6 Books to Read if You Enjoy Reading About “Ordinary People”8 min read
I recently posted on Instagram about how I much prefer books about ordinary people and their ordinary lives to immersing myself in an implausible fantasy – and it seemed, a lot of people agreed with me. So, I thought it would be a good idea to publish a list of books which I recommend if you enjoy reading about normal people – enjoy!
Instructions for a Heatwave
Maggie O’Farrell is one of my favourite authors, so it’s no surprise that I start my list with one of hers. All her novels focus on the stories of ordinary people, and she has a way of finding the beautiful in the mundane. Instructions for a Heatwave is a book whose protagonist Gretta Riordan, wakes up one morning to find that her husband, whom she’s been married to for forty years, has left to get the paper and has proceeded to vanish, cleaning out his bank account along the way. Given the emergency, their three children return to their childhood home to support her. They consist of Michael, Monica, and Aoife. What’s fantastic about her writing is that she manages to bring such excitement and engagement to ordinary people’s lives – somehow this suburban situation is tantalising and you find yourself engrossed in the gossip and misgivings of the family.
Inside the O’Briens
I reviewed this back in 2017, and having now read four of Genova’s books, it’s safe to say she always nails narratives which concern ordinary people going through extraordinary events. Inside the O’Briens follows the journey of Joe O’Brien, an ordinary Irish-American man who receives the devastating news that he has Huntington’s disease. As we are told on the first page of the novel, “it has been called the cruellest disease known to man.” Genova allows the reader to dive headfirst into the story of Joe and his family, and their struggle with the catastrophic news. Not only has Joe been told he has HD, but each of his four children have a 50/50 chance of developing it too. Meghan is a dancer, Katie a yoga teacher and JJ is trying to have a baby, and while the fourth child, Patrick, doesn’t rely so much on his physical health, Joe prays the disease ends with his own diagnosis. All of them get the choice to find out whether they carry the gene and therefore will be burdened with the disease when they are older. But making the choice to know is an agonising decision. Genova is a master of her craft, and if you need any reassurance of the power of human resilience, then read this! (Or any of her other novels for that matter).
The Light Between Oceans
I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing M. L. Stedman’s beautiful novel The Light Between Oceans last year, and what’s not to miss about this novel is Stedman’s ability to make you think. The Light Between Oceans is a novel set in Australia, just after World War I. Solider Tom, returns home after fighting in the trenches and takes up a position as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island off Point Partageuse. Only having contact with the mainland every few months, Tom strikes up a conversation with Isabel. The two grow very fond of each other, and after marrying, Isabel joins Tom at his lighthouse. One day, they discover a small boat containing a dead man and a distressed baby, wrapped in a blanket. The couple initially agree to report the boat to the mainland, but after falling in love with the baby, and with the fresh memory of Isabel’s miscarriages on their mind, they decide to informally adopt her. Years later, when they go back to the mainland, they discover the baby’s mother is still alive and lives in hope of finding her daughter. Isabel and Tom are faced with a cruel and tough decision: do they keep the daughter they yearned for and have grown to love, or do they give her back and face the reality that they may never have children of their own? What’s tough about this story is that while, as a reader, you know Isabel’s decision to keep the baby is wrong, you can’t help but only want her to be fulfilled. As I said in my original review: “I don’t condone what she does, but I understand it, and I think that is why Stedman succeeds. She makes you understand that we are not defined by the bad choices we make, but we are defined by their justification. Sure, Isabel should have reported the baby in the first place, but put yourself in her shoes, it’s not hard to imagine that you would do the same thing.”
A Little Life
How could I have a list like this and not mention A Little Life!? It’s the epitome of novels about the pain of being human, and this stunning novel will make you reach into your soul to make you question so much, and most potently, make you wonder how so much cruelty could be inflicted on a person. A Little Life concerns the lives of four people: Malcolm, JB, Willem, and Jude. An architect, artist, actor, and lawyer respectively, we learn about their lives from college all the way through to late adulthood. Very early on in the novel it becomes clear that Jude is the man who ties them all together. He is their anchor, and their magnet, and yet the other three men know nearly nothing about him. He is an enigma to them. Traumatised and left broken by his childhood, Jude made a promise to himself never to trust anyone, and therefore never tell anyone about the horrors of his past. But as his relationships with the other men evolve, and as he still struggles to control the demons in his head, Jude realises that the only way to continue may mean sacrificing the privacy and secrets he’s been holding onto for most of his life. Read this if you’ve ever questioned the power of love, in all its forms, and I promise, while you may walk away a little broken, you will not walk away unsatisfied.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close will restore your faith in human kindness and, similarly to A Little Life, will really make you question how the world could be so unfair. This novel is written from the perspective of a nine year old boy, Oskar Schell, who lives in New York and whose dad, Thomas, was a victim of the 9/11 attacks. Oskar sees the world slightly differently to everyone else. As an inventor, letter-writer, detective, vegan, amateur astronomer and entomologist, jewellery designer and collector of various objects, amongst other things, when Oskar’s dad is killed, he deals with it in a way that is heart-wrenching and truly inspiring. Oskar finds a blue vase in his dad’s cupboard and inside it is a key. Convinced that this will be a way for Oskar to get closer to his father, he makes it his mission to travel all over New York and find the lock in which it fits. Armed with his tambourine, his journey takes him into the homes of many strangers in the hope of finding out what the key opens. Maybe because this novel is written from the perspective of a child, or maybe because it deals with such a sensitive and heart-breaking subject, this novel will not leave you untouched – it’s inspiring, haunting, and perfectly captures the innocence of a young boy, caught in a world of ignorance.
Me Before You
This novel again will make you realise the resilience and endurance of the human spirit, and show you a perspective unlike any you have ever seen. This story is mainly narrated by Louisa Clark, a twenty-six-year-old who finds herself out of a job; in trying to find a new one, she meets Will Traynor, an adventure lover who was involved in an accident two years earlier and as a result is now a quadriplegic. Their personalities and upbringings could not be more different, but as they are forced to spend time together, they discover they have a lot more in common than they initially thought. Moyes’ writing is stunning and although you can see Will’s struggle, and really feel his pain, it’s a beautiful story with beautiful characters nonetheless.