I am a huge fan of Marian Keyes. She’s an Irish writer who early in her successful career wrote humorous books about the lives and loves of Dublin-based career women, interested in fashion and popular culture. Keyes was unfortunately pigeon-holed in the fiction category of chick lit, “a genre concentrating on young working women and their emotional lives.” The reviews of her novels often refer to her “quirky characters,” droll dialog, wordplay, and madcap antics, but her books are so, so much more.
Although she has also written eight stand-alone novels–the best of these being This Charming Man–Keyes has a terrific extended series, begun in 1995, about the five Walsh sisters of Dublin. What is especially engaging about Keyes’s books is that there is usually a problem or issue at the core of the story that said “chick” confronts. Despite the serious themes, Keyes’s realistic approach to life is often reflected in downright funny scenes and glib conversations. The empathy this style engenders draws the reader in and doesn’t let go. You not only care about these characters but you feel personally invested in their arriving at a successful outcome, though not necessarily a “happy” ending. The Walsh Sisters series includes:
Watermelon. Clair Walsh is abandoned by her husband in the maternity ward as she is giving birth to their first child. So she goes home to her dysfunctional family in Dublin to try to start over.
Rachel’s Holiday. When Rachel Walsh’s family stages an intervention for her serious recreational drug use, Rachel agrees to enter rehab at the Cloisters, an exclusive treatment center. Rachel finds she is not on a “holiday” at a posh retreat but rather a true rehabilitative respite where she must confront her addictions.
Angels. Maggie Walsh discovers her husband is unfaithful and she’s about to lose a job she loves, so she runs away to Hollywood to visit her best friend…and soon discovers that this may be the place she’s meant to be.
Anybody Out There. Anna Walsh’s PR career in New York unravels when tragedy strikes, and she seeks solace from her family in Dublin while trying to find answers to a devastating loss.
The most recent in this series was published this past April in the U.S. It’s called The Mystery of Mercy Close. More about it in a bit…
As an obsessive-compulsive reader, I keep a calendar each year to track when my favorite author’s new books are expected to be released. Patricia Cornwell is late fall, Harlan Coben is spring, Mary Balogh is late summer, Elin Hilderbrand and Elizabeth Lowell are both early summer, etc.
Keyes wrote The Brightest Star in the Sky in 2010. When her next book didn’t show up in 2011, I thought, check again in six months. When I searched again, there was still nothing. I was vaguely aware that the author’s personal encounters with addiction and depression contributed to the autobiographical nature of some of her plots; Being the good librarian that I am, I Googled Keyes and located her personal website. There I found Marian’s newsletter, where she was painfully recounting her most recent depression and the accompanying writers’ block. It saddened me greatly that she was suffering so when she was responsible for so many funny and profound insights in her clever, poignant stories.
So I continued to check on her from time to time and gratefully watched her begin to show signs of joy in life again. Last summer she published a cookbook, Saved By Cake: Over 80 Ways to Bake Yourself Happy. In the preface she describes the onset in 2009 of this dark mood while she was publicizing Brightest Star. She writes:
But I didn’t feel depressed; what I felt was very, very afraid. I felt like I’d been poisoned, like my brain had been poisoned. I felt like there had been an avalanche in my head and I’d been shunted along by some awful force, to some strange place, off the map, where there was nothing I recognized and no one familiar. I was totally lost.
Keyes considered suicide, and was beyond the reach of her loved ones. Then the simple act of baking a birthday cake for a friend provided a focus: identify a recipe, gather the ingredients, follow the directions, and voila. The science of baking, the trial and error, the eating and the giving of cake–and cupcakes and cookies–supplied the delicious “magic” she needed to go on. To that, all I can say is, thank heavens!
If you don’t know this part of Keyes’s personal story, you will not fully grasp the depth and realism of the last Walsh sister’s struggle. Helen, the youngest of Mammie Walsh’s daughters, fights her own demons in The Mystery of Mercy Close. Helen has lost her income and her apartment. Hard economic times in Ireland have impacted her lucrative job as a private investigator. As a dark mood descends on her, Helen is hired by an ex-boyfriend to locate a suddenly missing member of a ’90s Irish boy band, The Laddz, who are just about to stage a big comeback. The systematic process of the search for Wayne Diffney provides Helen with the focus she needs to climb her way back and reclaim her own life.
If you know, or have known, someone in your life who has struggled with mental illness, and you have been frustrated and saddened by what they are going through, and you just want to shake your fist at them and say, “Can’t you just get over it?,” you will have a deeper understanding of why that’s not so simple by reading this story. And you will see how it is hope–whether it’s for solving a mystery, baking a great cake, or finding the reason for just getting on to what is next–can make life worth living. Marian Keyes’s deeply personal story in The Mystery of Mercy Close is moving, funny, and well worth reading. And yes, it is about the emotional life and loves of a career girl, steeped in popular culture. But “chick lit” it is not; it is much more.
Be well, Marian. Your voice is important.