After a long, hot summer here in the Northwest, it’s finally starting to cool off, which means it’s time to grab a cup of tea or hot cocoa and head for your favorite comfy reading spot. Let’s talk about our favorite cozy fall reads! I love reading with the seasons—and I’ve realized that what I want from a seasonal book are deep, delicious details that situate me fully in the season so that I can experience it along with the characters.
The Hollow by Agatha Christie
I’ve been a huge Agatha Christie fan since I discovered And Then There Were None in sixth grade, and one of my all-time favorite books of hers is The Hollow. It begins in September in an English country house called the Hollow, where a group of assorted guests has gathered for a long weekend. They’ve invited Hercule Poirot to lunch and of course, there’s a murder. A beautifully artistic murder—a charming but arrogant doctor has been shot and his blood drips over the side of an outdoor swimming pool set in autumnal woodland. Interestingly, the doctor, John Christow, is not a passive victim whose function in the novel is simply to be murdered, but a fully imagined character in the midst of a messy human life, so well depicted that his death actually makes me feel regret for what’s lost by his passing.
Here he is thinking about the upcoming weekend: “Only one more patient to see and then the clear space of the weekend. His mind dwelt on it gratefully. Golden leaves tinged with red and brown, the soft moist smell of autumn—the road down through the woods—the wood fires, Lucy, most unique and delightful of creatures—with her curious, elusive will-o’-the-wisp mind. . . . On Sunday he’d walk through the woods with Henrietta (his mistress, not his wife—yes, it’s a complicated life)—up on to the crest of the hill and along the ridge. . . .”
Another charming feature of the book is the way Agatha contrasts how the English feel about the countryside with how Hercule Poirot feels about it: “He did not, he confessed it to himself, really like the country. . . . The surrounding landscape he did not care for though it was, he knew, supposed to be a beauty spot. It was, however, too wildly asymmetrical to appeal to him. He did not care much for trees at any time—they had that untidy habit of shedding their leaves. . . . Such a landscape was best enjoyed from a car on a fine afternoon. You exclaimed, ‘Quel beau paysage!’ and drove back to a good hotel.”
As one of the characters remarks flippantly, “Lady Angkatell has been entertaining a few friends for a murder this autumn.” And as the evenings draw in, what’s better than a classic murder mystery?
Persuasion by Jane Austen
My favorite of Austen’s novels opens with the feckless Sir Walter Elliot’s realization that “he was . . . growing dreadfully in debt” and that he will have to rent out his ancestral home, Kellynch-hall, and move to less expensive quarters in Bath. His sensitive daughter, Anne, grieves “to forego all the influence so sweet and so sad of the autumnal months in the country” as her beloved home will be let beginning at Michaelmas, 29 September.
Though Anne is only twenty-seven, she is considered to be already “on the shelf” with regard to marriage, and a nostalgic, autumnal feeling of missed opportunities pervades the book. Anne’s lost love, Captain Wentworth, even uses the phrase “her November of life” and though I’m always surprised when I go back to the book to find that he’s referring to Louisa Musgrove instead of Anne, some of its resonance seems to settle on her.
The long walk they take with a party of friends on that “fine November day” gives Anne plenty of time for meditating on “the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and . . . repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness . . .” These are among her most pleasant reflections, since Captain Wentworth’s attentions toward Louisa cause her to conclude painfully that “every thing now marked out Louisa for Captain Wentworth; nothing could be plainer . . .”
But, happily for her and for the reader, there are still fresh seasons to come in Anne’s life. And if you don’t have time to curl up with the book, the 2000 movie starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds gives the same deeply romantic autumnal feeling in just an hour and forty-six minutes! I believe it’s the best movie adaptation of any of Jane Austen’s beloved novels.
Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym
I do love it when authors include the homey details of daily life in their books—what people eat, drink, wear, and grow in their gardens—and no one is better at giving you homey details than Barbara Pym. Her debut novel, Some Tame Gazelle, published in 1950, is the story of two spinster sisters Belinda and Harriet Bede, and their quiet but still satisfyingly full lives in an English village. Here’s Belinda greeting the new curate, who “coughed nervously and ventured a remark about the weather.
‘Yes, I love September,’ agreed Belinda . . . . ‘Michaelmas daisies and blackberries and comforting things like fires in the evening again and knitting.’”
In the small details of village life, the feeling of the evenings drawing in, and the rhythm of the English ecclesiastical year, tied as it is to the changing seasons, Pym creates a world that might seem to be about nothing but, in its focus on “those sudden moments of joy that sometimes come to us in the middle of an ordinary day”, is really about everything. She has such a shrewd comic eye. I especially love the novel’s hilarious preoccupation with socks and the brilliance of the unexpected happy-ever-after conclusion, which comes (slight spoiler alert) not in the usual form of marriage, but from the proposals the two sisters refuse.
Along the way, we get delicious autumnal details like this: “Belinda was silent, wondering if by any chance there were any plums left and whether she would have the courage to bring the Archdeacon a pot of the blackberry jelly which she herself had made a week or two ago. Perhaps when Agatha went away . . . a cake, too, perhaps with coffee icing and filling and chopped nuts on the top, or a really rich fruit cake . . .”
Mmm, I don’t know about you but I’m ready to go make a cake right now . . .
I’m finding cozy Fall reads such a rich topic, I’ve decided to continue it in my next post. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your favorite Fall reads!