Hearing that Marian Keyes has a new novel out in 2012, and having been rereading several of her books for the past few weeks, I think it may be time for a Marian Appreciation Post.
I once heard someone – a very bright girl, PhD-at-Oxbridge type – talk about Marian Keyes’s books in a very general, dismissive way. They were about shoes and shopping apparently. “I just think they’re so dangerous,” she said, without a trace of irony, shaking her head.
Part of this is obviously a much broader disdain for ‘chick lit’. It is astonishing the number of people who will agree and nod when you talk about genre snobbery, defending all the great things about, say, fantasy, and then immediately turn into one of those genre snobs when they say, ‘but I mean obviously chick lit is different, it’s rubbish’. And. Oh, we could go on about this for hours, couldn’t we? Days. Years. Every few months I see something rehashing the same old arguments about why chick lit is rubbish and demeaning to women and superficial and blah blah blah, and then a flurry of writers and readers getting irritated by it, and defending the books with arguments that range from ‘yes, but it’s supposed to be fluffy’ to ‘no, it’s not fluffy, actually’.
Look. Do we count Marian Keyes as chick lit? Well, yeah. Yeah, we do. Unless we’re praising her so much that we say she’s too good for the chick lit label. Which happens. But she’s not. She’s the perfect example of why chick lit, like any genre, is at its best absolutely extraordinary – because it’s being damn good fiction as well as being damn good at its particular genre.
The reread began a few months back, with The Other Side of the Story. I wanted something about publishing and writing and being the other woman. We get strange cravings sometimes. Two things that always strike me about that book: how the styles of the three characters are so different, particularly Lily’s, and how gender-in-the-workplace politics play out. But the reread really began in earnest a few weeks ago. Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married. It had never been my favourite, but when I reread it I was struck by how sad it is. It has this silly, absurd premise – a girl going to a fortune teller and hearing she’s going to be married soon – and so much sadness and pain underneath. I was struck by how unusual it is to see a depressed female character who’s genuinely depressed, but living with it, and who finds love but is not fixed. And how hilarious it is, too. (And sexy! Oh, Daniel.)
It is so, so hard to write something that is both hysterically funny (not just sort-of wryly amusing) and achingly sad. It is so hard to write something that is whimsical and zany and still has characters that feel real.
I reread the Walsh family books after that. I’d read Rachel’s Holiday several times – it’s one of my favourite books of all time – but what I noticed on this intense reread was how similar (and excellent) they all are. How Irish. Because most of these women – Rachel, Maggie, Anna – cannot handle their disasters. They can’t talk about them. They want to pretend that they don’t exist. They want to shove things under the rug and hope they disappear.
And they’re funny. They’re all hysterically funny, even though they are all horribly sad at the same time — Claire’s realisation that her husband has been manipulating her, Rachel’s epiphany about being an addict, Maggie holding on to that teenage secret and pain, Anna’s grief. (Anybody Out There? is heartbreaking. I’d only read it once since it came out, except for rereading that one scene with Anna and Rachel, after she has the dream about Aidan – you’ll remember it if you’ve read it. It has zany elements – like Helen’s exploits as a private investigator – and it has glossy elements – like Anna’s job in make-up PR – but they don’t make it a ‘quick beach read’ so much as keep it from being completely bleak.) But they’re not ditzy. They’re not fluffy. Compulsively readable, yes, but not instantly forgettable.
(People sometimes compare books to food – this idea that chick lit is dessert and that we all like junk food and it doesn’t mean we won’t eat our broccoli. I don’t know. I think chick lit is more like pizza – you know, you can get the takeaway stuff or you can have a homemade, exquisitely crafted one. Like it’s food and it’s not so much that it’s bad for you so much as any food consumed all the time probably isn’t going to do you much good.)
Life is a very sad place sometimes. And dreadful things happen, and hard things happen. And some of these things happen to women, or are more likely to happen to women, or are experienced differently by women, and there is an awful lot of that in Keyes’s books. There’s domestic abuse. Being widowed. Being abandoned by the father of your child. Abortion. Infertility. Alcoholism. Rape. Caring for a parent when others in the family won’t step up. Being treated a certain way at work because of being female, or how you’re being female, or the way you look. And sometimes these are resolved in happier ways than they might tend to in real life, but more often than not they are hopeful without being saccharine – more about moving on than finding a magical fix-it.
These are books in which the things that happen to women matter, and are what the book focuses on. They’re books that are serious without being heavy-handed and solemn, and funny without being dismissive or trivial. It’s so hard to do, and anyone who’s ever rolled their eyes at a writer who can pull it off and say ‘oh, I could write one of those, if I wanted to’ is a fool. And anyone who thinks they’re somehow harmful… well. The world is a harmful place, but stories that acknowledge that, and are hopeful and funny despite it all, make it a little bit better, not worse.
“I want there to be more to my books than romance. I want there to be pain, and real issues to be faced.
I tried to walk a fine line between humour and telling quite a grim story. Because there is always humour. I’ve learned that myself.”
– Marian Keyes, on writing ‘Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married’