When the laundry piles are threatening to avalanche and the kids are asking you for a zillion things at once and your schedule is crammed to the max with all the things that make up the life of a modern woman, sometimes you just want to get away. And — Calgon ads notwithstanding — my preferred method of escape is a good book.
And not just any good book, by the way. I’m talking about a good novel, the kind of book with a twisty-turny plot and a heap of suspense and a splash of mystery and maybe even a spot of romance. It’s the kind of book that is, to use a marvelous word, unputdownable.
And I have a few titles to share, if you’re into that kind of thing.
1) The novels of Mary Stewart. This gal could write, and write she did, penning a great many suspense novels from the 1950s to 197os and beyond (her earlier ones are the best, if you ask me). Think of her books as James Bond for women: there are exotic settings (Greece, the Middle East, the Alps), lots of action and cliffhangers, smart heroines who can think on their feet, and romance, too. Her books are being reissued slowly but surely in fabulous new editions, and I’ve found that libraries are pretty good at carrying them, too. If you’ve never read her books, I’d start with The Ivy Tree (the first one I ever read –it had me in its thrall for an entire weekend) or Nine Coaches Waiting or This Rough Magic. And if you’ve never read her books, let me also say this: I envy you, because I wish I could discover them all over again.
2. The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins. Collins was a hugely popular Victorian novelist who wrote lots of classics in the mystery genre, including The Woman in White and The Moonstone (both excellent). Last summer I re-read The Dead Secret, and loved its marvelous spine-tingliness. Think old crumbling English estates, carriages and crinolines, assorted characters of a variety of social classes who harbor potentially earth-blowing secrets, and you’ve got Collins. He was a master of the suspenseful scene, too, so be warned: you’ll have a hard time stopping to make dinner.
3. If you’ve never read Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier, stop reading this blog and go get a copy. (And line up a babysitter for the next two days.) It’s the reigning queen of romantic suspense, and for good reason. DuMaurier evokes a sense of place so perfectly; you really feel you’re there at this grand old coastal estate in Cornwall. The book is also a brilliant example of perfectly-pitched first person narration. And then there’s the wonderfully creepy Mrs. Danvers … aw, seriously, just read it now. (And the Hitchcock movie, good as it is, simply isn’t a substitute for the real thing.)
4. Anya Seton wrote a whole slew of historical novels, many of which I’ve read, and her books are marvelous at immersing you in a different time and place. For overall impact, I’d start with her book Katherine; for Gothic suspense, go with Dragonwyck. Either way, you can count on rich historical detail and descriptions that make your current reality recede for a bit.
5. I have the uncomfortable feeling that if I admit to having read and liked some Victoria Holt novels, my college will come and take back my English degree. But hey: I have, and I did. Sure, they are not “great literature,” but they will keep you turning pages, and if you like stories set in big rambling English estates and featuring brooding Byronic men and all kinds of creepy happenings, check out Bride of Pendorric or The Mistress of Mellyn.
6. Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon is one of those books that was oh-so-scandalous back when it was first published back in 1862. (In fact, I first heard of it as a child in the book Betsy-Tacy Go Downtown, when it is mentioned as one of those racy novels that Betsy and Tacy know their parents don’t want them to read.) From a modern perspective, it’s hardly going to offend anyone, and it’s a darn good story too. It’s very similar to Wilkie Collins, and I can’t say much more without giving away spoilers. Fun and then some.
7. Kate Morton is the modern successor to all the writers above, and she’s great at spinning a compelling and mysterious plot. I’ve read all four of her novels, and loved The Forgotten Garden and The Secret-Keeper in particular.
I’m sure other titles will occur to me later, but this is a good first pass. So what’s your favorite unputdownable novel? I’m always looking for suggestions!