Comfort Reading: The Cat Came Back Edition

This was a slightly different post when I started planning it yesterday. As some of you know, last Saturday one of our cats (a cat we’ve had since his birth) went missing. It was an awful week of guilt, grief, hope disappointed. And then this morning, grumbling, I got up at 5:30 to let the dog out and there was Jinx at the back door. A moment I’d imagined over and over again, a moment I’d try to stop myself from imagining because hoping hurt too much. As I write this he’s curled up under my legs, and I can still hardly believe it.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve been thinking about (and seeking out) comfort reading. Like many people I know, I usually turn to romance fiction as comfort reading. Life may not have a happy ending, but a romance novel does! Optimism, emotional justice, true love–what could be better when life is hard? This week, for me, romance was no comfort.

I was feeling too much, too intensely. I wanted to escape feeling for a while. And I sure didn’t want any of the heart pangs I sometimes enjoy on the way to a fictional HEA. Reading that usually feels cathartic overloaded me with emotion. I didn’t even want the happy ending. I was trying to stifle hope, because having it disappointed again and again hurt too much. I went to the back door dozens of times a day, just in case I might look out and see a cat there. (And put up signs, left notes for neighbors, walked the alleys calling and looking….). I think romance works as comfort reading for me when I’m depressed: when I feel dead inside and need hope. This week, the hope offered by romance fiction held no appeal.

So I set aside the romance I’d been enjoying (Suleikha Snyder’s Spice and Secrets). Then on Sunday my library hold on Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave came in. Oh God, no. I cancelled it, took a look at my other requests, and cancelled Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial too. (I’ll get back to these eventually. They’re part of my informal project of reading some of the books that made best non-fiction lists for 2013).

Instead, I turned to classic mysteries: Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair (a re-read) and Ngaio Marsh’s Nursing Home Murder. The endings of these books are not so much happy as tidy. They’re essentially intellectual puzzles, the mystery enough to engage my attention, but with no harrowing events (like lost or abused children). You aren’t asked to care deeply about the characters, really. Perfect.

At the end of Marsh’s novel, when Inspector Alleyn dines with his young friends Nigel and Angela and sums up the crime and its solution for them, Angela asks if two of the people involved will marry now. Alleyn replies,

“I’m afraid you’ve got the movie-mind. You want a final close-up. ‘John–I want you to know that–that–‘ Ecstatic glare at short distance into each other’s faces. Sir John utters an amorous growl: ‘You damned little fool,’ and snatches her to his bosom. Slow fade-out.”

“That’s the stuff,” said Angela. “I like a happy ending.”

“We don’t often see it in the Force,” said Alleyn. “Have some port?”

“Thank you.”

That was the stuff was in the mood for.

Today was a great, joyful day. But I kept thinking about this line from Pride and Prejudice:

Elizabeth . . .  rather knew that she was happy than felt herself to be so.

My husband and I were talking at dinner about how our relief and joy were nearly as harrowing as our grief. We’re exhausted by emotion. Tonight, when I finish this, I might choose some dumb TV. I’m not quite ready to read romance.

But tomorrow I think I’ll pick up Spice and Secrets again. And tonight I read the first few pages of James Salter’s All That IsI was sucked in from the first tour de force sentences, and look forward to more.

All night in darkness the water sped past.

In tier on tier of iron bunks below deck, silent, six deep, lay hundreds of men, many faceup with their eyes still open though it was near morning. The lights were dimmed, the engines throbbing endlessly, the ventilators pulling in damp air, fifteen hundred men with their packs and weapons heavy enough to take them straight to the bottom, like an anvil dropped in the sea, part of a vast army sailing towards Okinawa, the great island that was just to the south of Japan.

But then, I spent my Reading Week mired in grief instead of powering through all the work I’d planned. I am so far behind in my grading and policy revision. Perhaps all I’ll be reading for a while is student papers.

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6 Responses to Comfort Reading: The Cat Came Back Edition

  1. sonomalass says:

    I am really glad your cat came back. There’s an old folk song about a cat who keeps coming back, no matter what his mean, nasty owner tries to get rid of him. My mom used to play it on the guitar, when she still played, and I can still recall singing all the verses with her. That’s been stuck in my head all day.

    This is my annual difficult week, the anniversary (fourth) of my father’s death. I am picking my reading very carefully, as I feel myself bogging down in the grief. Fantasy, mystery, and very fluffy romance. I can’t do angst. Difficult times call for very specialized comfort reading, without too much emotion to set me off. I know what you mean here. I’m afraid I’ll be right there with you in the “have to catch up on the grading” zone when I come out the other end next week.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh yes, I sang that as a kid, and it’s been going through my head too. If only he HAD come back “the very next day.” Would have spared us a lot of heartache.

      I will be thinking of you this week. Take care of yourself.

  2. HJ says:

    I am so pleased Jinx came back. I too have spent days looking for a lost cat, and it is dreadful. (She came back too. Where do they go?) My comfort reading is Josephine Tey, and also Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense books. I think it’s partly because I know them so well, and feel safe reading them – they occupy me enough to distract me, and I know that I won’t be ambushed by something too sad to bear. Everything will be resolved properly in due time.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I had a lot of trouble sleeping this week, and I listened to old favorites on audio as I lay awake. Some of that was romance–and yes, knowing what was coming was key. No emotional ambushes. I also chose books more on the comic side.

  3. willaful says:

    Jospehine Tey is also my comfort reading! Also probably because I know it so well. And Barbara Michaels, Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer… all books I reread to death when I was younger.

    You never know how these things will hit, though. When my friend was dying, coming up on 2 years ago, I didn’t want comfort books, I wanted grief books. I wrote about it at some length here, if anyone’s interested:

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, I remember that post. It’s lovely.

      I think you’re right that “comfort reading” isn’t something we can identify for good and all, even for ourselves. Not only do different people choose different books, but there are times when our usual faithful friends just aren’t what we want. Sometimes I find comfort in escape; sometimes I want a book that’s a companion/reflection of my life, making me feel less alone with whatever I’m going through. Sometimes I just can’t read at all.

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