Ten Books That Changed Me with Maggie Alderson
All these books made me swoon and thrill in different ways. I’ve listed them in the order that I read them, because I feel each one taught me something new about love and made me ready for the next lesson.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
There was a funny old copy of this in the playroom at home and I used to pick it up and look at the illustration of women in weird bonnets on the cover, which I didn’t find appealing. I didn’t understand the title either. One boring afternoon when I was about 12, I picked it up and read the first sentence. Then I read it a few more times, rolling it around in my head like sucking on a boiled sweet and realised that, not only did I understand it, but it was funny. Then I read the whole book and loved it. I’ve read it many times since and always find something new to savour, but that first reading was the great revelation of my book life.
The Outsiders by SE Hinton
This book about young ‘greasers’ in high school gangs in America in the late 1960s, written by a 16 year old girl, thrilled me to the core. It’s not a girl/boy thing, but it was my first experience of the romance of the rebel and I adored it – and all her other books.
Flambards by K M Peyton
I inhaled the whole trilogy when I was 14, staying awake all night to finish the second one The Edge of a Cloud. They are truly properly romantic, with the setting a big part of the story and although I was never a horsey kid, I loved all the horse stuff in them. I recently re-read them with great pleasure (but didn’t like the fourth one which was written more recently). These books also inspired something I’ve used in my books, which I also picked up from…
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
When I started to write my first book, Pants on Fire, I re-read books which made me feel the way I wanted my book to make people feel – one was Flambards, this was another. I realised they shared a device: there are three gorgeous and very different men in them and as a reader you are madly in love with all three and not sure which one you want the heroine to go for. It’s also used in A Suitable Boy (another favourite I’ve just snuck in here…). I used that idea in my book.
Bonjour Tristesse by Francois Sagan
I was about 15 when I read this and had experienced my first heartbreak (some spotty Herbert at school whose name I can’t even remember) and made me feel very sophisticated. I think it was the first book I’d read in translation and I’d leave it ostentatiously lying around whenever I could. ‘Oh, do you like Sagan?’ that kind of thing. I’d probably loathe it now – French writers can be a bit painful – but I loved it then. I then went on to read all of Colette’s books which were much more fun.
Villette by Charlotte Bronte
I was so moved by this book, I thought I might need to take to my bed. I much prefer it to Jane Eyre. I’ve always found the mad woman in the tower thing too overwrought. Villette is much tighter in scope and at a time when my hormones were like Riverdance in my blood stream I totally related to the young woman’s heaving bosom inside strict corsets. The great unspoken is so powerful. I’m never going to read it again, because it was such a sublime experience when I was 16 and I’d hate to like it less. (When I tried to re-read Wuthering Heights recently I couldn’t finish it…)
The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this and it never disappoints. I always remember it as madly romantic and then I’m surprised that the first two thirds are really Ms Mitford’s autobiography of her insane aristocratic family and simply hilarious. Then suddenly – wham! – it does turn into a romance and the ending never fails to make me cry. Even more poignant when you know that aspect was autobiographical too. Thinking about it, I’m due another read of this.
The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis
Oh, I swoon just thinking about this book. Not for the usual reasons. It’s the sheer brilliance of Martin Amis’s writing which thrills me. He’s my literary crush of all time. Howlingly, wickedly, fearlessly funny. An outrageously clever show off. I read this just before I went to uni and found my best friend for life in my first week there, bonding over our mutual love of it. But behind the bravado of the hero – Charles Highway – there lies a very touching love story. (And I was highly tickled a few years ago to discover that I’m connected by one degree of separation to the woman who inspired Rachel. Her name is Gully Wells and she writes fascinatingly about Mr A in her very enjoyable memoir The House in France.)
On The Road by Jack Kerouac
There is a love story of sorts in this, but a very unsatisfactory one. It’s a different kind of romance that speaks to me in it – similar to what I found in the The Outsiders. Incredibly cool (and hot) young guys who break out from the norm. Also the way Kerouac wrote it, on one long roll of paper, up for days and nights on uppers. I was very impressed by the Beats in my David-Bowie-Berlin-era days at uni. And I still am. As Allen Ginsberg put it: ‘Angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…’ Count me in.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Skip through the boring bits about battles and Freemasonry – and beware the stupid essay at the end about tanks in warfare, in fact mark the real end with a post-it note before you start reading – and plunge into the most devastating romance ever written. I will never get over my love for Prince Andrei… NEVER.