughter during the ceremony to how long the wailing chorus should lament to how much to spend on a promise egg are the central preoccupations of everyone around them. Bob-Waksberg manages simultaneously to issue a critique of capitalism and tradition, all while being laugh-out-loud funny.

In a story that felt very much like a short film, ‘Missed Connection – m4w’ shows a man falling in love with a woman he sits across from on the Brooklyn Q train, ‘in that stupid way where you completely make up a fictional version of the person you’re looking at and fall in love with that person.’ Whilst working up the courage to say something to her, the years melt into decades, and still they ride the train back and forth on the same line – neither ever summoning the strength to speak.

‘For months we sat on the train saying nothing. We survived on bags of Skittles sold to us by kids raising money for their basketball teams. We must have heard a million mariachi bands, had our faces nearly kicked in by a hundred thousand break-dancers. I gave money to the panhandlers until I ran out of singles. When the train went aboveground I’d get text messages and voice mails (“Where are you? What happened? Are you okay?”) until my phone battery ran out.’

There is such an intense and yet understated lyricism to the way these stories cut open affairs of the heart, in both romantic and familial love. In ‘You Want To Know What Plays Are Like?’, a sister goes to her playwright brother’s opening night, only to discover the play is an excavation of their childhood which doesn’t portray her in the most flattering light. The second-person narration (which Bob-Waksberg does so well) describes her feeling like ‘The Museum of You is now open for business, every piece of you hung up on a wall, laid bare on a table, harshly lit and awkwardly described.’ He’s economical with words, and yet they perfectly encapsulate our deepest vulnerabilities.

‘…There remains one place more than any other you know you can never return to. You know where it is and you go out of your way to not see it, to not be reminded of the thing that happened there. It’s too much, this place. It would swallow you whole, this void, this pit, this unassuming two-story brownstone in Carroll Gardens that houses the one-bedroom apartment a much younger you and the man now listed in your phone as “DO NOT CALL HIM” were ever so foolish as to refer to as “home.”’

There are more I could talk about – ‘Rufus’, narrated from the perspective of a dog trying to communicate with his owner. ‘The Serial Monogamist’s Guide to Important New York City Landmarks,’ where too many places in the city bring back memories of failed relationships, ‘tragic victims of your fickle heart’. ‘Move across the country,’ a quietly devastating exploration of running away from Sadness, personified. But this is not a necessarily pessimistic excavation of love. In its propulsive and gut-wrenching way, it feels honest and unflinching and, ultimately, kind of hopeful. Dare I call it one of the most brilliant short story collections I’ve ever read?

‘And when the morning comes, our love like bugs will scatter in the light.’


Book Review | The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls’ first memory is sustaining third-degree burns as she attempted to boil hot dogs on the stove – at age three. Raised – and ‘raised’ is being generous to her parents – by eccentric nonconformists Rex and Rose Mary, Jeannette and her three siblings have a pretty astonishing story to tell.

It’s astonishing because I’ve never read a memoir quite like it. It is so harrowing and dark, and yet told with a levity and a compassion that makes it easier to read that it would otherwise be.

Rex and Rose Mary determine that their family will live a nomadic lifestyle, ‘doing the skedaddle’ when things go south, and pitching up in another American small-town nowhere. Rex is a habitual drunk and chain smoker, and Rose Mary is trained as a teacher but prefers to spend her days pursuing her art. Neither accept a penny of charity or government assistance, and both are some of the most astoundingly narcissist characters – people – I’ve ever read about. They live in abject poverty and the children are frequently hungry, dumpster-diving for discarded items, and eating cat food more than once. Putting food on the table is not the top priority for Rex and Rose Mary, and they can’t quite understand how they got to be lumped with such a responsibility.

‘‘…I was hungry.’

Mom gave me a startled look. I’d broken one of our unspoken rules: we were always supposed to pretend our life was one long, and incredibly fun, adventure.’

There are truly horrifying anecdotes – their ramshackle house in Phoenix, AZ has no air conditioning, so in the summer they would leave all the windows and doors open at night. The young Jeannette wakes up one night to find herself being molested by a paedophile who has broken in. But the anecdote takes on a somewhat magical feel when Jeannette and her brother Brian go paedophile hunting in the middle of the night, two children on a mission for vengeance. This is the astonishing (sorry for overusing this adjective, but it fits) way in which many of these stories are told – particularly for the young Jeannette, there is no blame, derision or hatred of her parents for the way they left the children wide open to danger; only an acceptance that they had to fend for themselves, and would become stronger and more resilient in the process.

‘When Dad wasn’t telling us about all the amazing things he had already done, he was telling us about the wondrous things he was going to do. Like build the Glass Castle.’

But it’s not simply enough to paint these parents as neglectful monsters (although with the facts on paper, it’s hard to argue anything else). Jeannette speaks with particular fondness of her father, who, one Christmas, takes them all out to look at the night sky in order to pick a star as their gift. Jeannette is particularly close to her dad, his ‘mountain goat’ who swears he’ll never let her down, even as he does – time and time again. Despite frequently going hungry, wearing holey clothes and with no safe space to do her schoolwork, Jeannette excels academically. One night she accepts a ride home from a stranger, who asks her about her future plans. Pre-teen Jeannette regales her career ambitions to the silent stranger. ‘For the daughter of the town drunk,’ he says, ‘you sure got big plans.’

As Jeannette and her siblings grow older, the shine starts to fade and they begin to realise that the way they live is not the way that normal people – happy people – live. The last quarter of the memoir recounts her life as she moves away and begins life on her own terms. I wished that this part of the book gave us a little more in the way of introspection on what had happened in her childhood, especially with the distance of time and geography to provide the space to reflect. There were many moments in the novel that took on a romanticized sheen, which was deeply unsettling. But as I reflect, I don’t think any of us can deny someone their story, and the way in which they choose to tell it – even if all evidence points to an uncomfortable truth: that this was a terrible, deeply dysfunctional childhood, and Jeannette was lucky to make it out alive. I’ll say it just one more time: astonishingly told. This one will stay with me for a long time.

Book Review | The Divines by Ellie Eaton

Isn’t it funny how our schooldays can haunt us, years – decades – after they’re gone? For Josephine, her time at elite English boarding school, St John the Divine, is a shadow she can’t shake. Even now, living in L.A. and married to an ‘overwhelmingly decent man’, her time as a ‘Divine’ remains an unspoken history. Through a dual narrative, we return to those heady days of nineties’ girlhood at St John, as Josephine – known to her schoolfriends as Joe – slowly unpacks and unravels the fateful events that came to pass.

There is gulf of privilege that separates the Divines in their ‘ivory tower’ and the townies, residents of the local area, for whom the school is both loathed and derided and also an essential source of employment. The townies see the Divines as a ‘stuck-up, supercilious bunch of trust funders’, completely oblivious to the real ways of the world. So when Joe half-accidentally befriends a townie, Lauren, neither of them really know how to behave around each other. Lauren’s world – alcoholic father, mother with a long-term illness, and having to work two jobs alongside school to help out with the bills – is an alien existence to Joe, who’s mocked by Lauren’s family for her plummy speech and affected manners.

With astute psychological insight, Eaton lays bare the female teenage experience in an unflinching way. She captures the awkwardness of teenagerhood so well, the utterly unbearable feeling of inhabiting a changing body, the unease of being in your own skin. She pores over the oscillating dynamics of female friendship, the pain of being ostracised from a group, the desperation to fit in. Selfhood is constantly malleable, the way the girls are perceived and perceive each other. Eaton describes Joe as ‘self-obsessed, too caught up in my own narrative to care about anyone but myself’ – and has there ever been a more accurate description of teenagerhood?

It’s told with the haze of 90s nostalgia, but it’s a nostalgia intermingled with a growing sense of foreboding, of dread. We know that a terrible, tragic event occurred at the school – an event that has haunted Joe throughout her life. And yet despite this, she draws us a picture that feels so real, and the nostalgia so poignant –

‘…the camaraderie of school life. The sensation of having my knee tickled, my hair stroked, the weight of an arm linked through my own. The complete indifference to the outside world. The jokes, the rumours, the secrets.’

We come to find that there is a dissonance between past and present, between fiction and reality. Josephine’s attempt to reconcile her version of events with what happened on those fateful days takes her back to St John – the school has long since been dissolved and buildings turned into flats, a dentist’s office – for a reunion. She hopes to gain some kind of closure, self-composure, and the ability to finally put the events of that fateful year to bed.

‘What am I supposed to tell him? That, since becoming a mother, I exist in a state of perpetual unease. That the world seems to me overwhelmingly dangerous and chaotic. How of all the multitudinous threats posed to him and the baby—earthquakes, rising sea levels, drunk drivers, melanomas, pandemics, zealots with semiautomatics—it’s something else I’m most afraid of. The past, slowly coiling around us, the snake in the crib.’

It’s completely absorbing, a slow-burn piece of literary fiction that grapples with the nature of memory, history, and selfhood. It’s also beautifully written in suspenseful, taut prose. While the ending might not be to everyone’s taste, I felt it worked perfectly within the context of the novel and its nuanced, complex narrative. Highly recommended.

Book Review | The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

Nella is trying to make it as a Black millennial in an extremely white industry – publishing. Having landed her dream job at prestigious New York publishing house Wagner, she’s worked hard to gain recognition as an editorial assistant. Sure, she has to put up with microaggressions on a regular basis – but for working under some of the country’s most eminent editors, it’s a price she’s willing to pay.

‘She could see the thread that ran between the cultural faux pas of major corporations and the major faux pas of police offers all over the country.’

When Harlem-bred Hazel starts working for Wagner, Nella is initially delighted to have another colleague of colour. But things start to grow uncomfortable as Hazel’s star rises and she begins to infringe upon projects and relationships promised to Nella. To her face a solid ally, Hazel soon becomes her worst nightmare.

This novel is so sharp and clever, with biting social commentary about race in contemporary America and, more specifically, how this plays out in workplaces across the country. It’s probably because Publishing is my jam that I found the Wagner setting so compelling and spot on. Harris addresses the very visible lack of diversity in the industry in an accessible and clear-eyed way that makes it patently obvious just how a) out of touch and b) legitimately bad for business it is to have the same old people uplifting the same old perspectives time and time again.

‘Her coworkers could publish books about Bitcoin and Middle Eastern conflicts and black holes, but most of them couldn’t understand why it was so important to have a more diverse publishing house.’

Anyway, off my soapbox.

Things start to turn very sinister when mysterious notes show up on Nella’s desk, telling her to leave Wagner. Rather than report the threats, Nella determines to get to the bottom of it. But the encroaching sense of dread is dialled up as Hazel continues on her upwards trajectory, going so far as to get the head of Wagner, Richard, to donate a hefty sum to her non-for-profit start-up supporting Black poets. Nella’s self-assurance and sanity takes a hit, and she begins to question her relationships with those around her and her ability to do her job.

‘Her spiralling sense of self-worth had started to encroach upon her sanity; her sanity, upon her sleep; and her sleep; upon her ability to be a functioning human being at work. A functioning human being who was able to forgive and forget the fact that a colleague had mistaken her for a dreadlocked girl who was four inches taller than her.’

But then things go…a little south, narrative-wise. Honestly, this might just be because this is an early copy that needs more aggressive an edit – but there were some key plot points in here that had me scratching my head in confusion. I won’t give anything away, but there’s a sub-plot with an underground resistance movement, and some truly bonkers hair products, and although I’ve not got anything against a kooky turn, I really didn’t know what was going on in the latter 25% of this book. I am very much hoping these issues will be ironed out prior to publication, because this really is a compelling, bold and timely novel – and I don’t want readers to be put off by the opaqueness of some key plot points.

With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. The Other Black Girl will be published on June 1st, 2021.

Henry James and Sylvia Plath

Six Degrees of Separation: from Henry James to Sylvia Plath

Six Degrees of Separation is hosted by Kate. Each month, everyone starts with the same book and we see where our links take us.

The starting point for this month’s Six Degrees is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, a gothic horror published at the turn of the century. This novella features a governess, malevolent ghosts, two children, a creepy countryside estate, and an impending sense of doom as the story unfurls.

Another classic turn-of-the-century novel is The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, published in 1890. Infatuated with Dorian’s beauty, his good friend Basil Hallward paints his portrait – and in doing so, creates a piece of art that will change the course of Dorian’s life forever.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is another novel where a piece of art propels the plot and shapes the destiny of the characters. It tells the absorbing and sprawling story of young Theodore Decker, and how a bomb explosion at the Met and the stealing of a famous painting changes everything.

The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014, and two years later, in 2016, the grand prize went to Viet Thanh Nguyen for The Sympathizer. Nguyen gives authentic voice to the Vietnamese experience of the war and those who had to forge new lives in the United States.

Another compelling account of the Vietnamese-American experience comes in Ocean Vuong’s lyrical On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, where the narrator, Little Dog, struggles to find his place as the son of a war refugee living in the tenements of Hartford, Connecticut. It’s told with intense musicality and deep melancholy, and shares many biographical elements with that of its author.

Vuong is first and foremost a poet, with On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous being his first novel. Another famous poet-turned-novelist, who also writes a loosely-fictionalised account of her life, is Sylvia Plath. Her one and only novel, The Bell Jar, is an exquisite, devastating account of descent into madness.  

So there we have it: the six degrees of separation from Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, by way of Oscar Wilde, Donna Tartt, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Ocean Vuong.

Six Degrees of Separation is so much fun – I think the key isn’t to put too much thought into it, just go with what comes to mind!