by Phoebe Demeger
One of the more common queries I receive as a bookseller is from readers looking for “a really light, feel-good read”. After years spent working in this trade you’d think I’d be ready for it. And yet it’s still a surprisingly hard question to answer.
At the heart of almost all stories is conflict, that messy yet necessary part of human existence that we all have to face from time to time. Yet even the most hard-hitting novels – for example A Little Life, something of an endurance test when it comes to trauma and tragedy – have their hopeful and redemptive moments. Even if it’s just one or two lines of beautiful prose, or a glimmer of hope that these characters may eventually find happiness.
But does that make it worth the struggle? Perhaps a happy ending is a more desirable goal. What matters more: the journey, or the destination?
Some of the finest novels, in my opinion, are bittersweet. Maybe the reading experience won’t be entirely happy, but the catharsis will be memorable; you’ll be happy to have read it, and sad that the book had to come to an end, as all books do.
I’d like to share with you some of my go-to, feel-good reads. Spanning across romance, sci-fi, historical fiction and comedy; and taking place within fantasy, reality, or somewhere in between, these are stories to see you through.
1. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman
A runaway hit, and multiple prize-winning debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant tells the story of a lonely woman who finds comfort in her weekly rituals, until events outside of her control shake her carefully curated life apart, and she is introduced to the transformative power of small acts of kindness. Only the hardest of hearts will not end up rooting for Eleanor and her journey towards redemption.
Set in a world identical to ours with one major difference: a portion of the population is imbued with superpowers, which alter the way they navigate the world and their relationships. When her jealous ex-boyfriend performs hypnosis on The Perfectionist (a superhero) to render Tom (a regular human, and her fiancé) invisible to her, it’s up to Tom to do whatever he can to help her see him again.
This unique love story is inventive, hilarious, heartstring-tugging, and above all a deeply human tale that will linger in your heart long after the final page is through.
3. A Month in the Country – J. L. Carr
A young soldier returns from World War I and finds employment restoring a lost mural in a small village church. This deceptively simple novella casts a subtle and sensitive eye over art, trauma, healing, love, and the things we can discover if we only approach them with patience, attentiveness and care.
4. Woman on the Edge of Time – Marge Piercy
Like a mirror image of The Handmaid’s Tale, this speculative novel imagines not a feminist dystopia, but a utopia. We follow the story of Connie, a working-class incarcerated Mexican woman, stuck in a disappointing reality yet experiencing strong visions of a progressive future world, in which the boundaries of gender, race and class have fallen away. Piercy reminds us that hope for the future is always visible, even in the darkest of times.
5. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe – Fannie Flagg
My other great love aside from books? Food. And when books feature food as a major part of the narrative? Even better.
This delicious slice of Americana takes us to small-town Alabama in the 1930s, where a beloved local café is the site of a blossoming romance between tomboy Idgie and kind-hearted Ruth. Flagg’s evocative depictions of the American South and the titular café transport the reader to a time and place far away from our own, yet one that feels like home.
6. The Friend – Sigrid Nunez
Grief plays a significant role in The Friend – on the face of it, not your classic feel-good tale. However, this is markedly a story about recovery and renewal, in which two people – one of whom happens to be a dog – come together to mourn their lost friend while striking up an unlikely friendship of their own. Sweet without being sentimental, it reminds us of the power and potential in learning to love again after loss.
7. The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
The first book in a recently completed trilogy, The Rosie Project is not your average rom-com. Quirky, light-hearted and easy to read, it follows one man’s regimented quest to find love, and what happens when an unexpected encounter shatters his rigidly designed criteria.
Rosie has warmed the hearts of readers with its tender appreciation for the different ways in which people make sense of the world; a deeply empathetic book.
8. Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin
Sun-kissed San Francisco in the 1970s. We enter the scene with Mary Ann Singleton, a new arrival to the big city, and through her we come to know the lives and loves of the other residents in her apartment building.
This charming book is formed of very short chapters dotting from one character to another, like bite-sized mini-stories. And once you have the taste for them, you’ll be happy to know that Maupin penned a further eight novels in the series, which today form a much-loved part of the queer literature canon.
9. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
A book centring around the imminent destruction of planet Earth may seem a curious inclusion to this list (see: Good Omens, which also features the literal apocalypse). But fear not: it’s a genuine pleasure to read, thanks to Adams’ inventive storytelling, memorable characters and brilliantly dry wit. This beloved sci-fi series reminds us of all that is absurd and endearing about ourselves and our fellow humans.
10. Before the Coffee Gets Cold – Toshikazu Kawaguchi
I haven’t yet completed this novel therefore cannot guarantee a happy ending, but if the central concept is anything to go by – a café in Tokyo in which customers are given the chance to travel back in time – you are certainly in for an intriguing and poignant tale.
Taking an imaginative and subtle approach to the genre of time-travel, this book asks what you would do if you could meet people from your past for one last time, or revisit life’s lost opportunities. Bitter and sweet in equal measure, like a fine cup of coffee.