A Novel Calling: Eleanor Franzén’s Books That Were Written Just For Me

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Written by Eleanor Franzén

Love Like Salt by Helen Stevenson

In February, I read an advance proof copy of Helen Stevenson’s Love Like Salt, and although I’d never seen a word of it before, it felt somehow familiar. She wrote about everything I cared about: poetry, music, a faith that is rooted in but not identical to religion, France, chronic illness (her daughter has cystic fibrosis, I have type I diabetes), the curious experience of having a partner who is significantly older than you are. It was brilliant and disorienting; I felt as though Stevenson were living my life, albeit from a slightly different angle. It was like seeing a water-blurred reflection in a pond: not quite the same, but very, very similar. I loved reading Love Like Salt, but some of the things that Stevenson included in it cut so close to the bone that I almost couldn’t bring myself to review it. I identified with it so closely that telling anyone about it felt like reviewing myself, then asking people whether they agreed.

I did review it, in the end, because I had promised to and because I’m sort of an exhibitionist at heart and because I couldn’t bear to think of people maybe missing that book because I wasn’t brave enough to tell them how extraordinary it is. Then Victoria, lovely Shiny New editor and blogosphere friend, got in touch to see if I’d like to write about any other books that felt “written for me”. When I thought about it, I realized there were a few: maybe not my absolute all-time favourites, but the ones that touched deeply-buried impulses and preferences and longings, the ones that weren’t just speaking at me, but with me. If you had never met me, heard me, read a single thing I’d written, you could lay these three books on a table and have some sense of who I am.

Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh

A chubby, awkward girl with only one or two close friends and a fascination with other people’s lives (or an overdeveloped sense of nosiness; take your pick) discovers how badly you can hurt people as a writer, and how carefully you need to consider the feelings of others. Apart from the fact that we didn’t live in New York (we barely even had neighbours), this was 100% my childhood. Too intense and emotional to be a resounding social success at school, I scribbled in notebooks: far-fetched tales, scathing judgments, fantasies of revenge. One of these was found and read by a teacher and resulted in by far the most traumatic discipline of my school days, when I was made to meet with the principal. Like Harriet, what I wrote got me in trouble, but it was also a lifeline. I loved the idea of sneaking into other people’s houses, too. My copy of this book fell apart from re-reading; I held it together with packing tape.

The Choir, by Joanna Trollope

I blame two things for making me a singer: a Charlotte Church concert I saw on VHS when I was five, and this book. (It was actually a Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of this book, but I did read it, too.) It was already obvious that I could sing; what pushed me over the edge, when I was little, into wanting to sing was the sense of camaraderie and belonging and order that Trollope’s book evoked. Those wee boys walking along, showing off in an unconscious sort of way: “‘Ashford, sing A flat.’ Henry sang it. ‘Sing A double flat.’” The incestuous nature of the cathedral close. And how beautiful it all was, the buildings and the music alike, how professional and competent and witty and wonderful. I asked my parents to send me to a cathedral school; I was that desperate. They couldn’t, and in the end it didn’t matter–I sang all through high school and university anyway–but I still wish had been possible.

Possession, by A.S. Byatt

When I told my university tutor I was interested in a further degree, she looked at me suspiciously and said, “You haven’t read Possession, have you?” “…yeeees,” I said. “It’s my favourite book.” She howled. “Oh God–okay, well, first of all, academia is not like that.” “I know!” I said, indignantly. Then I didn’t get offered a place to do a Masters after all, so the point was moot, but, well, that should tell you what you need to know about me and Possession.

And, of course, Love Like Salt. It just gets me–what can I say?

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Eleanor blogs at Elle Thinks and is currently writing her first novel.