The year was 2000. Thanks to the popularity of Bridget Jones’s Diary, chick lit novels were all the rage. Even at the tender age of 16 I was a romance novel aficionado, and a more mature love story seemed like a natural progression. On a whim I picked up one of the brightly colored covers that so often grace chick lit novels and my life as a reader changed forever.
That book was Rachel’s Holiday, by Irish author Marian Keyes, and I had never read anything like it before. The cover had a cartoon character holding a glass of champagne against a pastel background, but that was where the cheesiness ended. Instead of the bubble-gum read I was expecting, the book was deeply engrossing, with complex storylines, hilarious one-liners, and a character who goes through hell and back. To this day, it’s still one of the best books I’ve ever read about recovering from addiction, which is not something I ever thought I would say about a chick lit novel.
Now, sixteen years later, I’ve read more than my fair share of chick lit authors. And while some can craft complex stories (like Jennifer Weiner) and some can be super fun (like Sophie Kinsella!) none have ever captured that unique blend of hilarious seriousness that Keyes pulls off so seamlessly. Her characters are so well rounded that they feel like old friends, and even when they’re being ridiculous I still root for them. The love stories are rarely the focus, but they’re still perfectly executed, with relatable love interests and tender moments that never get too cloyingly sweet. Keyes’ books are mostly about friends and family, and how a modern woman handles both. But she’s also not afraid to tackle the big topics, like addiction, motherhood, death, affairs and illness. Her characters go through it all, while still managing to be laugh-out-loud funny.
Needless to say, after Rachel’s Holiday, I read every single Keyes’ book I could get my hands on. To this day she’s still one of my favorite authors and she just published a new novel last summer called The Woman Who Stole My Life. You can bet that I was first in line at the bookstore that day.
If you haven’t discovered Keyes yet, I envy you: I wish I could read all of her books again for the first time! To get you started, here are my absolute top four, can’t-live-without Keyes novels:
Rachel’s Holiday (William Morrow, 2000)
As I mentioned above, this is one of the best books I’ve ever read on addiction. It’s also one of those books that helped shaped me as a writer, particularly in how Keyes manages to create such a charmingly unreliable narrator. Rachel Walsh is living in Manhattan and having the time of her life when her family forces her to return to Ireland to enter rehab. She doesn’t see the point: after all, what’s wrong with a little partying? At first you’re completely on Rachel’s side – until the truth of her addiction is slowly revealed. In the meantime, she struggles to deal with the relationships she destroyed and her family of five sisters who hilariously try to help her recovery. The Walsh sisters each get their own Keyes book eventually, every one as great as the last. But Rachel’s heartfelt, very human story stuck with me for a long time.
Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married (William Morrow, 1999)
Lucy is another character who is charmingly flawed, frustratingly stubborn, and just plain fun. She’s after love with a maniacal zeal in this novel, falling into bad relationship after bad relationship. Not to mention the fact that her dad is sick and her mom is an ungrateful nag – or so Lucy thinks. She has to do a lot of growing up in order to realize the truth about her family and to discover that true love may have been right under her nose the entire time. I love the love story in this book, and Lucy’s journey is relatable and honest from the beginning.
Last Chance Saloon (William Morrow, 2001)
This is one of those books I read once a year or so –- it’s just that good. There’s something about the friendship between Tara, Katherine and Fintan that gets me right in the feels every time. Each character goes through their own struggles: Tara is trapped in a crappy relationship and turns to food to cope. Katherine has her life perfectly ordered, but that means she might miss out on a great relationship. And Fintan’s love life is finally on track, just as his health starts to decline. I’m hard-pressed to decide who I like best in this moving story about childhood friendships and what it truly means to be an adult.
Anybody Out There (William Morrow, 2006)
*Cries all the tears* I don’t want to give too much away, as the biggest plot point in this story is also the biggest spoiler. But this is Anna’s tale, the second-youngest Walsh sister who’s known for being a flighty hippie. She’s grown up a lot however, and is living a close-to-perfect life in New York City when everything suddenly falls apart. With no real memory of what happened or the accident that left her bruised and broken, she returns home to be nursed back to health by her parents and sisters. Keyes brings the patented Walsh charm even as the horror of Anna’s past is slowly revealed. This is a tougher read than some of Keyes’ other books, but the gut-wrenching pain is 100 percent worth it.