Six Degrees of Separation: from Normal People to

book chapter sixThe Six Degrees of Separation meme is hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.  Every month a book is chosen as a common starting point and each blogger then links to six other books to form a chain. This month’s chain begins with Sally Rooney’s massively popular Normal People.

As I write this I’ve just received an email from a friend saying how much she’s enjoyed the television version of this book and how it’s sent her to the novel which she has then enjoyed even more. I find this very reassuring, given that I introduced one of my book groups to Rooney’s work through her earlier novel, Conversations With Friends and without exception they all hated it! I haven’t watched the televised adaptation mainly because I enjoyed the book so much that I didn’t want to risk spoiling it. I spent a large part of my working life with young adults of Marianne and Connell‘s age and I thought the novel caught the academic environment, its pressures, and the consequent dilemmas that students can face, perfectly. One regret that I do have about not having seen the dramatised version is that I’ve missed out on the Dublin settings. So, as compensation I’m staying in Dublin for my second choice, the second of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad books, The Likeness.

woman holding brown open notebook

The Likeness is linked to Normal People not only through location but also through the fact that many of its chief characters are studying at university in Dublin. In some respects, French’s series could itself be seen as a example of six degrees of separation in as much as each succeeding novel is linked to its predecessor by the fact that a subsidiary character in the earlier story becomes the main character in the one following. In this instance it is Cassie Maddox who moves into the spotlight. Traumatised by her contact with a psychopath in her previous case, Cassie has transferred out of the Murder Squad and consequently is surprised when she is called to the scene of a killing being supervised by her boyfriend, Sam O’Neill.  She is even more surprised when she gets her first view of the victim, a young woman who could be her double and whose ID names her as Lexie Maddox, an identity that Cassie adopted when working under cover. In an attempt to discover who killed ‘Lexie’, Cassie‘s old boss persuades her to resume her old disguise and integrate herself with the group of fellow students who are his main suspects. I don’t think this is the best written of the French novels, but because of its subject matter, its setting and its characters it is my favourite.

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Cassie and Lexie, although unrelated are so alike that they could be twins. Consequently, my next link is to Audrey Niffenegger’s novel Her Fearful Symmetry.  Niffenegger is much better known for her previous book, The Time Traveller’s Wife, but in some respects I enjoyed this one more. Identical twins, Julia and Valentina Poole, are left a London flat by their aunt on the condition that their mother is never allowed to cross the threshold. However, until the solicitor’s letter falls through the door of their suburban American home, neither Julia nor Valentina knew their aunt existed. Neither do they have any idea of the complicated personal entanglements that they are about to encounter when they make their way to London. These include the obsessive-compulsive crossword setter who lives in the flat above them and their aunt’s mysterious and elusive lover who lives below and who works in Highgate cemetery, which their flat overlooks.

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Unlike a friend of mine I am not absolutely obsessed with Highgate Cemetery, in fact, I’ve never been there, however it is the location which forms the next link in my chain. Tracy Chevalier’s novel, Falling Angels, begins in 1901 with two very different families visiting the cemetery to pay their respects at neighbouring graves. Queen Victoria has just died and the country is opening up to all sorts of new ideas. One of the families is very much Upper Middle Class and determined that life should go on as normal. The other, from a lower strata of society, is more forward-looking and when the wife becomes involved with the women’s suffrage movement that becomes one of the major themes of the novel. Interestingly, when I read this with a book group that was made up of very independent women, they felt that the way in which the subject was tackled in this novel was pretty poor and so there are two links between this and my next book, Helen Fields’ most recent publication, These Lost & Broken Things. 

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These Lost & Broken Things is set, for the most part, in London in the early years of the 20th century and is primarily concerned with the fate of a young woman who is driven by poverty into a growing addiction both to gambling and to murder.  The blackmailing blackguard for whom she works is very careful to keep his professional and home lives separate, so his wife, who seems to be a genuinely nice woman, is kept completely apart from his nefarious business activities. In fact, she is having her own little quiet rebellion by becoming involved with the suffrage movement. This forms one part of the link. However, the other side of the bond comes about because in neither novel do I feel that the suffrage aspect is fully developed.  In Fields’ novel, especially, it seems to be tagged on rather than integrated. The book doesn’t quite hang together as a whole; not something you could ever say about the writer’s more substantial body of work set in Edinburgh, a police procedural series that begins with Perfect Remains – the next link in the chain.

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Perfect Remains introduces DI Luc Callanach. Newly arrived in Edinburgh, having left behind a promising career with Interpol in Lyon, the half Scots, half French Luc finds it very difficult to settle into his new working environment. Forced to leave France because of an ill-founded scandal within his previous office, Luc is also concerned that rumours about his previous life may follow him to his new home. In fact, as it turns out, it isn’t just rumours that turn up in Scotland! The book also introduces DI Ava Turner, and later novels in the series concentrate as much on her as they do on Luc. Both of them are very engaging characters and I have to say that I much prefer Fields in this mode than when she ventures into historical fiction.

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Fields is one of many crime writers to base their police procedures in Edinburgh and it is another Edinburgh based novel that forms the final link in my chain, Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. Set over two different time periods, the book tells the story of a young woman unable to find her feet in middle-class 1930s Edinburgh society. Uncomfortable among her peers, just like Rooney’s Marianne, and outrageous in the eyes of many adults, she is spirited away and the truth about what happens to her only becomes clear sixty years later when another young woman, Iris, receives a very unexpected letter asking her to offer her grandmother a home.

So, from one European capital to another and from one and comfortable teenage woman to another, my June offering for Six Degrees of Separation.


Six Degrees of Separation From The French Lieutenant’s Woman to A Second Chance.

I know that I am horrendously late with this post, but I had it all planned out when the dreaded lurgy struck and I am loath to waste the thought that went into a meme hosted by Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best, which I have to come to really enjoy participating in. So, ten days late – here goes.

January’s Six Degrees of Separation has as its starting point John Fowles novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman.  I am of the generation who was bowled over by the 1981 film staring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. I remember the wonderful scene shot on the Cobb at Lyme Regis and I did think about making my first leap into Jane Austen’s Patience, which also has scenes set in that picturesque South Coast town or possibly to Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier for the same reason.  However, in the end I decided to stick with one of the stars of the film, Jeremy Irons, an actor I saw several times at Stratford but whose ‘acquaintance’ I first made through the televisation of Evelyn Waugh’s book, Brideshead Revisited.  There has been a later cinematic version of this, but for me it didn’t come anywhere near that earlier dramatisation which was my first introduction to Waugh’s works and which prompted a splurge on almost everything he had written.

Jeremy Irons played the part of Charles Ryder.  One of the novel’s other leading characters is, of course, Aloysius, Sebastian Flyte’s Bear.  As many of you know I too share my life with a number of distinguished and erudite Bears (they are looking over my shoulder as I write so I wouldn’t dare say anything else!) one of whom is also called Aloysius.  In our previous home Aloysius sat on the same shelf in the bookcase that contained all our Harry Potter books and as a result, in a reference to Hagrid’s role at Hogwarts, he became known as The Keeper of the Harry Potters.  My second link, therefore is to the first of the Harry Potter novels, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  I read this in my role of Lecturer in Children’s Literature and am therefore very proud of the fact that I was a Harry Potter fan before most of the world knew that he existed.

In this earliest novel Voldemort is searching for the philosopher’s stone in the hope that it will grant him everlasting life. Another novel in which the search for eternal existence is key is Peter Ackroyd‘s The House of Dr Dee.  Again, this was the first novel that I had read by this particular author and again, it sparked off something of a binge where Ackroyd’s novels were concerned. It could link into my fourth choice, in two ways. Firstly, there is a title link and secondly it is a novel which takes place in two different time spans.  As I want to use the second link between my next two books, I am going to go with the first of those and claim a link through the title of Daphne Du Maurier’s The House on the Strand.

As some of you know, I run a Summer School each year, where we read three books linked thematically in some way and several years ago now that theme was ‘Then and Now’; all three books were set in both the author’s present and a particular moment in history. The House on the Strand was one of these, featuring a character who moves between his own time and the fourteenth century.  Another choice was Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott.  Stott is one of a number of writers who have written excellent books that I have really enjoyed but who appear to have vanished from the literary scene.  She is well known for her academic writing, but this 2007 work and a slightly later novel The Coral Thief, are her only works of fiction.  Ghostwalk is excellent.  It is a literary murder mystery set in present day Cambridge but also exploring that city’s past, in particular the life and work of Isaac Newton.  In fact, it links back to two earlier choices because the victim, Elizabeth Vogelsang, is writing a book on Newton’s involvement with alchemy.  Vogelsang dies with a prism in her hand and that, along with the Newton connection provide me with my final link to Jodi Taylor’s novel A Second Chance.

A Second Chance is the third in Taylor’s series The Chronicles of St Mary’s, which relates the adventures of an intrepid group of historians who explore historical events in contemporary time.  Don’t call it time travel. Dr Bairstow doesn’t like it.  At the beginning of this particular book Taylor’s heroine (?), Max, is busy preparing for the expedition of a life time, to visit Troy immediately before and after the Trojan War of The Iliad.  However, as a favour to Dr Bairstow she agrees to take a old friend of his back to seventeenth century Cambridge to catch a glimpse of his hero, Isaac Newton.  It is a the St Mary’s equivalent of the prime directive that its historians must in no way interfere with past events but sometimes Max just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or as she would see it the right place at the right time and who knows if Newton would ever have made all those discoveries about light if it hadn’t been for the small hand mirror that she carries to help her see what is going on when she is supposed to be keeping her eyes modestly to herself?  Newton runs off with her mirror and the rest, as they say, is history.

So, from the nineteenth century Cobb at Lyme Regis to a seventeenth century Cambridge quad in six moves.  Next month’s six degrees starts with Fight Club, a work I haven’t read turned into a film I haven’t seen.  I shall have to do some digging!



Six Degrees of Separation: From A Christmas Carol to Sophie’s World

Much as I want to, I am finding it difficult to get back into the swing of blogging after my enforced break, so I thought I would take part in some of the regular meme posts that are around, just to get used to writing regularly again.  The Six Degrees of Separation meme is hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.  Every month a book is chosen as a common starting point and each blogger then links to six other books to form a chain.  This month’s chain begins with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Despite being a Dickens fan, I have to admit to never having read A Christmas Carol.  I suppose I have always felt that I knew it well enough from the multiplicity of dramatised versions that there are around.  In fact, this year, even though I normally go to see whatever the RSC are offering at Stratford I decided to miss out on their seasonal production of the story just because I didn’t think I could take another re-telling.  Not the most auspicious of starts!

Nevertheless, it serves to put me in mind of Christmas and the beginning of one of my real favourites, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents, grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

It’s so dreadful to be poor! sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all, added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other, said Beth contentedly from her corner.

It is a really masterful piece of writing, summing up, as it does, in just a few lines, the characters of all four of the March girls as well as telling the reader a great deal about their situation.  There aren’t many years when I don’t pick up my battered copy for a re-read and I might just put it on my Christmas reading list for later in the month.

Little Women takes me to Geraldine Brook’s novel, March.  This tells the story of John March, the girls’ father, through from his earliest years to his meeting with Marmee and later his time spent as chaplain on the front line in the American Civil War.  This book, based to some extent on the life of Bronson Alcott, not only opened up for me the horrors perpetrated during that conflict by both sides but also sparked my interest in the intellectual world that existed around Concord where Bronson was part of a community that also embraced the likes of Emerson and Thoreau, who appear as themselves in the novel.

I did think about moving from March to the works of one of those worthy gentlemen, but instead decided to take a sideways step and think of March in terms of it being one of the months of the year and offer Elizabeth Von Arnim’s 1922 novel The Enchanted April.  I don’t know about an enchanted April, but I have always thought that this was the most enchanting book.  How many of us haven’t fantasised at some point about just taking ourselves away from all responsibilities for a month and to Italy at that?  Lottie Wilkins decision to do just that, in the company of three complete strangers, (in my fantasies I am always on my own!) marks her out as a young woman determined not to be hemmed in by the conventions of society and so for my fourth selection I am going with another ‘modern’ young woman of the 1920s, Fleur Forsyte.

It is in the third novel of the Forsyte Saga, To Let, that we meet Fleur as she falls in love with Jon, not only the son of her father’s much hated cousin, but also of Irene, her father’s first wife.  Fleur is not prepared to let anything stand in the way of what she wants and what she wants is Jon, but Jon cannot put his own happiness before that of his family and so at the end of this novel he rejects Fleur and leaves England for Canada.  Of course, Galsworthy went on to write several more books about the same characters and this is not the end of the relationship between Fleur and her cousin but by the time they meet again they are both married to other partners and their lives are even more complicated than they were when they parted.

I am old enough to have seen the first (and best) televised version of these novels back in the 1960s, when the part of Fleur was played by the actress Susan Hampshire.  It wasn’t, however, the first television role I had seen her in, as earlier in the decade she had played the part of Katy Carr in a dramatisation of Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did. This was another childhood favourite, although I think I enjoyed one of the sequels, What Katy Did At School, even more.  As an only child, I was fascinated by the motherless family of six being brought up by Aunt Izzy and their busy doctor father.  How did you ever find your place in such a menagerie?  However, I haven’t been back to it in the way that I have returned to Little Women.  Both have their pious elements but I’m afraid the heavenly visitation that turns Katy from rebel into angel proved too much as I grew older.  Perhaps I should give it another chance?  What do you think?

The opening sequence of the televised version featured Katy climbing onto that fateful swing, from which she will fall and damage her back. Another novel in which a swing features, albeit this time a long garden swing, is that journey through the history of philosophy that was all the rage in the early 1990s, Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World.  The part played by the swing is hardly pivotal but it has stuck in my memory because in the English translation it was rendered as ‘glider’.  This made sense to an American audience but completely flummoxed me, as I had never heard a garden swing referred to in this way and therefore couldn’t understand why the two characters concerned had suddenly taken to the skies. Apart from anything else who keeps a glider plane sitting in their garden just waiting for the next time they want to engage in a bit of philosophical conversation?  It was only years later when I just happened to find myself sitting next to the person who had made the translation at a literary conference that I discovered what was really going on. Translation matters!

So, from an exploration of the philosophy of kindness to the history of the philosophy of the world.  Where has your six degrees of separation taken you?