When it comes to books, I’m an easy crowd.
Pass me a paperback from Liane Moriarty and I’ll probably enjoy it. Lend me Jonathan Franzen’s latest literary novel and I won’t be able to stop reading. Send me Jill Abrahmson’s book on the digital revolution of the media industry and I’m addicted. (I am actually addicted to this right now – it’s fantastic.)
But not everyone is as easy to please, and when I’m asked for book recommendations I often find myself making lightening-fast calculations: are you the kind of person who likes beach reads or brainy Virago classics? Will you be offended if I suggest a crime novel or actually, deeply upset and offended if I recommend a book that’s truly confronting (Hello, We Need To Talk About Kevin and A Little Life)
Thank goodness, then, for those books that you can recommend to anyone – the failsafe reads that are virtually guaranteed to please girlfriends and grandmas alike, the books that you can comfortably suggest to anyone who asks.
We asked six writers, editors and keen readers to share the one “crowdpleaser” book they’d recommend to anyone. Here’s what they said:
The Glad Shout, Alice Robinson – Clementine Ford, author, commentator
“Lately, I have been urging everyone to read Alice Robinson’s ‘The Glad Shout’. It’s part dystopian warning, part exploration of motherhood as a matter of survival. Just astonishing!”
“Despite all the hype (and my borderline creepy obsession with Barack Obama), I didn’t expect to like ‘Becoming’ as much as I did. Michelle Obama’s book perfectly walked the line between being a funny – and sometimes incredibly emotional – memoir, a love story and a tale of triumph against all odds. It made me laugh out loud, ugly cry on a plane and call my mum for an impromptu trans-Tasman book club meeting.”
“The Group is about eight female college graduates who land in New York in the mid-1930s and seek to make lives for themselves. It is racy, it is sharp, it is intelligent. It draws women’s lives in all their complexity, conflict, brilliance and disappointment.
It is both completely of its time and place, and also of ours, because it explores the conflict of women realising themselves while facing the restrictions imposed on them by marriage and childbirth. It is also an excellent cautionary tale on the importance of women marrying well!”
All my friends are breaking up with their partners at the moment, which means I’ve been recommending this book quite a bit. It’s not that it’s about breakups per se, but it is about how to nurture and prioritise the greatest love you’ll ever have in your life: yourself. It’s the best thing to read when you’re broken-hearted but, equally, it’s a failsafe recommendation for any woman who struggles with imposter syndrome and insecurities, which is to say, almost all of us.
Normal People by Sally Rooney – Felicity Robinson, co-founder Primer
For a while last year, Normal People was the book everyone was talking about. Feted as a “future classic”, the novel won the Costa Award and was short-listed for the Man Booker, and its 26-year-old author was deemed the voice of her generation.
And you know what? Every single breathless word of praise was deserved. I love this book, and I’m not even a Millennial. Sure, from the point of view of plot, not much happens – but the story remains utterly absorbing. The two main characters, soccer-playing cool kid Connell and his intellectual friend, and later lover, Marianne circle each other in the floodlight of Rooney’s beautiful writing, their every thought and feeling revealed with piercing and sometimes heart-breaking clarity. It makes you remember the fear, awkwardness and exhilaration of being in your late teens and early 20s, when anything is possible and the future lies in front of you like a wonderland, waiting, if you’ll only take the first step into it.
Anything from Meg Wolitzer – Anna Saunders, co-founder of Primer
There’s something inordinately pleasing about discovering an author just before they become stratospherically famous. For me that author is Meg Wolitzer (whose book The Wife was recently made into a film starring Glen Close).
At the risk of sounding smug, I first came across Wolitzer in 2013 when a proof for her epic novel The Interestings came across my desk. The Interestings follows a group of friends from the moment they meet at summer camp through into middle age, and it’s a brilliant exploration of the ways in which money, success and friendship intersect. (Spoiler alert: not well.) Since The Interestings, I’ve read plenty more Meg Wolitzer books and discovered that many, pleasingly, have a feminist underpinnings, which I love. My favourites are The Wife, The Interestings and The Position.
What are your failsafe reads?
Photograph: Edward Urrutia