Thursday, January 9, 2014

Beloved Books

Elizabeth Zelvin

On the mystery e-list DorothyL not long ago, Josephine Tey's Golden Age mystery Brat Farrar became the subject of a prolonged discussion. It's come up more than once before. There's plenty for mystery lovers to say about this book. For example, is it the best of Tey's small output of eight enduring mysteries, or do readers prefer The Daughter of Time or The Franchise Affair? It's on any list of impersonation and inheritance mysteries, another topic DLers turned to recently. It's also a horse mystery. But none of that came up in the latest discussion. These avid readers and re-readers, myself included, were tripping over each other in our eagerness to say, not merely that we loved this book, but that Brat Farrar, both the book and its eponymous protagonist, were beloved. "I love it to pieces," one enthusiast commented.

What makes a book beloved? (And as a writer, don't I wish it could be bottled?) For me, the key is that we fall in love with the characters. As someone pointed out in the discussion I've mentioned, although Brat is committing a crime by impersonating a boy who disappeared for the sake of an inheritance, his reasons for doing so--his loneliness, his hard luck, his yearning to belong--immediately engage our sympathies. He is such an appealing character, so genuinely decent, that we quickly find ourselves rooting for him. And the people among whom he finds himself--except, of course, for the villain--are equally endearing: the kind of family we'd love to have ourselves if we were horse-loving Brits in the English countryside a few decades ago.

That's the first of my top three beloved books. The second is Gaudy Night, the next-to-last and richest of Dorothy L. Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. It's the one that has prompted critics to say that Sayers actually fell in love with her protagonist. To tell the truth, I don't see what's so bad about that. Lord Peter, who started out in the early novels as a flat-character cross between Sherlock Holmes and Bertie Wooster, has developed by Gaudy Night into a startlingly complex character with such a finely tuned sense of honor in relationships that it's no wonder that Harriet Vane, who's been holding out since they met in Strong Poison, throws away her feminist scruples and falls in love with him too.

Harriet Vane herself is the other reason we love Gaudy Night so much. The setting of an Oxford women's college in the Thirties, when intelligent women were forced to choose between scholarship and marriage, appeals to the sensibilities of a twenty-first century woman like me. There's no murder in Gaudy Night, only an increasingly pernicious poisoned pen, a near-suicide, and a couple of assaults. These provide ample grounds for detection and free Sayers to write a multilayered character-driven novel that wins our hearts.

My third beloved book is outside the mystery genre: A Civil Campaign, Lois McMaster Bujold's cross between space opera and comedy of manners, part of the brilliant Vorkosigan saga. Bujold dedicates it to "Jane, Charlotte, Dorothy, and Georgette"--the Brontes, Sayers herself, and Heyer, an author of Golden Age mysteries herself along with her lighthearted and durable Regency romances. Like Gaudy Night, it's a novel of courtship between two complex and endearing characters. There are some subplots of mind-boggling brilliance, dazzlingly imaginative world-building that provides a context for ideas and issues that are relevant to the present-day reader, and a cast of characters, Miles Vorkosigan's family and friends, whom I for one would be thrilled to take home with me. A bonus: the book is hilarious--laugh-out-loud funny--even on repeated re-readings.


Anonymous said...

Yes,Elizabeth, I love the books in which I love the characters and totally agree with your choices. I will reread those books again and again.

BPL Ref said...

Great post! Brat is perhaps one of my favorite books of all time, and I love Gaudy Night. I've read the first two or so in the Miles series and need to finish up!

Julia Buckley said...

So hard to pick three--or at least the three I give you now might not be the three I give you in an hour. BUT my list of beloveds would be this right now:


lil Gluckstern said...

I like a lot of characters and treasure my connecting with them. But the one that really grabs me Is one of the authors on this blog. I have had a crush on Crispin Guest since I first read his story.

Sandra Parshall said...

The book I could read a million times without tiring of it is Out of Africa.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Trying to decide whether a crush on a character is the same as a beloved book. I have a crush on Jamie Fraser and the Outlander series are among my favorite books, but how I feel about them is somehow different from how I feel about Brat Farrar. Or is it? It's great fun to talk about, though, isn't it?

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