Book clinic: which novels will help me cope with life’s hard knocks?

Diana Athill, Anne Tyler and Elizabeth Strout all provide wisdom and humour in times of need

Q: As a single woman in her 50s, I’m usually strong, brave, tough and independent. Just recently, life dealt me a couple of knocks that made me wish I wasn’t quite so alone. Which novels can I read to help me get back to where I was?
Anonymous, 53, Huddersfield

A: Author and critic Julie Myerson writes:
I feel for you. But as you probably already know, it’s not the knocks themselves, but how we deal with them. For a swift, bracing jolt to the spirit, look no further than the late, great Diana Athill (so resilient that no one ever expected her to die). Somewhere Towards the End has the benefit of both hindsight and an inspiring lack of self-pity. Athill, whose life was certainly chequered, called herself a Good Recoverer. Probably a lesson there.

If you’re looking for fiction that tackles the queasy, heart-sinking compromises of middle age, then Sue Miller, Anne Tyler and Elizabeth Strout will all entertain and console you in equal measure. Miller’s The Lake Shore Limited, Tyler’s Ladder of Years and Strout’s Olive Kitteridge are all gripping masterpieces of trauma, loss and disappointment. A blend of honesty, wisdom and humour, together with icy-sharp prose make all three of them writers to go into the jungle with.

Finally, poetry and the unparalleled Mary Oliver, who breathed her last the same week as Athill, writes lines of sublime and healing clarity, certain to comfort in troubled times. “Tell me,” she asks, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” What indeed? I’d like to think that Oliver and Athill are up there somewhere, comparing drafts and getting ready for their next wild and precious adventure.

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Julie Myerson

The GuardianTramp

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