I became a Marian Keyes fan by accident. In the mid-90s I was, in many ways, the poster girl for reading so-called Chick Lit books. I rang my mother at work, her boss answered, and called her to the phone with "It's Bridget Jones".I loved the Bridget Jones books. I love watching the Bridget Jones films, even when they're on ITV with advert breaks inserted every 12 minutes irrespective of dramatic tension and continuity.
Searching round a bookshop for more Chick Lit, I landed on Marian's most recent, her second Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married. I was struck by the serious nature of this book, dealing with Real Life problems that extended far beyond 'how to catch a man' and 'does my bum look big in this?' - themes that Helen Fielding does superbly, but not all of her imitators.
As she published more books, I bought and read them. I had bought, read and enjoyed several before it dawned on me that I was a fan. I have grown older, and 'Chick Lit' has lost its appeal. If I was in any doubt, three years ago on a beach holiday in Spain I was 'forced' to read the books in the holiday let, and ended up reading some Sophie Kinsella. Shallow, pointless, unlikeable narcissistic characters.
For the beach holiday last year, I loaded up the Kindle I'd bought largely for this eventuality. And, of course, the latest Marian was on it. The Mystery of Mercy Close. That was several months ago, and the details are fading, but what remains is the knowledge that this is seriously good writing. Strong dramatic narrative with an element of suspense. Believable characters. Flawed characters. Characters that don't easily divide into 'good' and 'bad'. The main protagonist, Helen Walsh says
"...a shovel list. It’s more of a conceptual thing. It’s a list of all the people and things I hate so much I want to hit them in the face with a shovel.”
She's quite likable, actually, but she's no saint. Some of her behaviour is just nasty. Some of it has more complex motivations. Her parents - what can you say of them. Again, not especially likeable, but believable, and with endearing faults.
Although I'm sure she's seriously rich, and appears to have a good marriage, Marian's own life hasn't been easy. The previous book I bought of hers is Saved by Cake, how baking helped her to recover from a bleak episode of mental ill health. Her other books have covered subjects such as alcoholism, cocaine addiction, sexual and domestic violence, bereavement, and I believe she has sharp insights which have taught me enormous amounts about these problems.
Running through is a covert existential theme - her characters are generally very involved in aspects of popular culture, but there is never any suggestion that fluff and frippery is more important than the hard reality of life as people live it. And yet, although the subjects are usually dark, there is light in the novels, and a vivid sense of hope - that this, too, will pass.
Don't make the mistake of dismissing Marian Keyes as 'chick lit'. She has one of the most authentic voices I've ever read in fiction. I know she is hugely popular with real thinking people, even though she doesn't feature in the luvvie lists of fashionable writers on the cocktail party circuit. And her commentary on modern middle-class, largely suburban life has some of the qualities for which Dickens is revered.
I've often referenced Marian in discussions about 'celebrity'. In many ways she is extremely famous, and, yet, if I sat opposite her on a train I'm not sure I'd recognise her. That strikes me as being an appealing type of fame. Famous enough to sell shedloads of books, but able to go about her life privately.