On Saturday, I rushed into the living room excitedly brandishing a book.
“Look, you guys!” I exclaimed to my electronics-engulfed children. “You know your Auntie Ruth? Well, she’s written a book and it’s being published next week, and here’s our copy!”I waved the advance copy of Ruth Whippman’s The Pursuit of Happiness And Why It’s Making Us Anxious enthusiastically in their general direction.
Oddly enough, despite the book’s utter lack of connection to anything computational, Jamie was the one who became quite interested in the concept of his aunt being an author. (“Is Auntie Ruth going to be on the news?” he asked me.)
“So what’s it about?” he asked me that evening. I was reading it in between getting the two of them ready for bed.
“Well, you know Auntie Ruth lives in America? Over there, they think a lot about how to be happy, and this book is about how they spend too much time thinking about it and it isn’t actually working.”
“If I see anyone randomly reading it on the street,” Jamie declared “I’m going to tell them it was my auntie who wrote it.”
“That’s great. But you won’t see anyone else reading it before Thursday, because it isn’t published until then. We got an advance copy because of knowing Auntie Ruth.”
“So is that the only copy in the world, then?”
“Oh, no. Granny Constance has one, and the publishers, and some other people who know Auntie Ruth. But I don’t think you’ll see any of them on the street.”
“So do any random civilians have a copy, then?”
I was nervous before getting the book; if I didn’t like it, how could I best say so tactfully? Obviously I knew it was going to be well written – it was my sister’s work, after all – but what if I just disliked the format, or disagreed with it? What would be the correct etiquette response for dealing with such an unspeakable breach in sisterly support?
I needn’t have worried; the book is brilliant. It’s readable, it’s fascinating, it’s incisive, it’s informative, and it is absolutely laugh-out-loud funny (usually with bits that are simply impossible to explain to puzzled children wondering what Mummy is laughing at). I read it over the weekend and spent the next few days carrying it with me and brandishing it at playground mums and co-workers at every possible opportunity and probably the occasional impossible one. (“Gosh, I’m so sorry to hear about your daughter being bullied! By the way, can I just show you MY SISTER’S FIRST PUBLISHED BOOK?”) I was going to write more detail about it but I think I’ll save it for the entirely unbiased and impartial Amazon review that I plan to post at the first available minute (I thought about staying up till midnight to see whether I can post one the minute the book officially goes on sale, but that really would be a bit much with work the next day, so it’ll have to be first thing tomorrow). So what I’ll do here is write some of my personal reactions to reading a book by my sister.
A significant part of the book consists of personal anecdote and commentary, and this was kind of strange when I’d actually been around for many of the events described. What, attending Saturday morning orchestra as children made us social lepers? Good grief, I never realised that (probably because I was so abysmally bad in any social setting anyway that I was blithely oblivious to such niceties). Huh, Grandma Martha was a Methodist? Don’t think I knew that. And what on earth is Ruth talking about – she looked gorgeous at her wedding!
At one point, I was reading a passage on Ruth’s reaction to childhood tantrums with my own inner commentary running as it does at such points in books – ah, yes, tantrums, I have to say I actually didn’t mind them, in fact I found it quite nice to have a couple of minutes’ break in which I could legitimately ignore my child – and moved on to the next paragraph to discover to my amazement that I HAD ACTUALLY BEEN QUOTED AS SAYING THIS. A thing I said. In an actual book. That made my day. (It also, as an incidental bonus, meant I didn’t have to feel too guilty about failing to dress up as a book character for Katie’s school’s Family Learning Morning. I mean, I am now officially a book character. Coming as myself was obviously fine.)
Ruth also spends a lot of the book writing (entertainingly, not mawkishly) about her various insecurities; for me, this was the equivalent of that Poignant Moment in novels when you discover that the incredibly cool character was secretly wrestling with massive self-doubt all the time. In our teens, Ruth was the prettier and more socially skilled one of us; throughout our twenties and early thirties, she always seemed to be the one with the exciting social life and boyfriends practically for the asking; now, when I see her, she always seems to be an amazingly cool/together/involved mother. In a weird and probably Schadenfreude-steeped way, it was quite a relief to find out how much of this time she actually spent feeling madly insecure and cherry-picking her Facebook photos.
And finally, the answer to the crucial question Ruth struggles with in the book’s opening sentence: The person doing your smear is concentrating on getting the job done, and actually does not require you to make any small talk at all. You’re welcome.