I missed September. I know. Apologies — I was neck deep in driving classes and exams. But I’m back, and I thought to make up for it, I’d do an extra long list for October: first, the usual reads, and a second list of spooky reads from women to celebrate the best month of the year.
To write this book, Lisa Taddeo followed and chronicled the lives of three American women over the span of nearly a decade. It’s a rare glimpse into the private struggles and desires of ordinary women who are dealing with past traumas, frustrated hopes, and the way the world receives them (and rejects them) based on their gender. There’s a polished restaurant owner whose husband has a cuckold fetish, a neglected housewife and mother who reconnects with a high school flame and is faced with the decision of whether or not to re-explore her romanticized past at the risk of losing her lackluster — but stable — present, and a high school student who has an affair with a trusted teacher, and then grows up to realize that he wasn’t so trustworthy after all. Three very different women with very different struggles, but they dovetail at interesting points, demonstrating the tension between female desire and the expectations that are hoisted upon women.
Briefly, A Delicious Life
George Sand/Chopin fan fiction, as narrated by the 400-year-old ghost of a teenage girl. It sounds nuts. It was, in fact, executed beautifully. When Blanca passes away in a monastery on a remote Spanish island, she is surprised to find that her spirit lingers. For centuries, she keeps watch over the monastery and its inhabitants, falling in love with some and loathing and haunting others. When the writer George Sand and her lover, the great composer Frédéric Chopin, arrive to stay at the monastery with Sand’s two children, Blanca quickly forms an intense attachment to the writer. Blanca’s own story unfolds in tandem with the story of the island’s newest and most eccentric inhabitants. It was an absolute delight to read.
Adèle is an upper middle class journalist in Paris who seems to have an enviable life at first glance. With a successful career, a doctor husband, a young son and a beautiful apartment, she appears to have achieved everything a modern woman could hope for, but there’s a darkness stirring under the surface, as Adéle battles a compulsive self-destructive streak that consists, among other things, of starving herself and pursuing evermore damaging and risky extramarital sexual encounters. This book is a painful read, and many of the reviews reflect that, but I personally don’t subscribe to the idea that books must be enjoyable to be good. Some things can’t be communicated in a way that’s comfortable to receive, and I think that in this case, the discomfort is the point.
Now, on to the spooky reads…
I’m not physically capable of making an October reading list without including Shirley Jackson. You may know her better for her infamous short story “The Lottery”, which resulted in a record number of letters being sent in to the New Yorker, or her novel, The Haunting of Hill House, which was very liberally adapted into a Netflix special a few years back. Hangsaman is one of her more overlooked works.
Like almost all of Jackson’s work, the horror here is inspired heavily by the setting and the fearful things that can go on in one’s own mind. The novel follows a young woman named Natalie’s journey from the conventional suburbs to the campus of a conventional college, and while Natalie appears unremarkable to the outside world, she lives an altogether different life inside her own head. On campus, she meets a young woman named Tony, in a way that seems almost fated — almost as if Natalie dreamt her up — and the two begin a series of adventures that grow increasingly ominous in tone. One of Jackson’s favorite tricks is the use of the uncanny to put the reader ill at ease, and Hangsaman is an excellent example of that.
We are told up front that the protagonist of this novel, 16-year-old Janet, is not going to make it to the end. She has been murdered, and now lies under the stairs of a castle dressed in her mother’s black lace wedding dress. But before we find out how or why she was murdered, we follow her life growing up in the dark and stormy setting of a castle in a remote village in northern Scotland. Gothic to the bone, this novel still managed to make me laugh out loud throughout. Janet is not the sweetest little girl, and she often fails to live up to the expectations of the adults that surround her, but she’s not entirely convinced that this is her own fault. More a coming-of-age story than a horror novel, this one still feels right for this list just based on the setting alone, which features heavily throughout and aids Janet greatly in her adolescent sense of the dramatic and the romantic.
Eileen is in her prime, but you would never know it. Stuck in the northeastern American town where she grew up, tending to her alcoholic father after her mother has passed, she spends her days working as a secretary at a boy’s prison and her nights dealing with the deranged demands of her father, all the while plotting her escape, which feels like nothing more than a sad fantasy. Like the other protagonists on this list, Eileen seems conventional and unremarkable at first glance, but her inner life is more complicated. She becomes sexually obsessed with one of the guards at the prison, and finds opportunities to stalk him, before ultimately falling in thrall to the prison’s new educational counselor, a glamorous woman named Rebecca who seems to be all the things that Eileen is not. Their relationship grows slowly darker in tone before coming to a violent head.
Happy reading! Let me know what you think.