A. M. Holmes came to my attention when she won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Orange Prize) with May We Be Forgiven, which met with resounding plaudits and a general assent of well deservedness. I was then very lucky (and cheap) to find a three book set of A. M. Holmes’s books on The Book People site for a relatively modest sum which included said Bailey’s prize winner and Music for Torching, and I decided to start with ‘this book will save your life’ on account of the very appetising doughnuts on the cover and my daughter’s general enthralment with the idea that a book could actually save your life. Which is true, of course, but still.
Anyway, every book choice has a story and that was mine and I have to say that if nothing else if you do not crave doughnuts during or after reading this book it is a miracle. It is also a miracle I did not gain 10lbs in weight, though that may be because the doughnut potential in UK is significantly behind that available in the US, where this novel, of course, is based and consequently I was able to avoid the cravings. Tesco’s strawberry iced versions not really hitting the mark. So, not entirely expecting the assault this book would have on my appetite, I embarked.
This Book Will Save Your Life tells the story of Richard Novak, a man who is in pain. We begin with Richard standing by the window in his swanky LA pad watching a woman swimming in a pool at one of the houses further down the hill, at which point Richard discovers he is in pain. Actual pain, not figurative pain. In short measure we learn that Richard is alone, that he is rich, that he lives by routine, that he has an ex-wife and a son he has no relationship with, that he fears death. Richard’s life is sustained by people around him: Cecelia who cleans for him, Sylvia who provides him with his macrobiotic meals, a personal trainer who sets his exercise regime. They provide for his physical needs, but provide no emotional connection for him. Richard is isolated, alone, trapped in an uninvolved life.
The pain changes everything. Richard calls for help and goes to the hospital. When they find nothing wrong with him they send him home and on his way home he takes a detour. This is where Richard meets Anhil, the owner of a doughnut shop. The offer of conversation, free doughnuts and, perhaps most importantly, an unexpected friendship set Richard on the path to emotional reconnection. Along the way we experience, through Richard, all the bizarre and quirky sides to LA. The actor who lives further up the hill. Dodgy doctors. A woman, Cynthia, Richard finds crying in the aisle of the local supermarket and who, for no apparent reason, he helps to climb out of her own uninvolved life. Silent retreats. Yoga. A sinkhole growing in the back of Richard’s garden which threatens to swallow everything he owns. Interior designers. The helicopter rescue of a horse. A dramatic rescue of a kidnapping victim. A reclusive writer. Midnight parties on the beach.
There is a lot about This Book Will Save Your Life which seems co-incidental or improbable and yet this apparent lack of realism is a significant part of its charm. And that is, perhaps, the best way to describe the book: charming. Richard Novak as a character is strangely innocent. He goes from being a man trapped by insular routine to one who, for no specific reason, reaches out from himself and through his kindness towards others discovers the joy, and risk, of emotional connection. Through this process, through these random acts of unexpected kindness, he becomes a kind of hero, a saviour both to himself and to others. Underpinning the story is Richard’s awkward relationship with his son, Ben, who is undertaking a road trip with his cousin which ends in LA where Richard is. Throughout the book you get the sense that all Richard’s efforts to resolve his emotional difficulties centre, albeit unconsciously, around his desire to have a more meaningful relationship with Ben and whilst I think it is safe to say that it is not all plain sailing, and it doesn’t end entirely neatly (and is the better for it) there is a resolution which makes the overall book strangely satisfying. It is a sweet, uplifting book, which is also surprisingly funny.
The danger with this book is that in describing it, it makes it sound awfully twee. Richard is an emotionally stunted character who seemingly blunders along an improbable voyage of emotional discovery. This type of story could easily be mawkish or overly sentimental, but in truth it is none of these things. It is funny, charming, touching and spiritedly original. Each character, even the minor ones, is lively and realistic, if flawed (which all the best characters are) and Holmes certainly has a keen eye for people and how to draw them out with vivacious economy. I have never visited LA (and probably never will) but Holmes really brings the city and its people and quirks and crazy philosophies to life. Everything about this story, in spite of the coincidental anomalies, feels real and true. It’s a skill Holmes makes look all too easy.
In summary, this is a lovely book. A book to be shared. A book that, maybe, might just save your life.
This Book Will Save Your Life receives a quirky 9 out of 10 Biis.
Now get me a doughnut!