Having looked back on my literary highlights of 2023, now it’s time to look forward to some of the pleasures of 2024. This Spring and Summer, you can expect two mouthwatering novels themed around the pleasures of food, both with some darkness and bitterness alongside the sponge cakes and pastries.
There are two singular memoirs of love and loss – one dealing with the loss of a father and one with a mother, with the authors turning detectives and following the trails their parents left to find out more about their pasts. Finally, there’s a glowing, fictionalised story of the later life of Maria Callas, as her love for Aristotle Onassis torpedoes her practical first marriage and changes the course of her life.
Piglet: Lottie Hazell, Random House UK
Enthusiastic home cook Piglet lives with her posh husband-to-be Kit in Oxford's Summertown, commuting to London for a junior role at publisher Fork House. She expresses herself through food, and as the wedding day approaches, her focus on food gets stronger. There are hints of Margaret Atwood's classic The Edible Woman here, except instead of not being able to eat, Piglet can't seem to stop; especially once Kit’s secret comes out. Generally, there's a lot to like here and an interesting take on women’s relationships to cooking, family and class, with the domestic goddess/bridezilla as you've never seen her before.
Learning to Think: Tracy King, Random House UK
While the story starts with a family's conversion to Billy Graham-style Christianity, this is no religion-focused 'Educated,' though it focuses on learning. Tracy King was a little girl when her beloved father Mike died, and the most gripping part of the book concerns her investigation into what happened. This memoir is also a timely look at school refusal/ phobia, class, and identity, as well as the nature of thought. I particularly liked reading about Tracy's gentle, eccentric mother Jackie, who manages to surmount her agoraphobia and being widowed before forty to forge a meaningful life and career of her own.
Diva: Daisy Goodwin, Aria
In this fictionalised story of her later life, the great opera singer Maria Callas worries about how long her voice will hold out for; how many 'golden coins,' to use her beloved singing teacher's analogy, she has remaining in her throat. This light-as-air, shimmering bonkbuster will keep fans of romances and biographies of Hollywood royalty happy, with some genuinely touching moments as Maria copes with life's disappointments (loss, parental and romantic let-downs and no longer being able to eat pasta, to name but a few) while stepping confidently into her role as the original girl boss of the opera world.
Mrs Quinn’s Rise to Fame: Olivia Ford, Penguin
Seventy-something Jenny Quinn enters the Britain Bakes show and must overcome her fear of baking bread (her weak spot) while introducing the nation to the classic goodies her family enjoyed while she was growing up. Under this sweet confection, though, is another story, one about illness, fear of loss and death, the potential end of a marriage, childless-or-child-free-ness, and shame from a long-ago secret that will make you furious at what women of Jenny's generation had to endure. I must confess that I was in bits for the last five minutes of the book. Hollywood handshake for Olivia Ford!
Did I Ever Tell You? Genevieve Kingston, Quercus
When she dies in her forties, Gwenny Kingston's mother leaves boxes of gifts for her two children to unwrap at pivotal points in their lives: first period, high school graduation, engagement. This luminous book explores the gifts, both their powers and their limitations. Gwenny’s mixed feelings about them are eventually clarified by a tape where her mother explains what she intended by the gifts. Gwenny's struggles with depression and agoraphobia in her twenties make for moving reading, as you root for her to overcome them. This would make a lovely film but is also ready to be enjoyed as it is.