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The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry

The Library of Unrequited Love

Translated by Siân Reynolds, this short French novel is an amusing soliloquy in the voice of a librarian. She finds someone who has been locked in overnight, and variously scolds, enlightens and lectures them on literature, subject hierarchies, book classification, and her secret crush. Stuck in the Geography section in the basement, she wishes to been allowed to work on History or Literature.

Here’s my favourite passage: ‘To know your way around a library is to master the whole culture, i.e. the whole world.’ As with previous best-sellers, I intend to tell you what I thought of it through the incisive prompts of the ‘Reading Group Questions’, which have be so thoughtfully provided in the back pages.

1. What did you think of the fact that the person found in the library is never named or described? Did you imagine the librarian was talking to you, or did you have a picture in your head of the listener? For some reason, I felt she was talking to a male person, so no, I didn’t feel like she was talking to me, despite the lovely use of second person throughout. I think it’s a great device, as essentially the person is anonymous to her too, which is why she feels she can monologue freely.

2. Did you understand the librarian’s infatuation with Martin? Do you think she will ever speak to him about her feelings? Martin is a man who comes in regularly. All she knows about him is what he reads. It’s rather romantic, but essentially a flight of fancy. She will never speak to him: she is too shy, and it could shatter her imaginary ideal of him, which I think she sometimes enjoys. For example, she refers to a chair he never sits in as ‘Martin’s chair’ as that’s where she would like him to be. It’s a more satisfying image than the reality could ever be.

3. What do you think of the library as the setting of a love story, unrequited or otherwise? I think it’s charming. There are the clues to their personalities in the books they’re looking at; the stolen glances across the quiet study room; the light repartee that can be sparked by literature. There’s nothing more attractive than a firm grasp of the Dewey Decimal System. If I had a pound for every time someone asked me out in a library, I’d have £1.75.

4. The librarian has mixed feelings about her confinement to the Geography section. Which sections of the library would you never visit? I’m not very enamoured with local history; there seems to be a vast section of that, presumably due to the kind donations of local authors, who don’t realise that five other people have already written a guide to the history of cycle paths in their village. Food also fails to excite me. That said, I’m always open to suggestions.

I very much enjoyed all ninety-two pages of this witty and clever musing verging on diatribe. Have you read it? What did you think? Which sections of the library do you never visit? Comments please!

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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

When Harold Fry nips out one morning to post a letter, leaving his wife hoovering upstairs, he has no idea that he is about to walk from one end of the country to the other. He has no hiking boots or map, let alone a compass, waterproof or mobile phone. All he knows is that he must keep walking. To save someone else's life.

When Harold Fry nips out one morning to post a letter, leaving his wife hoovering upstairs, he has no idea that he is about to walk from one end of the country to the other. He has no hiking boots or map, let alone a compass, waterproof or mobile phone. All he knows is that he must keep walking. To save someone else’s life.

This year there has been a bit of a theme emerging in the bestseller list: older chaps who wander off in the tradition of the Latin solvitur ambulando, solving problems through walking. I cite as evidence The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared and now this tale of Harold Fry walking 627 miles because he believes it will save his friend from cancer. He sets off to post a letter to Queenie after she tells him her sad news. He walks past the postbox, deciding that a letter isn’t enough. Setting out in his deck shoes with no supplies or waterproofs, Harold makes his way up and across the country, meeting and listening to an interesting assortment of supporting players. As with The Hundred Year Old Man, I’m going to be a one-woman book club and answer the questions that the publishers have so helpfully included in the back pages.

1. Harold’s journey is both physical and metaphorical…What other literary journeys does this book call to mind? The quote from The Pilgrim’s Progress at the start is a bit of a clue. Otherwise, I suppose it’s a little like The Canterbury Tales as we get the stories of travellers who join him, and there is something of the pilgrimage about it. It does remind me of The Woman Who Went To Bed for a Year by Sue Townsend, because of the popular interest that a single person’s unconventional behaviour can spark.

2. When we first meet Harold and Maureen (his wife) they seem to be in different worlds. To what extent do you see Maureen as the cause of Harold’s departure?  Maureen and Harold haven’t really been getting along for a while. There’s clearly sadness between them. As they no longer talk it seems that there is no way for Harold to deal with this added sadness, the illness of his old friend Queenie, inside this silent environment. He’s tired of being distant, of not being able to do anything to make things better, so he walks. I don’t think Maureen is the cause; Harold’s responsible for his own actions. She chooses not to stop him, which is an entirely different thing altogether.

3. How much are Harold’s responses to his fellow pilgrims dictated by his past? One of the most touching and genuine parts of the book is Harold’s response to the vulnerable young man that joins him on his journey. He reminds Harold of his son whom he was unable to help through difficulties. These regrets are central to the book. The dog is lovely too, and probably dreadfully symbolic of something or other.

4. Was the ending of the novel a shock or the inevitable conclusion? I guessed a lot, but not all, of what happened at the end. It was a well-balanced conclusion that skilfully matched the tone of the novel. 

5. Has this novel inspired you to do anything extraordinary? I think it highlights the importance of valuing people and friendships, and it inspired me to read Rachel Joyce’s next offering.

Have you read it? What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The Hundred Year Old ManCurrently 6 in the best-sellers list, I am reliably informed by Amazon that it has been in their top 100 for 247 days. I think, therefore, it is safe to conclude that this book is a popular sensation, and it definitely deserves to be widely read.

Alan Karlsson climbs out of the (ground floor) window of his room at the old people’s home to avoid his hundredth birthday party, looking for one last adventure. He certainly finds action as he is chased down by a criminal gang and the police as he goes on the run with his newly acquired accomplices, including an over-educated hot dog stand owner and an elephant called Sonya. We are also told about Allan’s remarkable life so far. Spanning the twentieth century, he unwittingly influences history and manages to meet many of the most important historical figures. Using real, publicly known people in a novel is often a brilliant device – the author can satirise and subvert expectations, based on common perceptions. The writing is amusingly dead-pan and gets funnier as the book goes on.  

There will be innumerable reviews of this best-seller, so for a change, I’m going to answer some of the handily listed ‘Reading Group Discussion Questions’ from the back.

  1. What do you think are the central themes of the book?  Age, friendship, morality, international politics (and its frequent futility/mutability), identity.
  2. Why do you think the author chose to make the main character one hundred years old? To give him a unique perspective, an excusable amorality and to explore the changing century through a single perspective.
  3. Did you enjoy the use of humour? Which moments stood out to you? Very much so! Allan comforting the ten year old Kim Jong Il; when he recruited a spy by holding up a large poster; the spoilt batch of bibles (which had to be discarded because a mischievous type-setter wrote ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ at the end); Allan drinking Harry S. Truman under the table.
  4. Was the end satisfying? I didn’t like everything that happened at the end, though things are tied up successfully and the very last page is highly pleasing indeed.

All in all, a very entertaining book. Have you read it? What do you think of it? Do you have different answers to the above questions? Let me know in the comments! 

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