Recently, a customer was asking about a copy of The Bell Jar to send to her granddaughter. “Do you think she’d like it? She’s been going through a very rough time lately with her young man.”
“NOOOOOOOO!” we booksellers cried as one, throwing our bodies in front of the classic literature stacks.
Alright, that’s the dramatized version. What actually happened was, Nancy said, “Um, well, I’m not sure that’s a very good…er…” and Reid fled to the basement, and I said, “You really have to be in an emotionally secure place for Plath. She doesn’t want to read that now. Let’s find you something cheery.”
Years ago, I made the mistake of giving a copy of The Bell Jar to a good friend who was sad. Needless to say, this did not help. Individuals currently on pain meds, starting birth control pills or other hormone-based therapy, beginning a regimen of blood pressure regulating drugs, being treated for depression, anxiety or other emotional ills, or even just having an off day should avoid Plath like the plague. Her writing – both verse and prose – has great power and emotional heft and is best left for better days. The Bell Jar does have one of my very favorite (and supremely creepy) opening lines though:
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
If you don’t know the story, it’s not like it gets any sunnier from there. Not good stuff to read while experiencing heartbreak.
What is? Here are some ideas – all safe as a hot cuppa, comforting as a pint of Ben & Jerry’s:
Kaya McLaren’s novels, The Church of the Dog and On the Divinity of Second Chances, are both uplifting in a non-goopy way.
I also like Peculiar People: The Story of My Life by Augustus Hare, for pure it-could-be-worse-you-could-be-him value. He laments the Decline of The English Eccentric. His stories are enchanting, but I can’t share his reluctance to see these people go. Loons, every one. I have also sometimes wondered if Augusten Burroughs wasn’t influenced by this writer, or if he might even have chosen his name based on Hare’s, but then I think that Augusten Burroughs can hardly be a pseudonym, because who would do that to themselves?
Anything by Henry Mitchell. I first came upon his Essential Earthman, a collection of his gardening column for The Washington Post, when I won a copy from the lavishly generous people at Indiana University Press (long story). His non-garden stuff is even better, though not much of it is still in print. He writes tenderly, with great understanding, and with the humor necessary for same. Try Any Day.
Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield is funny and diverting and contains little mention of love. Plenty of polite snark, though.
I Don\’t Care About Your Band by Julie Klausner and My Boyfriend Wrote a Book About Me (Hilary Winston) are good for general grrl power rallying and the exorcising of bitterness. Band is better, but the quote on the back of Boyfriend is, all by itself, worth the cover price. Oh, marketing department at Sterling, are there t-shirts? Can there be t-shirts?
F**k You, Box is, sadly, only available from the author as a digital download now, but is superb for this (or really, any) situation. Who doesn’t love a swearing cat?
Thus supplied and with plenty of chocolate, a girl can make it through some trying times.
But this, this is a book to shatter your heart and make you weep:
On Canaan\’s Side, by Sebastian Barry.
You don’t want your heart shattered? You don’t feel like weeping? You will. This is the sort of novel to make you glad you speak English. It is what our language is for. A haunting story, the book is unmatched for sheer lyricism. It is poetic, colloquial, and full of a wrenching beauty that will keep you reading, your mouth hanging open for more. Barry has been shortlisted for Man Bookers before and he won a Costa in 2008, so you open this book expecting something pretty good. And then Barry makes you fall in love with a suicidal 80 year old living on Long Island and leaves you praying that her talk will never cease. It comes out in September. Don’t’ miss it.