My husband and I are getting ready to leave on a one-month vacation. I’ve already decided what clothes and accessories to pack, but I’m stressing out about what reading to bring along. I’m talking about those big, frothy stories that you can dive into on a long plane trip or while sunning on a ship’s deck.
I don’t want anything too refined that will require taking copious notes so I won’t have to struggle with notebook, pens, sticky notes, and my book while confined to a coach airplane seat. Some people call the kind of books I’m talking about here airplane books or beach reads. In remarks about one of these books on Goodreads, one reader wrote, “I would put this book in the category of a soap opera.” Yep, that’s about it.
To give you some idea of the kind of recommendations I’m looking for, here are five frothy pleasure reads I’ve indulged in.
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
This book is my prototypical definition of this reading category. McCullough’s three-generational family saga has it all: illicit love, sex (both illicit and licit), marriage, motherhood, religion, secrets, family ties, money, fame, sweeping landscape vistas, and merino sheep.
The Thorn Birds tells the stories of three generations of the Cleary family, who at the beginning of the book leave a life as poor farmhands in New Zealand to travel to Australia, where they are destined to inherit Drogheda, the huge family estate. Most of the book centers on Meggie, one of the Cleary children; Ralph, the Catholic priest who falls in love with her; and Dane and Justine, Meggie’s children. Tragedies ensue, but what drives the story is McCullough’s deft and deep characterization that keeps readers involved in the lives of these people.
The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
Goodreads describes this as “a huge, brash thunderstorm of a novel, stinging with honesty and resounding with drama.”
The story opens in New York City, where Tom Wingo has arrived after his twin sister Savannah’s latest suicide attempt. To help Savannah’s psychiatrist better understand her troubled patient, Tom narrates the story of their childhood in a dysfunctional family raised in the low country of South Carolina. Steeped in Southern tradition, the narrative includes family conflict, strict religious belief, infidelity, sibling relationships, and the effects of physical and emotional abuse. Pat Conroy’s outstanding writing turns the Wingo family story into a tale of tragic, mythic proportion that brings both suffering and catharsis to readers.
The movie starring Nick Nolte and Barbra Streisand is a good rendering, but read the book first.
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
According to Ken Follett himself, this is his favorite of his novels and readers often tell him it’s their favorite as well. This big novel, set in England at the beginning of the twelfth century, uses the building of a magnificent cathedral as the focal point for a look at history: at the corruption of the nobility, at the lack of political stability, at the corrupt church, and at the peasants, who are at the mercy of all three. The story focuses on a few representatives of each category, and Follett’s depth of character development kept me reading for more than 900 pages to find out the fate of each.
There is a sort-of sequel, World Without End, that tells the story of the building of a new bridge in the same fictional town. There are references to the characters of Pillars, but this second novel can be read on its own. It’s basically the same story set 200 years later, with a bridge substituted for the original cathedral.
The Immigrants by Howard Fast
This is the story of how Dan Lavette, son of an Italian fisherman, builds a shipping company into a financial empire. Featuring the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the novel explores the status of immigrants on the West Coast and the growth of industry in California over the first decades of the twentieth century. And of course there are love stories involved: a loveless marriage and some passionate love affairs. In the end, though, the story probes the relationship between wealth and happiness.
This is the first novel in the Lavette Family series, with five more that continue the family saga:
- Second Generation
- The Establishment
- The Legacy
- The Immigrant’s Daughter
- An Independent Woman
I discovered this series not long after the first novel was published in 1977 in a neighborhood book-swap. I’d read them all again.
The Books of Rachel by Joel Gross
This novel encapsulates 500 years of Jewish history, from the Spanish Inquisition to the founding of Israel. The story focuses on the Cuheno family. From the fifteenth century on, the first daughter of each generation has been given the name Rachel and the family heritage of courage and faith, represented by the family diamond.
The story opens in the present time, just before the marriage of Rachel Kane as her father presents her with the diamond and its story. The book then flashes back to fifteenth century Spain with the story of the first Rachel, then presents the stories of four more generational Rachels. Some of these stories are painful to read, since they deal with antisemitism through time and the horrors it has produced. Overall, though, this narrative is uplifting with its continued emphasis of faith, perseverance, and hope.
There is a prequel, The Lives of Rachel, that goes back further into history, beginning in Judea in 168 B.C.E.
Now that you know what I mean by frothy pleasure reads, what books would you suggest that I take with me on vacation?
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown