The best novels on overcoming fear and embracing change

Christina McKenna Author Of The Misremembered Man
By Christina McKenna

The Books I Picked & Why

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont

By Elizabeth Taylor

Book cover of Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont

Why this book?

Elizabeth Taylor—not to be confused with the actress of the same name—has been called ‘the unsung heroine of British twentieth-century fiction.’ I wholeheartedly agree, and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont is Taylor at her sublime best. It’s the tale of an elderly woman, wealthy but recently widowed, who’s faced with a choice: "Do I spend my last days in a care home—or check into a grand hotel?" She opts for the latter and finds herself among a group of fascinating characters, each as eccentric as she herself. 

Insightful about the sadness and loneliness of ageing, this book did not make me feel despondent about growing older. On the contrary, it showed me that love, happiness, and a sense of adventure can be ours at any age, if we’re willing to take chances and open our hearts to others.


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Hotel Du Lac

By Anita Brookner

Book cover of Hotel Du Lac

Why this book?

Yes, another novel set largely in a hotel. This time it’s in Switzerland and overlooks Lake Geneva, spreading, in the wonderful words of Anita Brookner, "like an anaesthetic towards the invisible further shore." Edith Hope is a writer of romantic fiction. She arrives at the "stolid and dignified" Hotel du Lac in late autumn. This is not a holiday for Edith. Her friends and family have insisted she go away for a few weeks to ponder a ‘social indiscretion’. She was due to marry Geoffrey, a boring man she didn’t love, and deserted him on the day of the wedding. Her heart had gone out to David, a married man.

Brookner had an enviable gift for describing people and their peculiarities. Those whom Edith Hope meets at the hotel are largely from the aristocracy, and each and every one is eccentric in the extreme. Edith describes her fellow guests to her lover in letters that she never actually sends. I loved the old-world feel of the book.


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The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

By Brian Moore

Book cover of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

Why this book?

It is rare to find a male author who can write so well about a woman’s addiction to alcohol, and Brian Moore does this with such virtuosity. Judith Hearne, a middle-aged spinster, is a part-time piano teacher in Belfast. Her earnings are small and she moves from one boarding house to another.

Great is her elation when she meets James Madden, a charming businessman lately returned from New York. Judith falls for this rich man hook, line and sinker, not suspecting that her feelings aren’t being reciprocated, and that he merely wishes to involve her in a business deal. When the truth comes to light, she’s devasted and turns to alcohol—thereby reawakening an old addiction. None can help her, a parish priest included. I simply had to read this book for its stunning depiction of 1950s Belfast, its humour and pathos, and its perfect conclusion.


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Sunsets Never Wait

By Jonathan Cullen

Book cover of Sunsets Never Wait

Why this book?

Tara Doherty has come to live in Connemara following the death of her husband. She’s distraught and lonely here in "the back of beyond." Until a mysterious stranger rents a little cottage close to Tara’s. James Dunford, she learns, is Irish-born but lived in the USA. He spends his days fixing up his cottage and walking the beach with a stray dog. As time goes by, Tara learns from a local villager that James is not what he seems and that his motive for renting the cottage is far from conventional. She confronts him, and their two lives intertwine in an unexpected way, in a tale told with exceptional erudition.

Highly atmospheric, engaging and perceptive, Sunsets Never Wait plunges the reader into a bleak Connemara landscape and the tortured lives of two lost souls. It’s a page-turning exploration of the weight of secrets and the courage it sometimes takes to speak the truth. Emotionally charged and deeply moving, it kept me wonderfully immersed right to the very end. It’s a short novel and I wished there was more—always a good sign.


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The Shipping News

By Annie Proulx

Book cover of The Shipping News

Why this book?

This is perhaps Annie Proulx’s best novel, and I’ve read them all. The proud winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1994, The Shipping News is a page-turning account of Quoyle, a New York journalist who loses his wife in a road accident. Grief-stricken, he heads to a remote corner of Newfoundland, from whence his ancestors hailed. An oddball himself, he encounters some of the most eccentric characters you’ll find in any work of fiction. 

Annie Proulx, in her unrivalled mastery of language and descriptive passages, brings each and every one of them to vibrant life. Not only that, but her ability to create mysteries combined with plot twists made this, for me, a truly unforgettable read. I’ve learned a lot about characterization from her. It’s all in the detail.


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