I am re-reading ‘The Last Chance Saloon’, a book that I was gifted in 2006 according to the inscription, by a person who is no more in my life. It was my first Marian Keyes and through my late 20s, I would chart out a life that was guided by writers like her. I did my time with the more popular Sophie Kinsella but her frantic plotlines left me feeling more anxious than was worth. I also drifted the way of Milan Kundera, very appropriately introduced by a good-on-paper boyfriend who also told me that the background score to his life would be from a French film.
Yes, this nostalgia trip into the mid-2000s has me writing the way I used to then, with run-on sentences, a hundred flights of fancy within a single thought and a lot of honest sharing hidden under book references. Because to re-read this book, is to revisit parts of my mind that I’ve locked away for years while I tried to stabilise the shaky ship that was my life. I don’t know if this happens to other people but I have vivid memories of my time with books, especially ones that I feel a deep connection with like this one. I remember places I carried them to, times I read them while waiting, conversations I brought them into, blogposts they inspired, and decisions that they weighed in on. Maybe it’s because I didn’t experience enough fulfilment with other people at the time and I was not yet fully formed as a person who chose solitude, I formed with books the kind of relationships that others usually form with people. It’s like reliving my mid-20s, an eclectic time of so much attention, abundance & experiences that I haven’t made sense of them all yet. The birth of my blog and the rise of IdeaSmith, which some of you may know represents the life I chose.
After this book, I would go on to read many more Marian Keyes books, giving myself permission to love the supposedly trite genre of ‘chicklit‘. The Walsh sisters’ series continues to occupy a place of pride on my bookshelf (though I’m partial to ‘Rachel’s Holiday’ and ‘Anybody Out There’) through numerous re-readings. But this book, my first, I’ve been reluctant to open so far. Yet, I’ve carried it with me through numerous book spring cleanings notwithstanding the fact that its size makes it an unwieldy fit in my shelf. Why?
I guess nostalgia is a very good reason for me. And this book, after all, was a gift. But it stopped being about the person who gave me this book a very long time ago. For one, she read books that I considered beneath me. It occurs to me only now that it may have been a silent message of support that she felt unable to articulate in any other way. You see, a vital part of the book’s storyline involves cancer. And in the five years prior, I’d watched two different family members lose the cancer battle and along with them, the relationships & lives of people around them twist in painful ways. I still don’t know. There is too much to unpack in my relationship with her. Here’s a post that I wrote on the day she gave me this book. One of the things I’m realising now is that I don’t have to learn all the lessons TODAY.
The main characters of Katherine, Tara & Fintan (like a lot of Keyes’ other characters) felt very close to me, though they were Irish 30-somethings in London while I was an Indian 26-year-old in Mumbai. The people who were supposed to be my friends – classmates, childhood playmates – I couldn’t relate to. Reading this book made me feel seen (to use a term that would only become popular a decade later). I was interested in dressing in the latest styles (rather than what would make a guy’s family see me as marriageable and the guy see me as fuckable). I also wanted to be seen as independent and strong but also feel loved & supported. I frequently felt overwhelmed & I didn’t know how to articulate it so I dealt in ways that were deemed mistakes by someone or the other. I became jaded then surprised myself with my capacity for joyfulness, mistook it for immaturity, blundered into bad decisions, got shamed & gaslit for other people’s (usually men’s) faults & had a long, passionate run with low self-esteem. If I could, I’d tell my 20-something self that things eventually shake down but at the time I stumbled along, stubbornly hoping that was true and often getting knocked off course for that.
I was too young to be able to see my colleagues as anything other than competition. To be fair, maybe that’s what most of my peers felt about me when it came to love life. Even if that was of zero importance to me, their fervent interest in it made them see me fearfully as a rival. This book made me see that I shouldn’t have to make a choice between independent & loving, between respect & support, between attraction & consent. It was almost too many lessons to absorb at once in addition to the realisation that my world was too small for who I was becoming. I think I sensed all of these at some level even if I couldn’t quite make sense of it all. I had already begun blogging by then and my early posts were full of the relentless hunger for identity, for recognition of my right to exist in a world that was too small for me. Reading and writing are two parts of conversations with the world and since I had nobody to talk to, books & their characters spoke to me. This one is that interesting person who was friendly but who made me feel a little beyond my depth. And because it was chick lit, a genre associated with silliness and I was so invested in Smart Ramya, I couldn’t accept that. So I kept it around.
It sparked off a string of other more palatable books for me and along with them came people more palatable – the beginnings of my tribe. A merchandiser at my favourite bookstore who knew my blog. The wife of the friend of an ex, who met my blog identity before she met me. People whose first impression of me became IdeaSmith, that persona that I’ve come to realise is the very best, most comfortable fit for my life. This post is turning out to be more about the book than two of the characters that I originally wanted to talk about. But maybe that’s the stuff of another post. For now, I’m just happy for a reunion with an old almost-friend. I’m grown up now and can hold my own.
Update: I just realised I have tried second-reading this book before. Even picking up the book again was such an intense experience, I wrote about it. But I have no memory of it so I must conclude that I must have given up. The time wasn’t right but it feels right now.