They’re not all historical, but they all hold pride of place in my bookshelves.
And while it’s not, by any means, a full list (there would be too many titles!), here are five of my “first loves” that, after all these years, remain my favourite comfort reads:
THE FIRST YEAR, by Lucilla Andrews
There is no adequate measure for the love I bear this book. Lucilla Andrews was a brilliant writer, with the rare gift of writing believable people, and while many of her books are on my keeper shelf, this one remains my favourite.
It’s the story of Rose Standing, a young probationary nurse at a busy London hospital, who finds the challenges of completing her training made yet more complicated by her growing feelings for the Senior Surgical Officer, Jake Waring.
Rose is just the best character. She’s funny and fearless, imperfect, and easy to like. If you’ve never read Lucilla Andrews, The First Year is where to start.
THE BLUE CASTLE, by L.M. Montgomery
The penciled price inside the cover, written in my mother’s lovely and familiar hand, tells me she would have sold this for $2.49, and gained a profit. But instead she let me take it from the shelf, and bring it home.
I love pretty much everything L.M. Montogmery ever wrote. Like many a Canadian girl of my generation I was brought up with Anne Shirley and Green Gables and the handsome Gilbert Blythe, and count those books among my favourites (also loving, maybe just a little more, the story of their daughter, Rilla).
But my favourite of Montgomery’s heroines is neither Anne nor Rilla, but Valancy, with her dreams of her Blue Castle and its imaginary prince who, after she first meets Barney Snaith, changes “from a being of grim jaw and hair with a dash of premature grey to a rakish individual with overlong, tawny hair, dashed with red, dark-brown eyes, and ears that stuck out just enough to give him an alert look but not enough to be called flying jibs. But he still retained something a little grim about the jaw.”
In my Hall of Fame of heroes, Barney Snaith still sits right up there with the Pickle Man from the film Crossing Delancey (and those who know me know how high that puts him).
THE ROAD TO KALUGA, by Dinah Dean
It's got nearly everything I love: intriguing history, romance, a road trip, politics, swords, and a man in Very Cool Boots.
Set in the Napoleonic War, it tells the story of Major Lev Orlov who, wounded in battle himself and knowing that the wounded left behind in Smolensk will be made captives or killed, takes it upon himself "to lead a company of wounded Russian soldiers away from the battle-scarred city" and across perilous terrain to safety in Kaluga. Along the way, he also takes on responsibility for the young Countess Irina Barova, and what happens afterwards makes for one of my favourite reads.
This is, by the way, the exact copy I read all those years ago. I'd searched for years for a copy without success (this was pre-Internet), so when my own book Mariana was first published in 1994, I went back to that library and talked the librarian into letting me trade a signed hardcover copy of Mariana for this copy of The Road to Kaluga, which was languishing down in the storeroom, unloved and on its way to the annual book sale. It has been very well loved ever since.
(It's also been published under the title Flight From the Eagle, and has sequels, though I admit I love this book so much I was afraid to spoil that by reading those sequels. I wanted to leave Lev and Irina the way they were, with the life I imagined for them).
BRIDE OF THE MACHUGH, by Jan Cox Speas
My mother still remembers vividly the day when, as a teenager, she was ill in bed and, seeking a diversion, opened the newspaper to find a condensed version of Bride of the MacHugh. She loved it so much she sought out the book in her local library, and loved the full version even more. Years later, she found a second-hand copy on sale and added it to our family bookshelves.
I still remember vividly the day when, as a not-quite-teenager, I came home from school on an already-darkening winter afternoon and, seeking a diversion, scanned the titles of the books on the second shelf down in our kitchen and settled on Bride of the MacHugh. I took it up to my room, snuggled under my covers, and found myself so magically transported I'm not even sure I made it down for dinner.
This is my own paperback copy (my mother's is a hardback), and you can see how many times it's been read, and how much it's been loved. There's good reason for that.
THIS ROUGH MAGIC, by Mary Stewart
I'm always hard-pressed to choose a favourite among Mary Stewart's novels, but This Rough Magic always stays close to the top of the heap. My mother was actually reading this (newly published) while she was pregnant with me, so we figure that's why I fell so much in love with it. This is vintage Stewart, with a clever and capable heroine, a wonderful supporting cast of fully fleshed-out characters, a breathtaking Greek island setting, an insider's view of the world of the theatre, the threads spun by Shakespeare's The Tempest so artfully woven right into the story…and Max.
For a long time, Max stood as The Hero against which to measure all heroes, for me. Not just handsome, but funny, intelligent, and so refreshingly normal. And I know exactly what Lucy, the heroine, means when she tells him accusingly, "…And now there you sit looking at me, and all you do is look—like that—and my damned bones turn to water, and it isn't fair…"
It's been 42 years since the first time I read This Rough Magic, and Max is still setting the bar pretty high!
So those are five of my "first loves", for Valentine's week. What are some of your own? And did any of yours come to you, as mine did, with the help of your mother? Do you read them differently now, or do you still enjoy them as much as you ever did