Perhaps because romantic comedies are popular with people who may not consider themselves literary, or even literate, the consensus among writing snobs is that such novels aren’t really worthy of much beyond a sneer.
This is, it goes without saying, rubbish. Of course there is some appalling, trite stuff out there, clogging up supermarket aisles in pastel covers; but two of the most perfect novels about love and relationships are romantic comedies – Nancy Mitford’s witty and almost unbearably poignant The Pursuit Of Love, and her Love In A Cold Climate.
Moving from the 1930s to the present day, reading groups around the country have voted a romantic comedy as their favourite read in this year’s Hookline Book Competition, in which the winning novel is published. The winner, Jilly Wosskow’s A Young Woman’s Guide to Carrying On, is funny and gloriously easy to read and sets out its stall by having a pink bed on the cover – you just know you aren’t going to have to plough though anything pretentious here. A Young Woman’s Guide to Carrying On has a rags-to-riches plotline, a latter-day Cinderella as a heroine and the story’s arch is pretty much about discovering which of the frogs she kisses turn out to be toads, princes or just plain old frogs. It is, unashamedly, a romantic comedy and it has the effervescent charm of the best of its kind.
However, beneath its apparent light-heartedness, there are hidden depths. Unlike so much literary fiction, which is all window dressing and linguistic showing-off, a good rom-com delivers more than it initially promises: a diet of apparent froth that turns out to be as satisfying as chicken soup. A Young Woman’s Guide to Carrying On takes a clear-eyed, compassionate view of some distinctly gritty issues: living with a member of the family who has Down’s Syndrome; how love and relationships can survive through infidelity; the effects of children losing a parent through either death or desertion. It is, in a very real sense, a book about compromising and carrying on through the sometimes seemingly insurmountable difficulties that life throws up. It’s a romance, and therefore the characters and situations are larger-than-life, but they are recognisable too, and all the better for it.
The book’s undoubted appeal apart, what makes A Young Woman’s Guide to Carrying On’s success so particularly noteworthy is that it has been selected by readers who have voted for the kind of fiction they want to read, rather than what creative writing courses in particular tend to encourage people to write: crafted literary fiction rather than genre fiction. There is crafting here, of course, but Wosskow’s novel wears this very lightly rather than drawing attention to it. The story unfolds naturally and it seems that the writer is more concerned about pleasing her readers than showing off her skills.
The Hookline Book Competition is open to students and graduates of MA courses, and in this case, its readers have chosen something that has given them not just pleasure –but delicious food for thought.
A Young Woman’s Guide to Carrying On by Jilly Wosskow is published by Hookline Books, £9.99