TOAST will be hosting a live discussion with Tracy Chevalier and Jen Campbell on our instagram account. Tune in at 5pm on Tuesday 26th May to watch. Below, author Jen Campbell reflects on Tracy Chevalier's back catalogue for TOAST Book Club.
Someone once told me that their unread books haunt them. Sneaky story poltergeists sitting on a shelf, waiting to hurl themselves at humans, crying: why haven't you read me yet? I can see that. Sometimes I feel that. I feel more haunted by the books I have read, though. I mean that in a comforting way; not just by their narratives and characters, but by the sights and smells that I encountered when reading them. It's strange how a book's tale can get wound up in your own. I can't bring myself to throw out my copy of The Secret History by Donna Tartt, for example, even though it's practically unreadable. I packed it in my rucksack when my husband and I went hiking in Istria in 2011. One afternoon, a biblical hailstorm washed us off the side of a mountain, drenching us to the bone turning my copy of The Secret History into a dripping concertina. As I let Richard and Bunny dry in the sun, I discovered a tiny bookshop, hidden down a cobbled street, and hunted for something else to read. They had a shelf or two of English books, and my eyes fell on Tracy Chevalier's The Last Runaway. Yes, I thought. I'll take you home.
Tracy Chevalier's novels Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Lady and The Unicorn had kept me company on a previous holiday. When I was sixteen and in St. Ives with my family, I discovered them on the shelves of the flat we were staying in. I spent a few days at the beach with Griet, learning about light in paintings, voices full of rich carpets' and polished brass', before diving into the world of late medieval tapestries. Ever since, her novels have appeared when I feel I've most needed them. I reviewed A Single Thread for TOAST last year, then curled up with Remarkable Creatures on a weekend away with friends. Now, struggling to concentrate on reading in the strange times we find ourselves in, I decided it was time to put my trust in Tracy Chevalier once more.
So, I have spent this past week in sixteenth century France, falling in love with the colour blue all over again, and then in early twentieth century London, tiptoeing through Highgate cemetery.
In The Virgin Blue, two women four hundred years apart are trying to plant themselves in French earth trying to build themselves a home. The men around them are suspicious, but Etienne Tournier promises Isabelle that he will help her. That he will teach her how to write.
Where do words come from? How does Monsieur Marcel get them from the Bible?
They fly, he replied firmly. He opens his mouth and the black marks from the page fly to his mouth so quickly you can't see them. Then he spits them out.
As I chose to read this book on audio, the words certainly do appear to fly. Laurel Lefkow's voice soars through the air via Bluetooth from my phone to my wireless headphones, as I scrub the oven, do the laundry and, in a moment of lockdown panic, bake a lemon meringue pie from scratch. As the lemon curd cools, I contemplate all the ways I would like to punish Etienne Tournier for the lies he is whispering in both my and Isabelle's ears.
Falling Angels I read in bed, every evening at sunset. Set just after Queen Victoria's death, it dances between two families brought together by their young daughters' friendship. Maude and Lavinia live for counting angel statues, discussing funeral rituals, signing to each other from their respective bedroom windows. Maude's father tracks the stars; Maude's mother becomes a suffragette. Lavinia, always watching, longs for drama and is happy to orchestrate it herself if none happens to appear. It's one of those books that ever-so-quietly builds a village making you feel as though you live next door, reading about people you've known all your life.
Tracy Chevalier's novels are always like that. They're full of warmth and wonder; they'll teach you about fossils and bellringing, gravedigging and embroidery. For that reason, you'll always remember where you read them, which pages bruised your heart, and which characters you'd happily offer a slice of lemon pie.
This book club review was written by the author and poet Jen Campbell, whose latest book is The Girl Aquarium. Please share your thoughts and observations below for a chance to win a copy of Girl with a Pearl Earring.
TOAST will be hosting a live talk with Tracy and Jen on our instagram account. Tune in at 5pm on Tuesday 26th May to watch live.