Six Degrees of Separation: from What I Loved to Staring at the Sun

It’s the first Saturday in July and time for this month’s Six Degrees of Separation. This month, Kate has chosen Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved to start us on our way through our literary connections.

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Guess what? I haven’t read What I Loved and I don’t know what it’s about! There’s a pattern developing, and I think it’s because I’m trying not to find out about recent books so that I can make a dent in my towers of books that used to be recent.

Looking at the cover, with its black, red and white styling, I could go for a classic Vintage cover to one of Haruki Murakami’s novels. Or I could do a chain of books I have loved. But instead I’m using Hustvedt’s first name to do a tangential leap. Siri is the name of Apple’s assistant. Apple is in the title of my next book in the chain.

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My friend lent me The Apple after I’d devoured her lend of The Crimson Petal and the White. It is still on one of my many sub-piles of books that gather around the house. These are stories from Sugar’s world, the central character in The Crimson Petal and the White. They follow Sugar and some of the other characters from the novel, giving new perspectives on the novel’s plot.

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Next up is a crime novel by P D James that draws on the characters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I borrowed Death Comes to Pemberley from the same person. I thought it entertaining enough, with a decent understanding of Austen’s characters, but found it strange that James tried to also squeeze in references to Emma and Persuasion.

Pemberley is in Derbyshire, as is Chatsworth House, seat of the Devonshires. Debo Devonshire was a Mitford sister, which brings me to book three in the chain.

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The Pursuit of Love is only the second book I’ve read by Debo’s sister Nancy Mitford. It’s a book I really didn’t like at first, until a significant change in the circumstances of the central character, Linda, helped make sense of her previous unlikeability. I ended by loving it.

When I was starting out as an archivist, I had a trainee job at the County Record Office in Oxford. I collected an archive from a radio producer who was a cousin of the Mitfords’. Among her papers were letters from and poems and drawings by the author of my next book.

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The Holiday by Stevie Smith was an early Virago in my reading life. It follows Celia, who loves and worries about everyone, but none more than the cousin she goes on holiday with. It’s a melancholy book about unrequited love, and I remember being drawn to Celia’s oddness and intensity.

Celia works in a government Ministry, as does the main character in book five in my chain.

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I love Michael Frayn’s novels and A Landing on the Sun is perhaps my favourite. It features an unexplained death, an investigation, archives and, of course, love. It’s about finding happiness in moments, and accepting that love is subjective. It’s a truly beautiful book.

The final book in my chain is forever linked to A Landing on the Sun because I read them around the same time.

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Staring at the Sun spans the life of an ordinary woman called Jean, who is born in 1920, meets a Second World War pilot, billeted with her parents, who has seen the sun rise twice, marries a different man with whom she has a disappointing marriage, raises her son as a single mother, and lives to be 100. I had forgotten that the end of the novel is set in 2020. Julian Barnes wrote it in 1986, when 2020 must have seemed a long time away. Barnes managed to predict Google and Wikipedia, with his GPC, or General Purposes Computer, into which people type all manner of questions about life in order to obtain guidance.

At first, my chain this month felt like it lacked cohesion. I jumped from book to book instinctively. Somehow, though, I’ve threaded together books that are about the truth of love – how hard it is as well as how comforting, how it means something different from moment to moment, and means different things to different people.

What have you loved that might feature in your chain, if you took part in the challenge? Why not head over to Kate’s blog to see what other readers have chosen?

10 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation: from What I Loved to Staring at the Sun

    1. Thanks, Mary. A little bit of randomness now and then makes things interesting! You’re a crime fiction fan, right? Have you read Death Comes to Pemberley? It’s an amusing take on the genre.

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  1. But this is brilliant! I love those oblique leaps! Using Siri occurred to me too but I had no idea where to go with it. And I did end up choosing books that I love but without meaning to! Your first choice mirrors the colour scheme or the starter book …. then its off on a whirlwind of clever links! 😄 I read Death Comes to Pemberley and didn’t like it at all. It was my first (and thus far only) P D James and I was disappointed by the writing style, the plot and the lack of Austenness. I failed to pick up the references to Emma and Persuasion. Will that be enough to have me read it again? I doubt it!

    The Pursuit of Love I enjoyed but The Holiday I have abandoned twice. I still have my green Virago copy (of course) so there’s always hope. Staring at the Sun is now on my tbr list. It sounds intriguing, especially as a book to read now, the year in which he concluded the plot.

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    1. Thank you, Sandra. I felt stuck at Pemberley for a while, then glanced at the cover art and couldn’t work out if it was Lyme Hall or Chatsworth, and I was off.

      If I think too hard about Death Comes to Pemberley, I’d say that I didn’t entirely enjoy it – P D James does come across as very pleased with herself, and the prologue recapping P&P was unnecessary. But as a frothy entertainment, I liked it well enough (as Mr Bennet might say).

      Stevie Smith’s writing style is polarising, I think. It’s 30 years or more since I read The Holiday, but I remember there being something disjointed about it, and that I quite liked how different it was. I was fascinated by her poem Not Waving But Drowning as a child, which was included in a children’s poetry anthology called I Like This Poem and was keen to read a novel by her when I reached my teens.

      When I remembered that Staring at the Sun ends in 2020, my immediate thought was that I should re-read it! But there are other as yet unread books to tackle first!

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      1. Barnes is a writer I have yet to experience and yet I tell myself I’ll read one of his books on a regular basis. Despite how quickly this year has passed, there’s still half of it left (just about). So I won’t let go of the idea just yet!

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  2. You did do a few leaps for this chain, but I see how they connect. I also wasn’t crazy about the P.D. James book – it lacked… charm for me. I’ve read a couple of books by Julian Barnes and while I like his writing, he does seem to meander a bit in his story telling. The Noise of Time was good, though.

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    1. Thanks Cathy! It’s good fun, isn’t it? Every month it has me scratching my head about where my chain will lead me, and then I read all the other chains and am delighted by how different we all are.

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