Cathy Rentzenbrink: My comfort reads
"I’ve always loved books and reading, and ferreting out the life lessons hidden in everything from the Stoics to Narnia."
Cathy Rentzenbrink, A Manual for Heartache
When Cathy Rentzenbrink was still a teenager, her happy family was torn apart by an unthinkable tragedy. In her new book A Manual for Heartache she describes the experience of coming to terms with loss, offering advice for ways to cope with whatever life throws at you. Here, Cathy shares her comfort reads, the books she turns to time and again during dark times.
Cassandra is seventeen when she starts writing a diary into a sixpenny notebook while sitting in the kitchen sink. She writes about her once famous father who is struggling with writers’ block and does nothing apart from read detective novels, her outlandish stepmother who tries her best to eke out their supplies – the only thing they really have enough of is floor – and her beautiful older sister Rose who is considering going on the streets, though that might be hard to do in the depths of Suffolk. Then rich Americans come to live nearby and everything changes…
When Lucia comes to picturesque Tilling for the summer she is thrilled to find that there is plenty of intrigue as Miss Mapp, a globular woman with large teeth who looks rather like a hungry hyena, strives to keep hold of her role as Queen of Tilling. A battle commences for social supremacy as both ladies seek to woo their acquaintances with bridge parties, musical recitals and nougat chocolates. Who will triumph? Snobbery and spitefulness has never been so much fun.
I could spend the rest of my life rereading this novel. Fanny’s own parents are not much interested in her so she spends most holidays with alarming Uncle Matthew, kindly but vague Aunt Sadie and her Radlett cousins who are full of charm and laughter. Linda is pursuing love but has to suffer through two boring husbands before being rewarded with the prize of a rich French Duke called Fabrice. This slim novel might be about love, but is infused with melancholy and loss, though another joke is never far away whenever a Radlett suffers.
Country estates, imposters, romances, stolen cow creamers and fat pigs… Wodehouse is enormous fun. Something Fresh is the first in the Blandings Castle series and a good place to start. There are some very good audio versions read by Martin Jarvis for when even reading feels like a bit too much effort. I listened to them in late pregnancy when moving around became too hard and I wanted to give myself and the baby a bit of a laugh. I’ve also recommended them as a good way to pass the time during the gruesome stages of chemotherapy.
Oh how I love Georgette Heyer who is a most underrated comic novelistic. Her best novels could be described as regency romances but that doesn’t begin to do justice to the sparkle and humour on offer. Some good ones are Arabella, Venetia, Frederica and Friday’s Child. She mocks the more obvious romantic hero type and her heroines are often not typical. Heyer writes drunkenness very well and has a good line in irresponsible brothers and their dopey friends. I rather long to reread them all in publication order.
I find crime novels set in the past extremely soothing, especially Agatha Christie, Patricia Wentworth and the Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters.
I can’t ever work out why I get so much pleasure from rereading detective novels where I know the outcome, but I do. Perhaps it is something to do with seeing order restored. I enjoy the glimpses of social history offered in novels set in the first half of the twentieth century and find it satisfying to pick up incidental knowledge about marriage and divorce, the life of servants, rationing, education and how transport works. I get highly excited when a character goes down into a tube station that is no longer in use, or, as in The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie, gets in a lift that no longer exists.
The Brother Cadfael novels are full of heart and have a pleasing ‘this too shall pass’ atmosphere about them. My favourite way to consume these is the audio versions read by Derek Jacobi. They really have held my hand through some dark times.
A Manual for Heartache by Cathy Rentzenbrink is available in hardback and ebook now.