I first came across Francesca Specter when I listened to her podcast, Alonement, in which she spoke to one of my very favourite writers – Poorna Bell – about her life-changing solo travels, the pitfalls of workplace culture and how to value your time alone. Having coined and trademarked Alonement as a cultural movement around the time we spend alone – and why it matters, Francesca has since penned a book – Alonement: How To Be Alone and Absolutely Own It – and while I patiently wait for my copy to arrive from the UK, I wanted to invite Francesca to take part in myDesert Island Books series, to find out more about the books that make her tick. From the book that every creative needs, to one of the most beautiful stories she’s ever read, here are the eight books Francesca would take with her to the sandy shores of a desert island.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
From the woman who brought us Eat Pray Love, Big Magic is the book every creative person didn’t know they needed – and it’s frequently quoted in my Zoom writers’ group! At the core of this, this book liberated me to be creative in a way that felt authentic and in touch with real life – not channelling the tortured artist, but instead as someone who can prioritise emotional and financial stability while still making ‘art’.
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
If anyone needs convincing of the power of writing to change the world, reading this essay (an adaptation of Adichie’s now-famous 2013 Ted Talk) should do it. I remember feeling chills as I read Adichie summarise, elegantly and succinctly, so many aspects of feminism that I’d never quite found the words to express myself. It’s also a lesson in how to make the specific universal – many of Adichie’s references are to Nigerian culture, yet what she’s written is a manifesto for 21st century feminism around the world.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
A beautifully-written story about obsessive, nostalgic love set in a faraway port town (believed to be based on Colombia) – what more could you want from fiction? It would certainly be much-needed romantic escapism while alone on a desert island… I particularly enjoy complex, problematic characters in fiction – and this book is filled aplenty with them. The cholera context, of course, has an added resonance after the past year of Covid.
Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari
This should be compulsory reading for anyone entering the world of 21st-century dating. Written by Aziz Ansari in collaboration with sociologist Eric Klinenberg (the latter of whom I had the pleasure of interviewing on my podcast), this is a funny and fact-filled book all about the changing nature of dating, and how it’s created an inter-generational chasm of understanding. It was at once soothing and thought-provoking, and a useful reflection for anyone who worries their romantic standards are ‘too high’.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Quite simply one of the most beautiful and sad stories I have ever read. A Little Life is a domestic fiction novel about four men growing up in New York, spanning their whole lifetimes from university onwards, written by Hanya Yanagihara, editor-in-chief of the New York Times Style Magazine. At 720 words, it was a mammoth length and yet I wanted to be so much longer, having fallen deeply in love with the characters, particularly Jude – the book’s central character – whom the reader cannot help but feel strongly protective over. I still think about it every day: on a deeper level this book, for me, is about what it means to be human, what it means to claim your own ‘little life’ and to live and love meaningfully – even in the face of the greatest adversity.
Expectation by Anna Hope
Like A Little Life, this book chronicles its characters over the course of a lifetime from their early twenties onwards – but instead it’s about three female friends, growing up in London. At the core this is a story about female friendship – not in a saccharine way, but instead in all its complexity, confronting jealousy and rivalry alongside real love. ‘You must keep hold of your friendships, Lissa. The women. They’re the only thing that will save you in the end,’ are the words from the wise mother of one of the central characters – and this sets the tone for the book’s context. This was of the few books which wrote about female friendship with the dignity and intensity it deserves – together with being an important, relatable coming-of-age story about the ‘expectation vs reality’ of how carefully-planned-out lives actually turn out.
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
I wrote my dissertation on this book – and somehow manage to revisit it regularly without tiring of it – so it has passed the test for a Desert Island Book! It centres around tragic heroine Lily Bart, beautiful and brilliant, who comes up against the pressures of New York upper-class society in the early twenties. Written by Edith Wharton – herself a notable socialite – this is a book that knows what it’s talking about, but it also works on multiple levels: as a wider reflection on the meaning of life and joy itself, and whether it can be compatible with rigid societal conventions, and equally (as I wrote in my dissertation) a meditation on to what extent its female protagonist, Lily, really is free to make her own choices.
Ghosts by Dolly Alderton
Dolly Alderton’s novelistic debut is every bit as good as anticipated (after her sell-out non-fiction book, Everything I Know About Love). Ghosts is a witty, insightful, thoughtful story that illuminates the pitfalls of modern dating, all the while giving dignity and celebration to its protagonist Nina George – who has to navigate its occasional awfulness and does so with grace – rather than portraying her as merely a ‘victim’. It also ties in a subplot about dementia which – as anyone who has seen the effects of this disease in someone close to them, as I have, will likely agree – is sensitively and bravely handled. I also appreciated that – as with Expectation – a female friendship proved one of the central love stories in the book.
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