Thursday, 27 October 2011

Craving British fiction - an expat phenomenon?

Tamara Drewe: A British classic


When I first moved to New York, I was keen to read anything set in my new milieu. I devoured modern novels set in Brooklyn (I loved Amy Sohn's Prospect Park West), Manhattan (Zoe Heller's The Believers), and re-read New York chick lit like The Devil Wears Prada, suddenly delighted that I recognized the locations and local references. I was also desperate to watch movies set in the city, checking multiple Woody Allen DVDs out of the library. I have made a point of reading many American novels over the past two years. Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, an epic saga of the American family through the 60s to present day, was probably one of the best but I also adored The Help, and loved another book club pick, Girl in Translation, about a Chinese-American immigrant to New York in the 70s.

This was not a new phenomenon; as a child, I loved American fiction. Among my favourite books were Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women and What Katy Did. American writers from that era seemed to specialize in headstrong female heroines that were particularly appealing.

But recently I have begun to crave English fiction. It's a bit like craving comfort food - at the moment I want to read English novels, set in London, or even better in the English countryside. William Nicholson's two novels The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life and I Could Love You were recent examples. His style is so very understated and British, in a 'Brief Encounter' type way. I've also got a sudden appetite for Alexander McCall Smith's Scottish novels - his characters are somehow so typically British and unlike anyone you would meet here. When I go to the library, I dive upon any book by a British author, and for my summer holiday reading I chose books set in England by British authors I love: Esther Freud's Lucky Break, Amanda Craig's Hearts and Minds and Barbara Trapido's Sex and Stravinsky (downloading them to Kindle as you can't buy them here).

As for films, I recently watched Stephen Frears' Tamara Drewe, a fabulous modern-day riff on Far From The Madding Crowd based on the hilarious graphic novels of Posy Simmonds. Compare it to Bridesmaids, which I also watched recently - this was a laugh out loud American comedy, and I enjoyed it- but Tamara was so much more to my current taste. After a girls' movie night, when I persuaded my American friends to see the recent adaptation of Jane Eyre- amazingly, none of them had ever read it - I did begin to wonder if I was turning into the sort of English person who only really likes costume drama and novels about middle class people living in the Costwolds.

But I wonder if this longing to immerse yourself in the world of home is typical for an expat? Do you always want to read about home when you're away? Perhaps I'm mentally preparing myself for the move back (which is now definitely going to happen in summer 2013, by the way). Or perhaps it's just a form of escape - after all, one of the joys of reading is to escape into a novel, and why not escape to somewhere you're not?

17 comments:

Sherilyn -Dominee Huisvrouw said...

I am also an avid reader, & I spent a year in London. Since I moved to Canada, I have found that I really enjoy reading books set in England as well, especially those set in London, as I kind of know the areas a bit. I also recently read a book set in my hometown & really enjoyed that as well. I do find that because of the books I now gravitate towards, the books I am reading are a lot different than those that my friends are. You're not alone in this!

Bush Mummy said...

You can take the girl out of Blighty, but you can't take Blighty out of the girl..

Great news that you are heading back to the REAL Nappy Valley!

BM x

Kit said...

I go through phases of Englishness in my reading - sometimes a wave of nostalgic retro reading, Josephine Tey, Georgette Heyer other times escapist contemporary romance like Katie Fforde. It's like comfort food, I agree.

About Last Weekend said...

Agree totally. Wish I hadn't seen Tamara because I want to enjoy that first time viewing again. Just saw The Trip with Steve Coogan, excellent but I'll bet it bombed here. The cynical and subtle and subversive does not fly here usually

PantsWithNames said...

Looking forward to the boyfest in Summer 2013!

I always loved English books when we were abroad, just adored them. But then again I loved any book that was in English that I hadn't already read so I'm probably not the person to ask.

Mud said...

Thanks for the recommendation - have just downloaded a pair to the Kindle. Am veering between reading very locally relevant, but rather harrowing books and feeling the need to indulge my very English side. The latter is winning this evening!

Iota said...

I really enjoyed Downton Abbey recently (watching not reading). Over the summer, I visited my aunt, who lives in the village where much of it was filmed. She walked me round and showed me the locations. This, of course, helped in the process of turning me into the sort of English person who actually believes that living in England is like living in the Cotswolds in the early 20th century.

You've revamped your blog background.

Re your penultimate sentence, I am wary of the word "definitely"!

nappy valley girl said...

Sherilyn - I'll definitely have a soft spot for New York books and films from now on - fortunately, there are a lot of them.

BM - well, it maybe not be Nappy Valley, but it will be London!

Kit - haven't read Georgette Heyer for years but loved them as a teen - maybe I'll have to revisit that section of the library....

ALW - Love Steve Coogan so The Trip is on my list....

Pants - yes, boyfest indeed (and we'll be back next Easter too for a few weeks, so let's make a plan!)

Mud - where you are, might be time for some light relief?

Iota - yes, I enjoyed Downton Abbey too - that really is comfort TV. Re 'definitely', well, it is more definite that it was even a few weeks ago but I suppose it's still a dangerous word to use....

Applepip said...

I completely identify with this post! I moved to Brooklyn a year ago with my two little boys and husband, and ever since then I have been immersing myself in American fiction like Colm Toibin's Brooklyn, Jonathan Dee's The Privileges and Amy Sohn's Prospect Park West. It's great to be able to know where they're talking about when they mention landmarks or street names. But I have definitely become rather nostalgic for British fiction too, probably because part of me is also nostalgic for the British language and turns of phrase. (By the way, I came to your blog via the Circles in The Sand blog, and we too are from South London and plan to return in 2013!) Good luck with life in the US of A. Applepip x

Circles in the Sand said...

Yes I think you definitely crave Brit flicks/books after a while. An example, the other night Bridget Jones was on TV and I was loving the scenery! Just watching the news and seeing you have snow on the way - my goodness, that's early, isn't it? I hope it doesn't mean trick-or-treating is snowed off. Stay warm and hope the boys have fun! I always remember how in Minneapolis people would tell me about a legendary Halloween snow storm a few years earlier...Michael's just saying he misses snow! Hey, how do you feel about leaving? Xxx

Nota Bene said...

Is this a case of absence makes the heart grow fonder?

Michelloui said...

I worked in a bookshop when I first moved to the UK and so I was suddenly very influenced by what was popular in Britain--I had never heard of Daphne du Maurier, for example, but read several of her novels. And I didn't stop there. But then a few years ago I read something American. I can't remember at all what it was now, I just remember the turning point. And suddenly I was struck by how different the two styles could be.

But I'm not sure if I would turn to one or the other out of feelings for comfort or homesickness.

I have decided I need to just embrace my wistful love of the costume drama, by the way. They're just so... I don't know. Satisfying!

And I read Jane Eyre before I lived in the UK, but I was an English Lit student.

Good post!

MsCaroline said...

I've mentioned before that I was brought up by an (Anglophile) Canadian mother, so my reading list is probably far from typical for most Americans of my age. As a teenager in the late 70s/80s, I loved P.G. Wodehouse, for example, as well as everything by any Bronte, and anything by Evelyn Waugh; I read Daphne du Maurier's 'The House on the Strand' when I was in high school and loved it. About reading all the 'New York' themed things when you moved here: I've been doing the same with 'Korea' things since we moved to Seoul. Maybe it's part of the acclimatization process?

nappy valley girl said...

Applepip - thanks for visiting! I'm off to visit your blog....we stayed in Park Slope when we first arrived, so I am very interested to see what you make of it.

Circles - luckily we missed the snow! As for leaving, I'm just glad I don't have to do it next year..

NB -probably...

Michelloui - I love Daphne du Maurier. Haven't re-read her books for years but I did read a book about her recently - trying to remember the name of it...will email you if I do.

MsCaroline - thoroughly approve of your reading choices. I can well imagine you would explore books on Korea - although impressed that there are so many....

awindram said...

Haven't noticed my reading habits have changed at all other than I've read more American history than I would have otherwise.

More likely to find an old British sitcom on youtube if I want to indulge in a bit of home comfort.

A Confused Take That Fan said...

Ooh you have a date for moving back?! How do you feel about that? Maybe your love of English literature is a sign that you are missing home a little. Unfortunately the real life England doesn't quite live up to the reality. Mind you we enjoyed a lovely night in the Cotswolds recently, which was very English, log fires and lovely. I am going to read some of those American books you recommended. I too loved The Help, and devoured American Literature when I was a younger and a teenager (Little Women being one of my favourite books, also To Kill A Mocking Bird, The Colour Purple, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings) etc. I rented Tamara Drew recently whilst the husband was away. Nice scenery, wasn't sure about the film. Perfect fluff?

Anonymous said...

Rather late in the game, don't know if you'll ever see this, but Anne of Green Gables was written by a Canadian.

I'm Canadian, living in America, wish I'd found your blog sooner. We've been here for 10 years, and sadly have not found life to be as good.

My husband left me after 28 years of marriage, so I'm heading home to Canada asap.

Best of luck!