I remember many years ago reading L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables for the first time. And reading about Anne’s first meeting with Matthew Cuthbert when she knew right away that he was a “kindred spirit.” I love that phrase. In fact, I loved all of Montgomery’s books which, alongside Mary Grannan’s Maggie Muggins books, were the seminal books of my childhood.
I’ve used the phrase “kindred spirit” many, many times since. To describe those friends whom I am always happy to see, who never stand on ceremony, who make me want to put the kettle on, curl up with my cup of tea, and settle in for a long chat. With kindred spirits, the time we have together is always too short because we never run out of things to say. Our lives may have little in common on the surface. Our cares and struggles might be quite different. But we always understand each other.
Frequently my kindred spirits are women with whom I share a love of reading. I still remember back in the eighties when my friend Grace and I started working together and she recommended Anne Tyler’s book The Accidental Tourist to me. She said she could see me loving that book. And I did. And that was the beginning of our beautiful friendship.
Or the day when I mentioned to another new colleague that I had just read Barbara Pym’s book Excellent Women. I said I’d picked it up at a used book store in my neighbourhood, and waffled on about how much I’d loved it and that I’d never even heard of Barbara Pym, because “who had?” Well, she had. And the next morning I found a stack of Pym’s books on my desk. I don’t know if Susan remembers that story, but that was the day I knew we’d become good friends. I mean… who else had heard of Barbara Pym?
Or the yearly long, long lunches I had with my friend Barb who passed away almost two years ago. We initially bonded at work back in the nineties over a discussion of twin sets and the Mitford family. And every year when we met we yakked and yakked about fashion, her Hermes scarf collection, our respective travels, and the best books we’d read since we’d last seen each other. I miss Barb. We didn’t see each other often but, still, I miss the idea of her out there, thinking of me, and noting down in the little book she always carried in her bag the titles of books she’ll tell me about when we next meet.
So, yeah, sharing a love of books with a friend can be wonderful. Especially if you love the same books. A shared passion for the same books makes a friend a true kindred spirit in my view.
But what if you find out that an author, whose books you love, loves the same books as you do? Say there’s a writer whose writing you admire, who creates plots which keep you gripped and wonderfully real characters… and you find out that that writer loves the same books you do. Wouldn’t that make that author, whom you’ve never even met, a kindred spirit? I like to think so.
But I’d better go back a bit here and explain.
A couple of years ago I stumbled upon the books of Susie Steiner at the library in Manotick. Steiner writes wonderful mystery novels. I read both of her Manon Bradshaw books on a camping trip that summer, and barely surfaced to do anything else for four days. I wrote a post at the time about Steiner’s Missing, Presumed and Persons Unknown. You can read it here if you’re interested. Since then, I’ve waited patiently, and sometimes impatiently, for the third book to be published.
A couple of weeks ago I bought Steiner’s latest book Remain Silent. I haven’t read it yet. I’m saving it for when Hubby goes canoeing later this week.
Then, thanks to Meg’s comment on my last post, I read this article in the Guardian. Written by Susie Steiner herself, it’s about her latest book and her battle with brain cancer. Aggressive glioblastoma, to be precise. The article is unsurprisingly wonderful. I mean, she is a wonderful writer. But it’s also sad, terribly sad. And honest. And in it Steiner describes how she uses reading to help her through her ordeal. She reads lots of non-fiction some of which she describes in her article. But it is the fiction that helps her the most. She says she thinks that’s due to the “imaginative empathy” found in fiction.
Steiner mentions Helen Garner’s novel The Spare Room, about a woman who takes a dying friend to live with her, in her “spare room”, and which deals with the very real struggles of both patient and caregiver. And she says the best fiction about illness and empathy she has read is Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Again. That Elizabeth Strout writes about “sadness and frailty like no other modern writer.”
I adored Strout’s latest book too. And I couldn’t imagine what the heck the people who damned Olive Again with faint praise were talking about. Actually, I think when I read those comments my language was a bit more colourful. I’m so pleased that someone who writes as well as Steiner, and who knows about illness and fear and frailty, loves Strout’s book too. And I’m glad she found it helpful and sustaining.
But what really blew me away in Steiner’s article, aside from the news that she is ill, was this line: “Thank goodness,” she writes, “I discovered the genteel fiction of the 1930s in the form of Dorothy Whipple. I devoured three on the trot.” Oh my goodness. She knows about Dorothy Whipple? These are the books that I “devoured on the trot” when I was home at my mum’s in New Brunswick the spring that my brother Terry was so ill. When we were afraid he might not live through the night. Night after night. I remember I took my sister Connie’s advice, made a cup or tea, and each evening tried to bury myself in a comforting book. Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance and The Priory helped me immeasurably. I wrote about that here.
So yeah. I think that if I met Susie Steiner in real life, I’d find her a kindred spirit. Which makes the news of her illness even more terrible. Not for her, of course. I mean, it doesn’t get much worse than a glioblastoma diagnosis. Only 25% of those who suffer from this form of cancer survive more then a year. But selfishly, now that I know we share a love of the same books, it feels worse… for me. And I hope against hope that Susie Steiner will be one of the 25%.
After all, we need all the wonderful writers we can get. And all the wonderful readers. And all the kindred spirits. We can’t afford to lose the Susie Steiners of this world. So you should absolutely read Steiner’s article. And then, if you haven’t done so already, get all three of her Manon Bradshaw books.
Here’s a look at the trailer for the 1985 television production of Anne of Green Gables starring Megan Follows as Anne, Colleen Dewhurst as Marilla, and the wonderful Richard Farnsworth as Matthew. Next to the book, this is the quintessential version, in my opinion. And Farnsworth is the epitome of Matthew, Anne’s shy, kindred spirit. In fact, no other Matthew will do for me.
I seem to be having wonderful luck with my reading lately. I was lucky to find Anne Enright’s book Actress on the Ottawa Public Library website, and adored it. But I told you all about that book in my video last week.
I just finished the new Ann Cleeves Vera Stanhope mystery, The Darkest Evening. This book is vintage Cleeves. I love the Vera books. And now that I think of it, the character of Vera reminds me quite a lot of Olive Kitteridge. In The Darkest Evening we see numerous examples of Vera’s “blunt kindness”, as Steiner describes Olive’s ability to brusquely say exactly what someone suffering needs to hear. I kept putting Cleeves’ book down this week, and walking away to do something else. Not because I wanted to put it down, but because I didn’t want to rush the book, to finish it too quickly.
And at the moment I’m reading Britt Bennett’s The Vanishing Half for my book club meeting later this month. I expected it to be good. But not this engrossing. I’m loving it, but I’ll tell you more about Bennett’s book after my book club meeting.
You know, I must try to find out what Anne Enright, Ann Cleeves, and Britt Bennett like to read. Maybe they’re kindred spirits as well.
And as for you, my friends, I already know that many of you are kindred spirits when it comes to books. So what have you been lucky enough to read lately? Eh?
Links to the recommended books: Ann Cleeves’ The Darkest Evening. Britt Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. Anne Enright’s Actress. Susie Steiner’s Remain Silent, Persons Unknown, and Missing, Presumed. Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Again. Helen Garner’s The Spare Room. Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance, and The Priory. Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women.
P.S. A word about affiliate links. The links within the text of this post are to Bookshop.org, which funnels a percentage of its profits to independent bookstores across the States. But since they do not ship outside of the U.S. I have included the Amazon links to all my recommended titles above. As usual, if you make a purchase after clicking any of my links, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you.