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Wednesday 29 January 2014

Shelf Esteem: How To Be A Heroine by Samantha Ellis

Shelf worth: 4/5

Just how good, really, are the books we loved? I'm talking about the ones we read as girls -  teenagers even: Ballet Shoes, Riders, Anne of Green Gables, Jane Austen, What Katie Did, The Color Purple, everything we poured in our eyes when all we had was a library card and time.

Samantha Ellis grew up in an Iraqi Jewish community in north London. And, like a good Domestic Sluttery woman, she read. A lot. This wonderful book serves as part-memoir, part-re-examination of her girlhood heroines to see if they still measure up decades down the road, and how they held her hand along the way.

Ellis gets through an impressive list of books and heroines, but in such an elegant way that you almost don't notice the bibliography building up. Each book is weaved into a part of her own life: her growing love of theatre (Ballet Shoes), writing and her sense of "I must write" destiny (Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon, Little Women), her relationships and university career, and a fantastically empowering chapter on being single, which combs through her reading to find some decent literary spinsters (1926's Lolly Willowes, about a 28-year-old (!) spinster who moves away and becomes a witch sounds fantastic).

Ellis has a remarkable knack with a recap - where she summarises a plot, she takes it seriously and makes it sparkle, showing due respect to the good reads of her past. I must read Lace, if she will read Scandal. But what I loved most about this book was how much it turns out classic "growing-up" reading overlaps with others. I thought I and my writing buddy Elizabeth to be lone lovers of Emily of New Moon (LM Montgomery's sharper and more intriguing go at Anne of Green Gables's themes), but no! Here's Ellis explaining exactly why purple-eyed Emily and her total dedication to writing are to be cherished.

Even when the book doesn't go in-depth, it's littered with mentions of books you have loved, certainly ones that I have loved (Singled Out! Rivals! Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret! Nights at the Circus! Oh, 6'2 Fevvers, you utter legend) which made me feels as though this book had been written just for me.

Knitting all these books, and Ellis's memories together, is the idea of the heroine. In Ellis's girlhood eyes, her heroine is her mother, who fled Iraq and started a new life in London. In her books, she looks for a companion to emulate. For years, she thinks the ideal is Wuthering Heights' Cathy, before eventually coming round to her friend Emma's love of Jane Eyre.

Who really stands up as the ideal? Lizzy Bennett seems to have Ellis's affections, understandably, but she isn't reverent to characters or their authors. She is grippingly unforgiving when authors fail their characters. Over the ocean in New York, Herman Wouk, author of Marjorie Morningstar (heard of, not read), should feel burning disapproval for failing his heroine at the very end. There are loads of titles in here I haven't read, and which I'm looking forward to immensely. Even the ones where the authors get it wrong - in fact, especially those.

The book slides away in the last chapter. Ellis's clipped control dips as she gets caught up in a starry-eyed and rather hasty "Oh God, it's the end of the book, let's tie it up" treatise on how one must be the writer for one's own life and indeed, the heroine (Nora Ephron namechecked, obv). Nevertheless. If you're feeling a bit lost in the post-Christmas/New Year sprawl of what to read next, then this is a fantastic read: as a palate cleanser for your next book and as a reminder of the books that made you - and the heroines therein.

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