With the holiday season in full swing, I find myself wanting to read a very specific type of feel good book. Not necessarily books with a holiday theme--although those can be festive, they also seem to be few and far between. The feel good books I'm talking about are the ones that manage to combine a story that completely absorbs me with a theme that's just uplifting enough to restore my faith in humanity a little. They're the kind of books that you want to read while curled up by a fire and leave you feeling full of the good cheer of the season. Lucky for you, I have two books that fit the bill perfectly.
The first is a book by Maud Hart Lovelace, who many people know as the author of the beloved Betsy-Tacy children's series. When I stumbled across Emily of Deep Valley, a standalone book she wrote for adults, I was intrigued enough to pick it up.
Two caveats to what I just said. First, although it's an adult novel, it still deals with a group of very young characters. Emily, the heroine, just graduated from high school in the class of 1910 in Deep Valley, the same town that serves as the setting for all of the Betsy-Tacy books. Which brings me to my second caveat, that although it is a standalone book, there are some cameos made by the author's other characters, like Betsy and Tacy themselves. Those more famous characters are a few years older than Emily, who is a smart, sweet, and reserved girl who's always been a little bit of an outsider, even among her group of school friends. Orphaned at a young age, she lives with her elderly grandfather and it's because of her devotion to him that Emily stays behind in Deep Valley after graduating. Once the rest of her class leaves for college, Emily finds herself struggling with feelings of being left behind, stuck in an old version of herself while everyone around her moves on and changes. It's a universally familiar situation that makes it impossible not to root for Emily as the novel progresses and she begins to find small ways to find her place in the world and define herself according to her own terms. It's a simple, quiet story that's innocent without feeling too saccharine. Some of the details of the time period naturally feel a little big quaint, but overall the novel still manages to feel modern and relevant. There's even a part of the plot involving Emily's work with a group of Syrian immigrants that seems almost startlingly current. There's a lot to love about this book, whether or not you're a Betsy-Tacy veteran. I liked it so much that when I finished it, I was in the mood to read something else I'd be guaranteed to love. That meant there was only one thing to do: re-read Persuasion.
This time around, just a short way into the story of Anne Elliot, I was struck by the fact that Austen's oldest heroine struggles with many of the same themes that are prominent in Emily of Deep Valley. At twenty-six, Anne's starts out as a passive character living in a world where everything is changing around her. Her family home is being let out to save money. Her father and older sister are looking forward to moving from the country to Bath. Her younger sister is married and absorbed in herself and her own affairs. And with one broken engagement and one refused proposal behind her, Anne doesn't seem to have any life changing prospects ahead of her. Ultimately it's the reentry of Captain Wentworth, her former fiancé, into Anne's life that gradually spurs her into small acts that allow her to strike out against the current that she's being swept on by her family and friends, acts like visiting her poor friend Mrs. Smith instead of her aristocratic relatives or stepping out of a receiving line to acknowledge Wentworth. Although it might seem like Wentworth comes back to Anne and saves her, this reading made it apparent to me--and I know I'm about to sound like a women's magazine here-- that it was really through her own volition that she managed to improve her own life. (The other thing this reading made me realize is that, despite being one of my favorite Austen leading men, Wentworth starts out as kind of a jerk! Luckily he redeems himself well by the novel's end.)
So, do you have any recommendations for feel good books this time of year? And more importantly, will you indulge me and let one paragraph about Persuasion count toward my Classics Club challenge? Two down, forty-eight more to go.