What to Read When You’re Sick: Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter & Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good

vintage sick woman with book

I was much sicker than this!  Why is her hair so tidy?

Shivering, sweating, sinuses bursting, aching joints.

I felt very ill, sitting in bed under five blankets, balancing Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura on top of a Latin dictionary propped on my knees.   If you think this inappropriate reading for the sickroom, you are  right. I wore two turtlenecks, two sweaters, a hoodie, corduroys, and two pairs of socks, but even so my Lucretius-covered knees were shaking with cold.

Some people go to the doctor when they’re sick.

I didn’t have flu.  Nothing respiratory, no fever. It wasn’t the kind of sickness you get antibiotics for.

I checked the CDC for outbreaks of mysterious viruses.  Nope.

Perhaps I should have read this while I was sick!

Perhaps I should have read this while I was sick!

Although I avoid pills whenever possible, I took an extra Advil on the second day for the joint pain.  Not an overdose, but not what I normally approve of.  Then I sent my family out for cold/flu medicine.

It wasn’t actually a cold/flu, but the cold/flu medication made me feel human again.

There was nothing for me to do for a few days except to nap and read.  One thing about being sick:  you can get some reading done.


1.  Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter.  I discovered Jane Gardam’s The Queen of Tambourine in a bookstore on a seaside vacation.  This poignant, comic epistolary novel about a woman who becomes obsessed with a neighbor was both sweet and shattering.

Crusoe's-Daughter jane gardamCrusoe’s Daughter, however, might have been more suitable for an island vacation.  It is narrated by Polly Flint, a woman whose life is determined from girlhood by her love of Robinson Crusoe.  Polly tells the story of her life, from age six in 1904 to age 86 in 1984.  And there is usually a subtext from Defoe.

When Polly’s father, Captain Flint, drops her off in 1904 at the yellow house to live with her two old-fashioned aunts, Polly doesn’t know what to expect:   her life while her father has been at sea has been dominated by a muddle of paid guardians, the most memorable of whom was a fat woman who often fell down drunk and spent her alcoholic days under the kitchen table.  Polly, who had nothing else to do, played under the table.

But now, like Robinson Crusoe, Polly is shipwrecked at the friendly yellow house, on a marsh, near the sea and the iron works, which eventually encroach upon the marsh.  Just as Robinson Crusoe’s landscape defined him, the landscape of the yellow house begins to mean everything to Polly.  She creates a life here on this island of a house of genteel women.  Aunt Frances is kind, Aunt Mary is remote and religious, and their mysterious live-in friend, Mrs. Wood in her knitted green suit, teaches Polly languages.  The servants are important, too:  impertinent Charlotte tells Polly the facts of life and equips her with rags for her period; after she leaves, Alice, a much friendlier and more sensible person, becomes Polly’s  good friend and equal.  She helps steer Polly’s career out of the mud.

Robinson CrusoeThe discovery of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe leads to Polly’s critical identification of herself with his character and heroism.  She has principles; she is not just an obedient girl. Polly does the accepted thing to a point–she goes to church with her aunts, but she refuses to be Confirmed. Your own book may not be Robinson Crusoe–it may be Jane Eyre, or David Copperfield–but nonetheless Gardam shows us how a book can shape a life.

At the yellow house, Polly’s future doesn’t matter much to Aunt Frances and Aunt Mary, both spinsters, who believe life will happen to Polly or not.  But after Aunt Frances marries the vicar and goes off to be a missionary, life at the yellow house changes Aunt Mary seems to have  a nervous breakdown and decides to go on a religious retreat.   And Polly goes to visit Mr. Thwaite, a Dickensian elderly gentleman and family friend, and his sister, Miss Celia,  a patron of the arts.

Miss Celia’s house seems like a lunatic asylum to Polly.  She meets some eccentric artists and writers who might be Virginia Woolf, Rupert Brooks, or at least very like them.  Some of the scenes and characters in Andrew Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child also remind me a bit of Thwaite and Miss Celia’s sexually confused guests.

The more Polly sees, the more she  realizes the mores at the yellow house has been too restricted.

She writes to Aunt Frances,

The trouble, Aunt Frances, is perhaps that I am a girl.  Had I been a boy–your sister’s baby boy, some solid stubborn boy perhaps called Jack or Harry–how would you have done then?  You would have sent me away to school, and please, oh please forgive me for saying so, Aunt Frances, but the money would have been found.  It would have been a Christian sort of school like Rossall or Repton and you would all have prayed and prayed for me that I would become a priest.  But because I am a girl, Aunt Frances, I was to be stood in a vacuum.  I was to be left in the bell jar of Oversands.  Nothing in the world is ever to happen to me.  Since I hae met these people here at Thwaite I have begun to see what I have missed.

So a new stage of education begins for Polly.  Paul Treece, a poet of confused sexual identity, courts her, but even though she doesn’t understand his sexuality, she knows that something is wrong. She falls in love instead with an intense young Jewish man whose father owns the iron works.  She assumes they will marry someday, despite the Jewish problem.

But the aunts die, and Mrs. Wood has a stroke.  World War I intervenes.  Men go to war and some don’t come back.  Polly and Alice live together for years and get by, and at the lowest point, Polly becomes an alcoholic who works on a long scholarly study of Robinson Crusoe for years.

The form of the novel is a wonderful mix of traditional narrative, letters, and even a dialogue between Polly and Crusoe.  The language is razor-sharp, the characters are quirky yet sympathetic, and she is never sentimental.

The critically acclaimed Gardam has won the Whitbread Prize twice (The Queen of Tambourine and The Hollow Land), won The Prix Baudelaire (God on the Rocks), been a finalist for the Booker Prize (God on the Rocks ), and a finalist for the Orange Prize (Old Filth).

hornby how to be goodNick Hornby’s How to Be Good Nick Hornby needs no introduction.  He is one of my favorite writers, and I named his Juliet, Naked one of my favorite books of 2012.  At my old blog, Frisbee:  A Book Journal, I also raved about his new book, More Baths Less Talking, a collection of his columns from The Believer.

He is another award winner:  the E. M. Forster Award in 1999, the W. H. Smith Award for How to be Good, and the William Hill Sports Award of the Year for Fever Pitch.

I very enjoyed How to Be Good.

After only a few pages, my impressionable reader’s psyche became hopelessly entwined with that of the narrator, Katie Carr, a burned-out doctor who is married with two children, and lives in an expensive house in Holloway.  But she is not happy.  Her sarcastic husband is driving her crazy, she is annoyed at work when she can’t help some of the older chronic patients with their problems, and her friend Becca doesn’t listen when she tries to talk about her depression.   And so she finds herself having an affair, spending the night in Leeds with a man called Stephen.

Katie is a good person, and she doesn’t feel comfortable having an affair.  But we see that David is a mess.  He has a column for the local paper, “The Angriest Man in Holloway.”  And he never has a kind word to say about anyone.  Katie doesn’t read his column.

The last one I could bear to read was a diatribe against old people who have travelled on buses:  Why did they never have their money ready?  Why couldn’t they use the seats set aside for them in the front of the bus?

There is a very funny three-page rant (or maybe more; I was reading an e-book, so who knows?) about all the people and things David and a misanthropic friend hate.

And then the worst happens.  He is converted to do-goodism by a man called GoodNews, a healer who developed his healing gift while taking ecstasy at a club.  He cures David’s back problems and their daughter Molly’s eczema with his healing hands.

David gives away one of their computers and some toys to a battered women’s shelter, their son becomes a thief and the daughter a prig, and he invites GoodNews to live with them.

Hornby’s writing is deft and seamless, the witty dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the story is extremely fast-faced.  Like all of his books, there is a lot of depression underlying the humor.

Both Gardam’s and Hornby’s books are two of my favorite of the year.

4 thoughts on “What to Read When You’re Sick: Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter & Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good

  1. Sorry you’ve not been well and all at this end hope you’re now feeling better. When I’m ill I always bring out the Helene Hanff. In fact, if you see me reading ’84 Charing Cross Road’ it’s a sure sign that I am capable only of spending time with very old and dear friends indeed. Keep warm.


  2. I do admire that you can read when you are under the weather. It always seems like too much work to me. I think I am of the “lie on the couch and stare at the ceiling” patient. It is my philosophy that it is best to take a sick day when you are well and actually get some reading done. And then when illness strikes…stare at the ceiling.

    Hope you are feeling better.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s