A self-confessed rom com afficiando, Poppy Dolan joins us today to talk about reading her very first romantic comedy, as well as a dark, challenging title that changed the way she saw books forever. Poppy's novel, There's More to Life Than Cupcakes, is out now.
I’m going to be a bit sneaky and actually tell you about the bookish year that changed my life, because I found two books in the year of 1996 that really transformed the way I felt about reading and writing altogether.
So, back in 1996, I was 14, rather shy and geeky (people find the shy bit hard to believe now, because I can’t be shut up these days. The geek bit, however, they never question). I loved school, I loved getting As, doing my homework, learning the right answers and I loved Gary Barlow. Yeah, he wasn’t the obvious choice back then but look how smoking hot he is now! I was clearly wise before my years.
I thought reading books in English Literature lessons was all about learning the one meaning to them and then repeating it in an essay. I was pretty nifty at that: ‘Thomas Hardy meant this, Shakespeare meant that, blah blah’. And then a really cool and well-read friend leant me this book called The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. ‘Wasps?’ I thought sceptically, but what was within those pages blew my little brain. It was dark, challenging, funny, scary, confusing and also as plain as day. I’ll never forget finishing that book and feeling like someone had just poured sherbet into my brain – it was fizzing and jumping around in a way that Hardy had never provoked in me. No offence to purists, but Hardy books are full of dusty old tosh in comparison. The Wasp Factory taught me that the books you study at school are by no means the be and end all. They are just the tip of the iceberg.
That summer there was only one book people were talking about, and being a precocious 14 year old nerd, I used to read The Guardian at the weekends, trying to make sense of news stories and poring over the Culture sections like I understood a word. I didn’t. But they reviewed this very funny book that was apparently the top of the charts and selling gazillions. ‘I know about books now,’ I thought, ‘I’d better get me a copy.’ I went into my local Ottakers (RIP) and said, ‘Have you got that book about that woman’s diary?’ The bookseller rolled his eyes and pointed me over to a table display. That Saturday I went home and read Bridget Jones’ Diary from cover to cover. I laughed and cried and gasped and felt something very warm and fuzzy spread through my bones. My first rom com.
I have since read it (and its sequel) probably 13 times and will probably reread it again this year now that the third Bridget Jones book has hit the shelves. Iain Banks had taught me about books being unique, surprising; now Helen Fielding was teaching me that books could tap into something universal, something that brought people together. A story full of love and comedy could be set in the Regency period, or it could be set in the Spice Girls era and it would still talk to people right at their core. I was a 14 year old teenager who was about as worldly as a plant pot, but there I was, living Bridget’s life with her like I was one of her best mates or like I’d felt those same things of drunken despair, heartbreak or soaringly splendid love. I really really hadn’t. But the way Fielding wrote it was so accessible, so welcoming, so darn funny, that reading it was like stepping into Bridget’s living room and swigging her Chardonnay.
So the two books that changed by life taught me that a great book should either knock you off your feet or make you feel as at home as your favourite pair of woolly socks. And if something could do both, that would be the most amazing book of all time.