The best books that feature grudges in fascinating ways

The Books I Picked & Why

The Rose and the Yew Tree

By Agatha Christie

Book cover of The Rose and the Yew Tree

Why this book?

I first discovered The Rose and the Yew Tree while searching for novels about irreparable rifts between once-close friends. I always seek out books that resonate, thematically, with any current emotional challenge that I have. At the time, I had just been sent the most vicious communication I’ve ever received in my life from someone I’d believed was a close friend. Her letter accused me of two things I hadn’t done, and I was absolutely floored by it. 

Later, once I’d calmed down, I reread the WhatsApp messages I’d sent her in response to her letter, explaining that she was mistaken and that I had not done the things she’d accused me of. I was shocked by my own panicked and subservient tone. I recognised the palpable fear in my words, and I realised that I’d had only one goal at the time: to ward off further attack. 

So, I then had an interesting grudge against myself to contend with! For a good few weeks, I believed my own cowardice was highly grudgeworthy. Why had I not responded to her letter with, ‘I’m not going to dignify this with a reply’? I forgave myself eventually, both for my fear and appeasement of her and for my poor judgement on the choice-of-friends front, but only on one condition: that I resolved to do better in future. From now on I would be brave even when scared. And my close circle of friends would never again contain anybody who thought it was okay to have ‘Send slanderous hate mail’ in their repertoire of behavioural options. 

Why am I sharing all of this? To explain why I cheered when I read the blurb and first chapter of The Rose and the Yew Tree, both of which promised a highly unusual take on the friendship-gone-sour themeThere are loads of novels about the more common varieties of friend grudges. The Rose and the Yew Tree piqued my interest from the start by promising a far spikier, odder and more unpredictable narrative experience. I recognised in its narrator’s voice something of the horror and disgust that I had so recently felt. It seemed to be the perfect book at the perfect time.

In Chapter 1 of the novel, a woman arrives at the home of the narrator, Hugh, and begs him to go and visit the death bed of his former friend and now enemy, John Gabriel. Hugh refuses, but is then intrigued when the woman tells him that these days Gabriel is viewed as a saint and a hero by all who know him. This bears little resemblance to the immoral cad that Hugh remembers, and he is mystified - so much so that he has to go to the death bed to find out what on earth can have happened to Gabriel in the intervening years. 

This novel is one of Agatha Christie’s best, and is satisfyingly mysterious even though it’s not a murder mystery.

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Half Broken Things

By Morag Joss

Book cover of Half Broken Things

Why this book?

Okay, so…once again, there’s a personal angle. I often find myself - at the end of a holiday at an amazing spa resort, for example - genuinely wishing in a quite ferocious way that I could just...not leave. I know many people say jokingly that they wish a holiday could last forever, but I suspect I'm the only one who really means it. If I could, I would actually live, on a full-time basis, at the Vila Vita Parc in the Algarve or at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo on Lake Como. Sadly, that is impossible for a number of reasons - but when I first read Half-Broken Things, my empathy for the central characters was sky-high (until they turned murderous).

This is a novel about a completely irrational grudge, but one that makes perfect sense according to the internal logic of the characters. A middle aged house-sitter, Jean, and her two misfit friends form a sort of commune/substitute-family in the enormous country mansion that Jean has been employed to house-sit. There’s only one problem: when the house-sitting gig comes to an end, Jean and her gang decide that this mansion is their true home and they’re not willing to leave it…even if that means committing murder in order to stay. One of the best psychological thrillers I’ve ever read.

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The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment

By Eckhart Tolle

Book cover of The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment

Why this book?

This ‘guide to spiritual enlightenment’ is a real game-changer in terms of how it approaches things like grudges, resentments etc. Tolle believes that it’s only the stories we tell ourselves that make us feel resentful, not the objective actions that the other person has performed. I completely agree! If I told myself a different story about my ex-friend described above — e.g., that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with sending accusations based on false assumptions, and anyone might do it if they were upset and confused enough — they I would not feel, as I do now, disgusted by her behaviour and eager never to have contact with her again. Where I differ from Tolle is that he advocates *always* choosing the thought/belief that will generate the non-angry feeling, whereas I believe that on some occasions it’s very useful to believe a thought that generates a feeling of ‘strong desire to protect myself from dangerous person’.

Where Tolle’s theory has proved invaluable to me, though, is in making me see that so many things that I’d previously thought were definitely grudgeworthy, and cause to get irritated, absolutely needn’t be if I told myself a different story. Eg, I used to believe ‘My family should keep the house tidy because I hate untidiness.’ Now, I believe instead, ‘My family shouldn’t tidy up because they’re not bothered about tidiness in the way I am — and neither attitude is right or wrong. If I’m the only one who really cares about tidiness, then of course I should be the one to tidy up — and I love it, and I’m brilliant at it, so nothing has gone wrong!’ I’ve been so much less vexed by messy teenage bedrooms since I’ve changed my belief about this issue!

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Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life

By Byron Katie, Stephen Mitchell

Book cover of Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life

Why this book?

Like The Power of Now, this is a self-help book, and a brilliant justification of the idea that when we argue with reality, we always lose. Or, as Katie herself puts it, ‘We lose, but only 100% of the time.’ This book makes a superb and convincing argument for giving up thoughts like ‘This shouldn’t have happened/Things should be different’ (when they aren’t), and instead thinking more like: ‘I accept that this thing that I’m not happy about has happened — so now what? How might it have happened for my greatest benefit? How can I move on in a way that makes my life better and the world a better place?’ It’s a brilliant, wise book that, once you see how sensible its approach is, encourages you to make sure you’re always putting any grudges you choose to retain to the best possible use. For me, it boils down to the difference between ‘X should be exactly as she is, and behave exactly as she does, in order to help me learn how to handle this sort of personality/behaviour better’ or ‘…in order to show me clearly who she is, so that I can then make an informed decision about how I want to think about her’, versus, ‘X is awful - she shouldn’t be the way she is! She shouldn’t behave like that!’ That’s just arguing with reality, which is a grudgeworthy waste of time.

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Bartleby the Scrivener

By Herman Melville

Book cover of Bartleby the Scrivener

Why this book?

I’ve always loved this short novel, but after reading Byron Katie, I love it even more. Katie has a teaching she often talks and writes about which is the concept of ‘my business, your business, the universe’s business.’ She believes that if we always stay firmly grounded in/focused on ‘my business’, and let other people and the universe take care of their business, then we’ll spare ourselves so much unnecessary suffering. For example, if I think my dog shouldn’t bark at the postman every day, that’s me straying into my dog’s business — which I can’t control (I’ve tried and failed for 7 years!). My business is everything that I can control, so it makes sense only to try and control those things.

In Bartleby, the eponymous hero is a clerk who, at a certain point, stops doing the office work for which he is paid. When asked by his boss to do any simple task, or indeed anything at all, he simply replies ‘I would prefer not to.’ He doesn’t try to influence anyone else’s behaviour in any way (eg he doesn’t insist they still pay him or retain him as an employee even though he’s not working any more). He simply states his preference over and over again: he would prefer not to. The novel’s brilliance hinges on the questions it raises in the reader’s mind about the grudgeworthiness or otherwise of Bartleby’s behaviour. He’s not forcing anyone to act against their wishes, but nor is he willing to act against his own. It’s the perfect fictional exploration of the topic of grudgeworthiness and how it relates to the ‘my business, your business’/personal freedom/control question.

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