Self-Help Fiction

Hi. My name is Molly and I’m a self-help addict. Although I avoid anything involving diets, doctrines and fist-pumpers in suits, recent, beautifully written pop-psychology classics as Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts and Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit have given me a socially acceptable way to indulge. I’m certainly not alone; in 2012, Laura Vanderkam identified that “45,000 self-help titles are in print, and the self-improvement industry does $12 billion worth of business each year”, while the impoverished NHS is even considering prescribing self-help titles to treat depression. But my deepest and most lasting moments of self-discovery still come wrapped in a fictional pill, and I’m not alone in this, either. Waterstones’s new online project The Book That Made Me features videos and testimonials in which cultural superstars such as Michael Parkinson, Malorie Blackman and Caitlin Moran discuss the books that have had a profound impact on their characters and lives. The hope is that the rest if us will join in and share our own literary lifesavers, either on the website or by tagging content with the #TBTMM hashtag, and that the best stories will be displayed in Waterstones bookshops this summer. A quick browse of the existing content shows many moving, uplifting and surprising tales beginning to emerge.

In a similar vein, the London Library Magazine runs a quarterly Bibliotherapy feature, in which members discuss the books that helped them weather tricky life events. This issue, I was lucky enough to be invited to contribute, so below, in the spirit of #TBTMM, I’d like to share my recommended reading for anyone going through a long-distance relationship. Please, join in, contribute to the Waterstones project, and tweet me your tales. It’s time to rack up your book karma brownie points.

A Book That Made Me: The Vinter’s Luck, by Elizabeth Knox

We had been going out for a year. I wasn’t quite a waitress in a cocktail bar but, as an out-of-work actress, I was close enough. He was a lawyer, which was bewildering. We shared a fabulous, fractured 12 months in London before he announced that, inspired by seeing me pursue a career that I loved (although considering that by this time I was starring in a Japanese shampoo commercial, the terms ‘career’, ‘pursue’ and ‘love’ should be interpreted in the loosest of terms), he was jacking in his magic circle fast-track to retrain for a job in the sports industry instead. In Arizona. For two years. Followed by, as it turned out, a summer working in New York, then nine months in Paris.

On receipt of the news, I put on an impressive display of bravery, selflessness and quietly anguished solidarity, which was, I am reluctant to admit, cut through with an ignoble whiff of joy. Because although being in a relationship with this good, gorgeous man was flesh-sweet, soul-deep and everything in between, it was also sorely starting to encroach on my reading time. I’d only ever previously had undemanding flings, and had thoroughly underestimated how much talking and gazing and basically non-book-related activity true love requires. Of course, several months later, finally curled alone on his massive bed after he’d gone, I fondled and discarded one paperback after another; for the first time I had discovered a space inside me that a book couldn’t fill.

That’s when I met Xas. Xas was a fallen angel with enormous white wings, leather trousers, a penchant for gardening and a lingering perfume of snow. In short, the perfect lover: exotic, damaged, fickle, faintly ridiculous and, being fictional, incredibly discreet.

The Vintner’s Luck (1998), a novel by New Zealand writer Elizabeth Knox, tracks the unique relationship between Xas and Sobran, a vintner in eighteenth-century Burgundy. At the start of the story Xas, injured from a divine battle, tumbles out of Hell, on to a hill-top, and into the arms of the wistful young peasant. Year after year the angel descends to the same spot, to see what changes joy, violence, illness and betrayal have wrought on his mortal specimen, while Sobran quietly provides the tenderness and constancy Xas secretly craves. Between rendezvous, we follow Sobran’s struggle to build a meaningful life – with his homely wife Celeste, his rough wartime comrade Kalmann and his beautiful widowed employer, the Countess de Valday – as France itself struggles to reconcile the new scientific discoveries with the old comforts of faith.

Knox’s brilliantly original story had everything I needed to weather separation: escapism, romance and torment, not to mention what is perhaps the ultimate portrayal of lifetime long-distance love. Arizona might have seemed unbearably hot and far away, but Hell, gratifyingly, sounded worse. Knox’s themes are epic, but her prose is subtle and earthy, lyrical in the most specific and sensual way. It’s also highly erotic, and when you’re on a 12-hour plane journey anticipating the first sexual contact you’ve had in 3 months, a bit of inter-species sodomy goes splendidly with your complimentary nuts.

On my last visit before the by now ex-lawyer was unexpectedly transferred to London for good, I took him a copy of The Vintner’s Luck, lovingly inscribed. He told me he hated it, and I seriously considered throwing those three loyal years away. Instead, Reader, I married him, which has resulted in the most extraordinary bliss. And now, whenever I think back to those early years of our own modest, still-unfolding drama, I always return to the very last lines of The Vintner’s Luck. 

"You fainted and I caught you. It was the first time I’d supported a human. You had such heavy bones. I put myself between you and gravity. Impossible."

This article originally appeared on Bookdiva.