CHICK LITBut wait! My plan changed somewhat when I was flicking through old issues of the British Medical Journal and spotted this recommendation for a Marian Keyes novel. The article praised Keyes' depiction of an addict in trouble, and suggested that doctors might benefit from reading works of popular fiction such as this rather than classic literature, in order to better relate to our patients. I have seen interviews with Marian Keyes on chat shows in the past and have always found her to be an endearing and witty woman. I am also aware that she has spoken frankly about her own experiences with addiction and depression. So I was intrigued to see how she would put a fluffy, typically chick-lit spin on the very not-fluffy subject of substance abuse.
Rachel Walsh is a 27-year-old girl who has flown the nest and left her humdrum Irish family life behind her to live a more glamorous existence in New York City. She spends her nights going to stylish parties and networking with the beautiful people, and scrapes through the days trying to hold down a job while nursing a perpetual hangover. But after one near miss with a bottle of sleeping tablets the rug is well and truly pulled from under Rachel's feet and she's shipped back to Ireland minus one boyfriend, one job, most of her dignity and, oh, the contents of her stomach, which had to be pumped in hospital. On her arrival back home her parents have already booked her into a residential rehabilitation centre and won't take no for an answer. And after some mild protesting, Rachel decides it can't be that bad after all. She's read the tabloids - these places are full of rock stars, supermodels in giant sunglasses, jacuzzis and health food. Rehab is just a glorified holiday, right?
But of course, she quickly realises that The Cloisters isn't like the rehab she has read about in her trashy celebrity magazines. Keyes has created a lively and varied cast of characters in The Cloisters that are a pleasure to read about. They are young and old and hail from all walks of life. You can tell that she has tried to smash the myth that addiction only affects celebrities or the socioeconomically deprived, and she has done it well - all of the residents are very convincing. The dialogue is warm, funny and sad in equal parts. I particularly loved that she doesn't really fall into the trap of describing addiction as something seedy or scuzzy. So many other authors have done this and I find it has the effect of removing the reader from the situation and making you feel like a spectator, thinking "gosh, how awful, well it would never happen to someone like me". Whereas in Rachel's Holiday the matter-of-fact writing makes it clear that any ordinary person can become an addict and can normalise their behaviour to make them feel it's a standard part of their daily routine.
Rachel herself is also a very engaging and believable protagonist. It is remarkable how a character who behaves so badly and disrespects her loved ones so much can actually be very likeable at the same time. I couldn't help feeling for her as her life falls apart while she is so blind to her own responsibility for her problems. Unfortunately I did begin to tire of her towards the end of the book, though, and on reflection feel that I would have been happier if the whole thing was maybe 100 pages shorter. The reason for this goes back to that old clichéd literary mantra: "Show, don't tell". For the first part of the novel Rachel is in complete denial about her addiction and the first person narrative allows us to 'see' her actions while appreciating the contrast with how she tries to justify them to herself in her head. But then later, after her treatment at The Cloisters is complete, there's a lot of Rachel telling us about how enlightened she now feels, and how regretful she is of her past, and all this self-reflection eventually dragged just a little for me.
All things considered, I was very impressed by Rachel's Holiday and would be up for reading other books by Marian Keyes at some point in the future (although that's not to say that I will be rushing out to buy more from her back catalogue right away). I would be interested to know of other books she has written that address similarly weighty issues in a light-hearted way. I think it was the perfect choice for the Literary Exploration Challenge as it really challenged my preconceptions of what chick-lit is and what subject matter it 'should' tackle.