What We're Reading - 28 May 2021

Lucy Nathan
Opinion - Books Friday, 28th May 2021

The BookBrunch team reveals what's on their bedside tables


Neill Denny
Hard to see day-to-day the tremendous changes in women's lives over the last century, yet seen from 2021 the idea common in the 1920s that women should resign their job on marriage, let alone motherhood (as my Granny did), seems frankly bizarre. Today three-quarters of mothers are in paid employment, and no-one bats an eyelid. This enormous below-the-radar change in society is the subject of Helen McCarthy's Double Lives: a history of working motherhood (Bloomsbury). Highly detailed, with a mix of anecdotal reportage and evidence-based analysis, this is an impressive piece of work into an overlooked area, rightly shortlisted for this year's Wolfson Prize. You will never think of your mother, or her mother, in quite the same way again.

Jo Henry
I tried Barbara Pym many years ago and found her unreadable, so when a friend lent me The Sweet Dove Died (Pan) by her recently I felt it was about time to give her another go - and I’m glad I did. A quiet novel, set in 60s London, it reminded me of vintage Anita Brookner in its focused gaze on middle aged Leonora and her (sexless) relationships with antique dealer Humphrey and his nephew James. Leonora is not a particularly sympathetic character with her snobby and pernickety ways, but Pym’s dissection of the world of single, 50-something women is as pitiless as it is poignant, and her depiction of the bisexual James totally unjudgmental. It’s a late work by her, and it will be interesting to see if I enjoy any other of her novels as much now.

Lucy Nathan
I'm halfway through The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue (Picador) and finding it a thoroughly impressive novel. Set in Dublin in 1918, it follows three days in the life of Nurse Julia Powers, who works on a ward for expectant mothers who have been struck down by Spanish flu. Because of the pandemic we've been through, parts of the novel feel eerily prescient - the discussion of masks, for instance, which would have felt much more strange if I wasn't in a world living through Covid. The quiet way that Donoghue writes about horrifying things makes them all the more affecting.

Nicholas Clee
I loved Maggie Shipstead's beady-eyed story of family life Seating Arrangements, winner of the 2012 Dylan Thomas Prize. I missed her next, but picked up Great Circle (Doubleday) keenly. At first, all was well: I was thoroughly enjoying this clever author’s dyspeptic view of modern Hollywood and her main, historical narrative following the life of a fictional aviator, Marian Graves. But then I found that the writing, particularly in the historical passages, began to lose its edge. (It's a problem with a good deal of historical fiction, in my opinion: novelists are wary of using their own voices, for fear of anachronism, and end up deadening their prose.) Some have likened Great Circle to The Goldfinch and A Little Life; I found that those novels, while somewhat overheated, exerted a narrative tension that Great Circle lacks. But I note that people I respect, including my colleague Lucy Nathan and Erica Wagner in the Guardian, have disagreed.