Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Books That Changed My Life: Part Two

Do you remember the first grown-up book you ever read? I mean, the first book that was written for adults and didn't have the words "Sweet Valley" in the title or Ann M. Martin or Caroline B. Cooney as the authors? How did you find out about that book?

I found my first grown-up novel when I was a freshman in high school. I was at Waldenbooks with my mom, and at the cash register, there was a display of a paperback called The Shell Seekers, by Rosamunde Pilcher. You know the old saying, "You can't judge a book by its cover?"

Well, I bought the book for its cover.

For a mass market paperback novel, it was a gorgeous cover, a blue background splashed with ferns and a couple of red rose blossoms, and the title printed in blue font. There was an interest in the novel because it had been made into a miniseries starring Angela Lansbury, who, at the time, was riding a wave of popularity thanks to Murder, She Wrote (which my mother watched religiously and would still do so if it had remained on basic cable. So I'm gradually buying her the DVDs of each season so she won't have to go through withdrawal).

It was by far the longest book I had ever purchased; 582 pages printed in very small, Times New Roman font. I took it with me one Saturday night when I babysat the kids next door, and started reading it after they went to bed. The prologue opened with the main character, Penelope Keating, returning from hospital following a heart attack. She had just arrived home after checking herself out, and was debating which one of her three children she should call first:

Nancy, her eldest and the one who thought that she was totally responsible for her mother; Noel, the youngest, who, in spite of being "the man" in the family, was indifferent to family responsibilities; or Olivia, the middle child, an editor for a prominent woman's magazine who always made time for her mother.

I won't tell you who Penelope calls; that is irrelevant right now, when you consider the simple descriptions of each of her three children in the prologue. It was enough to make me keep reading.

The first chapter deals with Nancy, a desperate housewife of her day. She and her husband live beyond their means and are constantly in a battle to keep up with the Joneses. She wants it all, but is frustrated when she can't have it. Status is very important to her.

We meet Olivia in the second chapter, a woman who puts her career above everything else, but has a big soft spot for her mother. We also learn of the jealousy and bitterness that exist between sisters: Olivia has transformed herself from an ugly duckling, and as a result, Nancy is very jealous of this change in lifestyle.

Noel, as we learn later in the novel, is a bachelor who works in finance and is looking to race up the corporate ladder. He has more concern for young single women than he does for his siblings.

And throughout the novel, we meet even more characters: Antonia, the teenage daughter of one of Olivia's ex-boyfriends. Danus, Penelope's handyman. Ambrose, Penelope's late husband. Eventually, all of these characters play a vital role that affect each other's lives in the most unexpected ways, and that's what keeps the book moving so well.

That first night of reading, after the kids were put to bed, I read until the parents came home. I think I read the first 100 pages, and the week after, during school, I would read the book whenever I got a spare moment. Even as a high school freshman, I found myself relating to a lot of the situations that these characters experienced. Nancy, Olivia, and Noel reminded me very much of my mother, aunt, and uncle, and the complexities of their relationship. I really admired Antonia, for she was my age, and was experiencing a lot of situations similar to mine. There were also a lot of subplots involving love stories, and what fourteen year old girl doesn't enjoy a good romance?

This book marked the beginning of my transfer from young adult novels to solely adult ones. I left the Sweet Valley High on the bookshelf and started picking more sophisticated novels. My high school English classes certainly helped me gravitate towards more adult fare. I didn't choose current novels to read, however; this book, along with Anne of Green Gables, really helped my reading style mature. And as my reading style matured, so did I.

I reread The Shell Seekers several years ago when I was on vacation. A fellow vacationer saw me read this book and commented that it's one of those books that you just have to reread whenever you get a chance.

Maybe I should add this book to my summer reading list...but I've got so many good books to choose from! Arrgh!

And there's one more book that changed my life, too...stay tuned!

1 comment:

SarahB said...

"The Shell Seekers" is one of the most beautiful stories ever written. I also love Pilcher's "September" and "Winter Solstice". "Coming Home" is good, but I don't love it like the others.