Sharmaine Lovegrove on bibliotherapy
ELLE’S LITERARY EDITOR SHARMAINE LOVEGROVE ON THE BOOKS TO CURE YOU
Having relationship/ friendship/social media problems? There’s a book for that. ELLE’s Literary Editor prescribes a heavy dose of good literature
Books have always been in my life. I had no siblings until the age of seven, so
I had plenty of time to be by myself and read. I grew up in south-west London, surrounded by brilliant libraries, and I clearly remember borrowing Roald Dahl’s
Matilda, a book that first taught me the personal impact of reading. As a pre-teen, I went to an amazing primary school with an incredibly scary head teacher who was Miss Trunchbull 2.0. I was having a hard time adjusting to the arrival of my new little sister and felt as though my love of books put me at odds with everyone around me. Reading Matilda showed me that stories were powerful, and magical, and the more you read, the more you could achieve.
At 13 years old, I went through some awful teenage angsty moments as I started at a convent school. Being a black girl with afro hair, spots, glasses and Bugs Bunny teeth, I was never seen as attractive by those I wanted to attract. Through reading Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s
Me, Margaret, I found solace and power in Margaret’s struggle, which seemed to echo my own. I began to realise that the more I read, the more empathetic I became. From that moment, I would always turn to books when I needed to take time to reflect on a situation.
Fast-forward 15 years, and I found myself in Berlin as the proprietor of a bookshop. The gift of empathy through reading was something I wanted to share with my customers, so my right-hand woman Nerys and I set up ‘book doctor’ sessions at the shop. Customers would fill in questionnaires so we could diagnose their literary likes and dislikes, and then we’d dig deep and prescribe 15-20 titles for them to consider. I loved these ‘bibliotherapy’ sessions, where our customers would discuss their life ailments and we’d prescribe a literary remedy. People wanted fiction to help soothe breakups, maternity-leave books and dating advice (I once had a request to help a grandmother who was on the scene again and wanted to know how people talked on dates). One of my fondest memories is prescribing The Comedians by Graham Greene to someone who was going on a silent retreat; they told me afterwards they’d nearly been expelled for laughing out loud while reading it.
We never know what’s going to hit us in life, what will change our path, and who we’ll end up sharing the joyous highs and the murky lows with. Here are my suggestions for books to help you get out of your stink, remind you that you’re not alone, and what to do when you don’t want the party to stop.
FOR WHEN YOU’RE STUCK ON A CRAMMED COMMUTER TRAIN IN THE CITY OF YOUR DREAMS
Getting your dream job in the city is both exciting and daunting. In these books, we encounter two brave women tackling life and forging their paths in new environments. Reading Andrea Levy’s
Small Island will remind you that, although you are on a big personal journey, you are not the first person to move to a city, and you have what you need to get ahead.
The novel, set in 1948, is based on four characters who move from Jamaica to England. The well-mannered Hortense has hopes of becoming a teacher, but instead faces racism for the first time and must deal with life in shabby London. If things feel tough as you navigate a new city, remember Hortense, take a deep breath and put your best foot forward.
Though over 50 years old, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath remains the rite-of-passage book for women stepping out into the metropolis. Follow Esther Greenwood as she moves to New York in the Fifties to start an internship at a fashion magazine. Balancing cocktails and manuscripts, Esther’s life unravels as depression takes hold. A vivid, dark story that should be on everyone’s bookshelf.
FOR WHEN YOU SWIPE RIGHT ON TINDER AND FALL FOR SOMEONE
Dating has dramatically changed over the past decade. These days, it seems few meet their soulmate randomly. I’ve been married for six years, but by living vicariously through friends who are online dating, I hear both horror stories and happily-ever-afters. These books are perfect for those who have found the right match and are unsure what happens next.
I am a big fan of Sliding Doors-style narratives, and Laura Barnett’s The
Versions of Us is one of the best. Eva and Jim are 19 and studying at Cambridge University when their paths cross for the first time. We are led through three different versions of their future, both together and apart, spanning a period from the Fifties to the present day. This novel is perfect at reminding us that the smallest decisions can affect the rest of our lives.
Love at first sight, paintings, politics, family secrets, Russian oligarchs and the art of food – there is so much to take from
The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild. Annie McDee finds a painting in a junk shop and intends to give it to her new beau as a birthday present, but when he doesn’t turn up, she has to keep it. On a visit to a gallery, Annie meets a guide who falls in love with her while she begins a quest to uncover the original owner of her painting. I laughed and cried when I read this novel, and took from it that we should be open, curious and listen to those around us to uncover true happiness.
FOR WHEN SOCIAL MEDIA IS TAKING OVER YOUR LIFE
Sometimes the internet and social media can be overwhelming. I long for more time away from screens, but the gaps between logging on and off seem to be getting
shorter. These two novels will make you rethink your use of social media and obsession with your smart phone.
I Hate The Internet by Jarett Kobek is an indictment of the greed of the tech community and those who fund it. A satire at its finest, it follows Adeline as she goes from being a kind-of-famous comic-book chick to the focus of internet trolls for some unpopular opinions she once shared. Adeline becomes a victim of a culture that hates women, and this insightful, evocative novel reminds us to think before we post.
The Circle by Dave Eggers imagines a terrifying world dominated by an internet company, The Circle, for whom there is no such thing as privacy. Mae is thrilled to be working for the business, but as the company’s grip on society tightens, she realises that her identity and status are bound up with how much she is prepared to reveal to The Circle’s vast community. Will she sacrifice family, friends and even herself to live up to the company’s motto, ‘Secrets are lies, sharing is caring, privacy is theft’? Being made into a film with ELLE cover star Emma Watson, out this year, The Circle is a thrilling page-turner that will make you think before you log on.
FOR WHEN IT FEELS LIKE YOUR FRIENDS ARE BECOMING MORE SUCCESSFUL THAN YOU
It’s tough when a group of friends slowly disintegrates as the responsibilities and realities of adult life require you to take your own path. It can also be tricky when old mates seem to be flying off on holiday to ever-more exotic places while you’re counting pennies in order to afford meals for one at the end of the month.
How career choices affect friendships is the subject of Invincible Summer by Alice Adams. In it, we meet a group of friends on their last day at Bristol University discussing their hopes and dreams as they head out into the world. Over the course of the novel we join them for 20 years of ebbing and flowing friendship and encounter their personal trials and tribulations. Another take on this theme is The
Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. In 1974, a squad of teens are planning the rest of their lives by the pool while smoking pot and drinking vodka. Decades later and it’s as though this talented bunch has allowed the grind of everyday life and the pace of New York to get in the way of their dreams. Insightful and funny, The Interestings captures our hopes, fears and the reality of grown-up life and friendship on every page.
FOR WHEN YOU JUST DON’T WANT THE PARTY TO END
There’s a time in our lives when we feel the party has to end, but it’s hard to look around and realise that moment hasn’t yet
‘INSIGHTFUL, FUNNY AND EVENTFUL,
THE INTERESTINGS CAPTURES THE HOPES, FEARS AND REALITY OF GROWN-UP LIFE’
come for your friends. Do you go it alone or do you stick with your gang? These titles will help you see the party from the outside.
Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting was first published in 1993 and was made into a film three years later. Its catchphrase, ‘Choose life’, became a mantra for a generation. With the follow-up T2 Trainspotting now in cinemas, it’s great to read the original book and join Renton and friends deep in the hedonistic underbelly of Eighties Scotland, where the kicks never come for free.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem is
Joan Didion’s epic portrayal of Californian life in the Sixties. Published in 1968, her first collection of essays is an unflinching examination of the reality of the counterculture (including an episode of a preschool child being given LSD by her parents). It is raw, redolent and, despite its age, feels as fresh as ever. Writing this book helped Didion to become unstuck, and I’m sure it will challenge you, too.
The journey of four young Londoners in The Bricks That Built The Houses by spoken-word supremo Kate Tempest is a rollercoaster of desperation to get away from a claustrophobic south-east London existence of drug dealers and dead-end jobs. Weaving through time and written in poetic prose, this will make you glad you’re tucked up in bed and not out on the town.
FOR WHEN YOU FANCY SOMEONE BUT THEY DON’T KNOW YOU EXIST
How do you get through the day knowing that the person you love doesn’t know you exist? I believe it’s about getting real and reminding yourself that love is about
mutual respect. In The Girls’ Guide to
Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank, Jane has been following the advice from a manual called ‘How to Meet and Marry Mr Right’, through which she learns that, in love, there is neither pattern nor promise. A very funny collection of connected stories underscored by a portrait of a woman manoeuvring her way through love, sex and relationships.
In Jenny Offill’s Dept Of Speculation, we meet a couple who used to write letters to each other for fun, but with the crushing reality of family life, the ties that once bound them are severed. Vividly written, this is an insightful, darkly funny and wise novel of a modern marriage.
FOR WHEN YOU THINK YOU MIGHT NOT BE STRAIGHT
Bibliotherapy is a good way of dealing with big life issues, and confronting your feelings on sexuality can be a particularly challenging conundrum. Reading the zeitgeisty memoir The Argonauts by the celebrated Maggie Nelson, we delve into what it means for your partner to change sex, which also entails changing your own sexuality. Through Maggie’s reflective and philosophical writing, we go on an intrepid exploration to uncover feelings on love, motherhood, gender politics and family.
Erotic stories are a sensual way of being turned on and tuned in to your sexual needs, and no one writes more seductively than Anaïs Nin. Groundbreaking when published in 1979, Little Birds captures the essence of human sensuality in 13 stories exploring female subjectivity through themes such as same-sex desire and pornography. It is written in a spellbinding way that is as complex as it is simple. Reading Little Birds will make you think about yourself and sex in a new way, and that can only be a good thing.