Maggie O’Farrell Book Recommendations

Welcome to Shelf Life, ELLE.com’s book column, where authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re looking for a book to console you, move you deeply, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (because you’re here), love books. Maybe one of their favorite titles will also become one of yours.

The wedding portrait: a novel

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Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel, Hamnetis set in 16th century Stratford and imagines the life of Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son. For his new and ninth novel, The portrait of marriage (Knopf), she travels south to Florence and Ferrara in the 16th century and imagines the life of Duchess Lucrezia de’ Medici. She also wrote a memoir in which she recounts 17 brushes with death, including a childhood illness that left her bedridden for a year, a flight plunging to the ground and a knife to her throat, and lighter, two books for children. Hamnetwhich won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Women’s Prize for Fiction, is being adapted for film with Sam Mendes as producer.

O’Farrell, born in Northern Ireland and based in Edinburgh, wanted to be a poet; studied English at Cambridge; taught English in Hong Kong; was an editorial assistant at The Sunday Independent; is the middle of three sisters; has three cats named Moses, Selkie and Gingko; plant a garden of medicinal plants (including valerian, comfrey, chamomile), learned falconry with a kestrel, and once work as a hotel housekeeper, where a friend challenged her to try on a guest’s (Chanel) dress, only for the guest to enter.

Likes: yoga, swimming, Uyuni Salt Flat salt dish in Bolivia, Radiohead, the National Museum of Ireland. See his collection of book recs below.

The book that…

…kept me up way too late:

I recently tore my way through Virginia Feito Mrs March, a disturbing and winding novel by Highsmith about a woman convinced that her husband has committed murder. It has one of the most intriguing and unreliable narrators I’ve come across in a long time.

… currently sits on my bedside table:

A proof of the new AM Homes novel, The course, which I’m just desperate to start. I am an unconditional fan of Homes: his books are sometimes shocking, always attractive.

… I bought for the last time:

by Claire Keegan short story collections, because I loved his novels with passion. His stories are just as compassionate and elegantly economical as his novels.

…I read in one sitting:

I recently sat down one evening to re-read the first pages of Alice Walker The purple color. I was still sitting there at 2am, crying at the end. I’ve read it many times before, but Celie’s voice is so compelling and immediate that I just couldn’t stop.

…I recommend again and again:

by Alice Munro Featured Stories because each is a lesson in perfection and narrative generosity.

…has the best opening line:

Must be Anthony Burgess Earth Powers“It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the Archbishop had come to see me.” It has everything you need from a frontline, and more.

… made me laugh out loud:

by Nora Ephron Stomach pains still makes me laugh – and I never laugh – every time I read it. Something in its axis between tragedy and observation grabs me every time. “Too big” has got to be the best understated insult ever written.

… to the greatest end:

It’s delicate. How about John Fowles The wife of the French lieutenantwho pulls off the magic trick of having two?

…I read the most:

It’s probably a draw between Jane Eyre, Anna Kareninaand Molly Keane good behaviorwhich I highly recommend.

…surprised me:

Chez Abi Daré The girl with the loud voice is a harrowing, revealing and ultimately uplifting novel about a young girl who is sold into marriage to an older man. Adunni’s spirit is sharp and fearless.

… I would like signed by the author:

Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. I would like to meet him. I have a feeling he would be great company.

… I asked for a Christmas when I was a child:

A complete set of Tove Jansson Moomin books, which I still have. They have the original cover and are living proof that in the 1980s, in her biography, Jansson was described as “living alone on a Finnish island”, while of course living with her longtime partner Tuulikki Pietilä.

Read O’Farrell’s picks:
Mrs March
The course
Antarctic
The purple color
The purple color

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Featured Stories
Earth Powers
Stomach pains
The wife of the French lieutenant
The wife of the French lieutenant
Jane Eyre
Anna Karenina

About Jean R. Manzer

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