Re-reading and The Feast of Love

11 May 2008

Throughout my teens and in my very early twenties, there were a handful of books that I read and re-read, some of them multiple times. Some of these were just books that I hugely enjoyed and others were those I felt really 'understood' me, in that awful teenage way. So, to name a few, The Catcher in the Rye (of course), Wuthering HeightsHigh Fidelity,Bridget Jones’s DiaryA Prayer for Owen MeanyThe Crow Road.

I'm fairly confident that I haven't re-read a single book in the last ten years. Why is this? Those annoying distractions that prevent you from just sitting in a chair all day such as, for example, having to go into work and having to prepare your own food. Time is short, and there are too many books to read in the first place. But on holiday two weeks ago, I read a book that I wanted to re-read, and almost immediately. (I was reminded of those book jacket review quotes you see sometimes saying things like 'So brilliant that I picked it up and started again as soon as I'd finished', which I had previously dismissed as nonsense.)

The book was The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter. For those who don't know him, Baxter is an American literary novelist and short story writer, not especially well-known in the UK, and I think The Feast of Love is his only book in print here. He recently seems to have become marginally better-known, thanks to the fact that Nick Hornby is a fan, as is Scott Pack. Scott here says of Baxter: 'I can't explain why I like him so much. Watch me now as I fail miserably.'

Well, watch me now as I fail even more miserably. The Feast of Love is definitely not one of the best books I've ever read. But it's the first book I've read for ages that I felt was written 'for me', in that specific self-centred adolescent way described above. It's most definitely a book about proper people in interesting situations - basically, it's just a book of stories about a group of people in Michigan, and their love stories and other relationships. But 'just stories about relationships' doesn't do it justice. One of the characters in the book says (having just told the story of the love affair that led to the break-up of her marriage): 'You think that what I've just told you is an anecdote. But really it isn't. It's my whole life. It's the only story I have.'

If Philip Roth, Frank Capra and Sarah Cracknell from St Etienne all collaborated on a novel, I imagine the result could be something like The Feast of Love. How's that for a bad description? Here's another one: it's one of those books that manages to make you feel good even about some bad things. Which is one reason why I don't think Scott's Richard Yates comparison works, as Yates manages to make you feel bad about usually good things. (Relationships, kids, parents, friends, Yates makes them all seem so dreadful we might as well kill ourselves now.)

The US edition I bought on holiday has a film-tie-in cover. The film, released in the US but not yet here, evidently stars Morgan Freeman and Greg Kinnear. The jacket also pictures a heart-shaped croissant and a heart-shaped milk spill in a cup of coffee, which I don't feel bodes well for it. The book is very romantic in a way that could become simply cloying and sentimental when translated to film.

What do we all think about the re-reading of books?