The things you remember about books often have nothing to do with their ‘literary merit’, a dubious concept in and of itself. Recently I’ve been thinking about Patricia Scanlan, whose books I devoured between the ages of about ten and seventeen (not quite the target age, methinks, but anyway). And the bitchy or otherwise havoc-causing characters in her books. And their motivations, their thought processes, their selfishness and their realness… I’ve never read anyone who quite gets bitchy characters down on the page as well as Patricia Scanlan does.
Miserly characters… it’s not even Ebeneezer Scrooge that takes the biscuit (or crumb) here, but Nancy. Miss Mouse. Nancy is a character in a short story collection by Maeve Binchy, The Lilac Bus, and to this day she is one of the most vivid characters in the fictional universe as I know it. Nancy is as mean as they come, careful as she thinks, the kind of woman who goes into the butcher’s and buys two rashers. And then she hears people talking about her, is shocked, learns her lesson… and immediately starts thinking about how to appear generous while still keeping her costs down. All in maybe ten or fifteen pages.
Jenny in Caroline B Cooney’s Among Friends stays with me as the seemingly perfect girl with angst. Marcy of The Cat Ate My Gymsuit and There’s A Bat In Bunk Five fame stays with me as someone who learns things about herself and makes mistakes. Victoria Martin’s (Francine Pascal’s trilogy) trials and tribulations through hanging out with her mother as a teenager in the 1940s, working as an au pair for a flaky woman who won’t let her kids see their grandfather, and hooking up with her best friend’s boyfriend while working as a camper-waitress, definitely stay with me. Darrell losing her temper in the first Malory Towers book (and later books), and then having her play performed in the fifth form.
I have a feeling it is to do with the age you read these things at. They’re not all kids’ books, but they’re all books I read before my mid-teens, which makes me wonder… if I’d actually finished Pride and flippin’ Prejudice at that age, would I be (like so many people I know) utterly smitten with Mr Darcy and in awe of Elizabeth instead of just being a bit ‘meh’ about the whole thing? If I had Read More Classics as my teachers so desperately wanted me to, would I be gushing over said Classics instead of thinking, well, some of them are okay, but honestly, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking the label is an objective one? Or would I still feel that it’s not so much whether the literary critics deem something a great work or a fluffy beach read, but about those bits that are so astute and so true, that they stay with you years later?
Happy World Book Day, folks.