Books to take you on holiday
Holidays abroad currently feel like something of a distant memory or a utopian fantasy. Given the constant yo-yoing over plans for travels abroad this summer, it is hard to believe we will be able to go on holiday to another country. Even if we can go on holiday, there are so many restrictions and caveats surrounding vaccine passports, travel corridors and quarantines, that abroad travel might have to wait until 2022, sadly.
I have found that reading has been one of my biggest sources of enjoyment over the past year – if nothing else, books have given me a chance to explore new places. When it might be impossible to travel to a beautiful sunny country, we can at least live vicariously through books which take us abroad – and, in the case of some of those explored below, a film adaptation into which we can also disappear.
Call Me By Your Name, André Aciman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
André Aciman’s 2007 novel Call Me By Your Name takes place in the Italian Riviera. The Mediterranean is the perfect location for a coming-of-age sexual awakening story, where the heady atmosphere and endless summer days provide the backdrop for a young love affair. Seventeen-year-old Elio lives with his parents in Bordighera. Every summer, Elio’s academic parents welcome a visiting doctoral student to assist Elio’s father with work. When Oliver – who is loud, breezy, brash and carefree – arrives from America, Elio begins to develop sexual and romantic feelings towards him. Call Me By Your Name is a perfect storm of intense emotions: the mental and sexual anguish of obsessive love, combined with the restless heat of a long, lazy summer. Elio’s and Oliver’s sexual identities, and the fact that Oliver is several years older than Elio, elicit a forbidden aspect to the book. The forbidden fruit, in this case, is peaches.
I can’t think of a book which better describes the swooning, restless nature of Mediterranean heat. The 2017 film adaptation stars Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer and its pastel-blue colour tone, Sufjan Stevens soundtrack and beautiful scenes of beaches and rolling hills add to this dreamy summer-time feel. It’s a story which makes you feel nostalgic: for love and obsession but mostly for long hot summers. When discussing his latest song, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”, Lil Nas X mentioned the 2017 film as an inspiration for queer culture. While we might not be able to go abroad this year, at least in our endless, long, (hopefully hot) summers, we have Lil Nas X’s music and Call Me By Your Name (both the film and the book) to remind us of beautiful Italian scenery.
Swimming Home, Deborah Levy (And Other Stories)
I only started reading Deborah Levy around a month ago, starting with Hot Milk, but since then I have raced through her collection of novels, short stories and autobiographical non-fiction writings. Her characters range from seamstresses to advertising executives, from poets to unnamed adulterers. Levy’s greatest characterisations, I think, are in her descriptions of young women, often unstable and lost. Perhaps this is why I have become so obsessed with her writing, finding similarities in her characters’ existential and quarter-life crises.
Swimming Home, Levy’s 2011 Booker-nominated novel, takes place in a holiday villa in south-east France. Joe, a renowned poet, and his wife Isabel, a famous war correspondent, are on holiday with their teenage daughter Nina and another couple. They arrive at the villa, finding an unexpected visitor floating in the swimming pool. She is Kitty Finch, enigmatic and alluring. It soon becomes apparent that she is a fan of Joe the poet, and as a poet herself, has brought along her own poetry for him to read.
The prose is laced with anxiety and unease. There are tensions in both of the marriages and Kitty’s arrival stokes further conflicts. Amongst Levy’s detached and dream-like writing, Swimming Home is an archetypal tale of holiday hostilities. A holiday abroad in a beautiful French villa is often the prime location for familial and relationship breakdowns, and Levy portrays that perfectly.
The Talented Mr Ripley, Patricia Highsmith (Coward-McCann)
Set in fictitious Mongibello, in Italy, The Talented Mr Ripley is the first novel of the five-part psychological thriller series by Patricia Highsmith. It tells the story of Tom Ripley, a young con-man struggling to get by in New York. When he is approached by the wealthy Herbert Greenleaf, whose son Dickie has run away to Italy to pursue a life of luxury and hedonism, Ripley is soon enlisted to travel to Mongibello to bring Dickie back home. In Italy, he becomes slowly obsessed with Dickie: he adopts his mannerisms, dresses up in his clothes, and feels rejected when Dickie snubs him for his girlfriend Marge or his friend Freddie Miles. Ripley’s obsession with Dickie borders on sexual: as the reader, we are unsure whether Ripley wants to be Dickie, or simply wants him.
Two of the film adaptations, Plein Soleil (1960) and The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), are both brilliant depictions of the story. Although the plot lines differ slightly from each other and from the book, the two films portray a breathtakingly gorgeous costal Italian setting. I recently watched Ari Aster’s Midsommar – a horror set amongst a Swedish pagan cult – which reminded me of the juxtaposition in The Talented Mr Ripley. There is twenty-four-hour sunlight in the picturesque Swedish countryside in Midsommar, and the contrast between the constant sunlight and the disturbing scenes only adds to the horror. The Talented Mr Ripley is similar – in the book and in both film adaptations, the costal sun-soaked scenery is so beautiful that it makes Ripley’s actions even more menacing.
The Beach, Alex Garland (Viking)
Alex Garland’s The Beach is perhaps the ultimate holiday read. Not only does it depict the impossible quest of finding an idyllic, untouched paradise away from the growing tourist presence, but it also is a book which, ironically, seems to be read in multiple tourist backpacker locations. Similarly to Gregory David Robert’s 2003 Shantaram, The Beach is a book that is most likely to be seen on bookshelves in South East Asian hostels, or amongst a pack of playing cards and bottles of beer in South America, with pages flying away as the spine melts under the heat of the sun.
Published in 1996, The Beach tells the story of Richard, a young British traveller in South East Asia. In a crowded and noisy hostel, he is given a map by ‘Daffy Duck’, a Scottish man who soon kills himself, which directs Richard to a secret beach. After multiple adventures (including cannabis drug lords who will reappear later in the story), Richard and a French couple he befriends manage to find the hidden beach. It is Eden: an idyllic location where a group of self-sufficient travellers have been living for many years, undisturbed by the threat of Western tourism. Richard and the French couple settle in quickly, assuming their roles within the community. But, as Daffy’s suicide foreshadows, reality never quite lives up to paradise. Danny Boyle’s 2000 film adaptation misses the mark on a few things (different plot lines to the book, bad acting, genuine destruction to the filming location which ironically highlights the story’s main themes) but its successes lie in the cinematography and the dazzling, dream-like utopian beach scenes.
The Lonely City, Olivia Laing (Canongate)
This last book on the list is different to the rest. It is non-fiction, it doesn’t exactly depict a holiday scene, and rather than offering the reader a chance for escapism, it provides an in-depth examination into personal loneliness and the cultural effects of loneliness in New York. A non-fiction, detailed cultural analysis into loneliness and art is not the first thing people would think of when it comes to holiday books – which are often about escapism and leaving your own current situations. Especially with the past year that we’ve all had, reading about isolation and loneliness is probably not on the top of people’s lists. Weirdly enough, however, when I read this recently, I found it not only the perfect antidote to the year we’ve just experienced, but also simultaneously a thought-provoking and detailed examination of New York, making me want to revisit.
Having moved to New York from the UK for a relationship – which quickly ended once she arrived – Olivia Laing found herself living in a new city, completely alone. Focusing on this solitude and isolation, she examines a series of artists (mainly, Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz and Henry Darger), their relationship to New York, their art, and most importantly, how loneliness permeated their work. Reading it today is surreal – there are whole passages which put into words very distinct feelings and experiences prompted by the pandemic, and I had to keep reminding myself that it had been published five years ago, rather than five months ago.
Importantly, The Lonely City isn’t just a personal memoir on her own solitude, or even the lonelinesses of the artists she examines. It’s an ode to New York, and all the wonderful, enigmatic and diverse art which has been produced there. It’s also an exploration into the AIDS crisis of the 1980s – the art that was created in reaction, and the intense loneliness in gay communities that developed afterwards. There is an art in being alone (on holiday, in a different country, in a nationwide lockdown), and The Lonely City manages to simultaneously depict individual isolation alongside intimate cultural connections.