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What trashy novels taught me about life | Books

It was the covers that first drew me in. Four children staring out in fear seemingly trapped behind a window, someone somewhere clearly wishing them harm; a girl with long hair in a Victorian nightdress menaced by a giant red and green plant.

I turned the novels over in my hands in the Edinburgh department store. What were these books? At 12 I’d never seen anything like them. Checking that my parents and siblings were still shopping elsewhere, I settled down on the floor and cracked open the spines. Later I would beg my mum to let me buy them. Bemused, she agreed.

Virginia Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic is the cocaine of trashy novels, easily consumed, delivering rollercoaster highs and lows, leaving a slightly bitter aftertaste. The main message appears to be: “Don’t worry if your previously lovely mother suddenly reveals herself to be a deranged psychopath who locks you and your siblings in the attic before deciding to poison you all with sugared doughnuts. As long as you can have sex with your hot twin brother everything will turn out for the best in the end.”

Incredibly, Andrews’s My Sweet Audrina, possibly the only novel in the world to feature a vengeful former ice-skating champion who is now a double leg amputee confined to a little red trolley, is even more ludicrously plotted. It features multiple memories, girls with eyes like “prisms”, hints of terrible things that happened in the woods near the heroine’s house and arguably the finest description of how not to handle childhood trauma ever committed to page.

“Don’t lie to your children” is a pretty good lesson, but it was still clear, even to my 12-year-old self, that Andrews was not the ideal author to learn about life from. What she was, however, was a gateway to another world.

It’s easy to mock so-called “trashy” novels. People do it all the time. They’re dismissed as bonkbusters and shagathons. Laughed at for their over-the-top prose. Characterised as being about nothing more than sex and shopping. To their many detractors they are sugary book bonbons, the gilded covers with their (often one word) titles raised up on the front – Lace, Rivals, Scandal, Lucky – further signs that these books lack purpose. They are “women’s fiction”, frivolous works, not the sort of thing a serious reader should bother with.

Trashy novels
‘These are books filled with wit and hard-won wisdom.’ Photograph: Romas Foord/The Observer

Those critics are wrong. There is much to learn within the pages of the so-called bonkbuster – and, no, not all of it is about sex. These are books filled with wit and hard-won wisdom. They are the books that taught me about female friendship and ambition. Careers are important in these stories as is love, but not always in the sense of “and then she got married and lived happily ever after”.

They are books about taking risks and putting yourself out there, stuffed full of heroines who have never heard of impostor syndrome, but who instead get up, put their game face on, stride out and remake the world in their image day after day after day.

Yes, they are also full of fashion tips and makeup recommendations – but fashion is not a frivolous business and the way in which women apply makeup or their clothes choices can be filled with meaning and intent. It is true it’s a trope of the genre to name-drop designers and that too many of the biggest-named authors, from Jilly Cooper to Judith Krantz, were uncomfortably obsessed with weight and the notion of the ugly-duckling-to-beautiful-swan transformation.

Yet for all those “But Miss Jones you are beautiful” moments there is something truly awe-inspiring about the 80s heroine in full fight. Reading these stories in my early teens I knew I would never grow up to be Jackie Collins’s tempestuous Lucky Santangelo, mafia boss’s daughter and killer operative in her own right.

I probably wouldn’t create my own shopping empire from nothing like the redoubtable Emma Harte in Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance. Nor even negotiate my move to British TV while showing off my “rapacious” body to good effect in a bright yellow sheath dress like the fierce and furious television producer Cameron Cook in Cooper’s Rivals. When I first read the wonderful Rivals I adored schoolgirl Caitlin O’Hara, who was the same age as me, but have subsequently come to realise that these days, rather tragically, I most identify with her slatternly mother Maud, who neglects everything – children, husband, long-lost career, housework – in favour of rereading her favourite novels, eating, drinking and occasionally sloping off for bouts of hot sex.

I might never do anything half as exciting as the torrid events that unfurled in front of my eager eyes as I read long into the night, but I can still say with confidence that, for all their supposed lack of seriousness, all that apparent frivolity or even sentimentality, everything I ever learned about life I learned from “trashy” novels.

After the Andrews epiphany I began to realise that there must be more books like this out there. The mid-to-late 80s was a time before young adult fiction; a world of unregulated reading where you jumped from the safety of the children’s fiction cocoon, where even the darkest and most nightmarish of tales still felt strangely warming, to the unregulated wild west of adult fiction where anything could – and it swiftly transpired did – happen.

It was my particular good fortune to be a voracious reader in a family of people who like books, but are not entirely obsessed by them. This meant I could cajole everyone into giving me their library cards, which in turn meant I could check out around 12-15 books a week depending on how generous they were feeling.

I was lucky, too, that the librarians at Newington library were the sort of people to turn a blind eye to which books you were checking out, never once telling me that something was unsuitable or “too old” for me to read.

For a few happy months I ploughed my way through the three great Js of bonkbuster fiction – Jackie Collins, Jilly Cooper and Judith Kranz – before supplementing them with a fourth, the highly addictive June Flaum Singer, whose stories of American debutantes gone bad thrilled me to the bone. I discovered Barbara Taylor Bradford (never BTB, not even to fans), Rona Jaffe, Rex Reed, Dominick Dunne, Lisa Alther, Jacqueline Susann and Elizabeth Adler. Then came unsuccessful flings with Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins, whose more muscular prose never won my heart.

Then I discovered Lace. These days if you mention Shirley Conran’s almost 650-page opus to people they’ll come back with one of two things: the moment in the mini-series when Phoebe Cates’s Lili hisses: “Which one of you bitches is my mother?”; or the infamous goldfish scene, AKA the moment that thousands of teenage girls in the 80s debated unto death – “Yeah, but honestly how do you think it would feel?”

Yet Conran’s book was always more interesting and more serious in intent than those isolated moments, however iconic, suggest. At its heart Lace is a novel about two things – female friendship and feminism. It’s a book where men barely play a role – and where they are centre stage it’s often in an uncomfortably exoticised and eroticised way. It’s not a novel about marriage or children or finding “the one”, but rather a tale of the importance of having female friends, finding self-worth and being taken seriously in a world that operates in favour of men.

Its four heroines – Judy, Pagan, Maxine and Kate – meet in the confines of a Swiss finishing school after the Second World War. Only one – Judy, who works as a waitress at the local hotel rather than attending the school – is not privileged and yet, as Conran carefully shows, that privilege is not enough to protect them from the world they enter, particularly if they want to work rather than settle down.

Conran goes on to dedicate much of the book to tracking those attempts at forging a career, even as the story’s secret – which of the four women got pregnant during their time in Switzerland and what has happened to the subsequent baby – bubbles underneath.

The key line in Lace, however, is not that memorable insult from Lili, but rather the four girls’ schoolroom motto – that they would stick together through “thick and thin” or, rather, as the French Maxine, perhaps more correctly, has it “sick and sin”. It is no spoiler to say that is exactly what they do.

Conran had no interest in the alpha bitch grinding rivals under her 10in heels. Her book might well be 600-plus pages of sex, success and sensual awakenings, but it is also an honest and heartfelt celebration of the importance of female friends.

Lace was a revelation in that it showed me there were lessons to be learned from within those gold embossed covers and I took that central one to heart, acknowledging that, yes, there will always be times when your closest friends drive you insane, but there’s a reason they are your friends and that’s generally because they’re with you, making you laugh during both good times and bad.

All these books, even the worst of them, showed me something about life. They were fun reads and often frivolous ones, but inside each there was a kernel of wisdom that you could grab and hold tight to while you were navigating those difficult teenage years. Yes, that was true even of Flowers in the Attic. Though given that its message is no matter how terrible your mother turns out to be don’t sleep with your twin brother, I’m not sure how universal a tip that might be.

Jilly Cooper - rivals

Sex, love and friendship: the rules of life according to trashy novels

1. Never trust a man with no sense of humour. We might think of the heroes of Jilly Cooper’s Rutshire Chronicles as being thrusting, horsey types forever ravaging women in bushes, and to be fair they often are. But they also know their way around a good quip and most of them are more interested in laughing a woman into bed than presumptuously sweeping her there (you know you’ve landed a bounder in Jillyshire if they lack a GSOH, and are cruel to or, almost worst, indifferent about animals).

Jackie Collins Chances

2. Live life to the fullest. Jackie Collins showed me you can only get from life what you put in. Her heroines, from mob queen Lucky Santangelo to pop star Venus Maria, barrel through life at maximum speed, grabbing what they can get with both hands and getting away with it because of verve, flair and a sense that this full-throttle existence was the only way to be truly happy.

the thorn birds

3. Fashion matters. Reading The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough’s epic tale of love in the Australian outback, what lingered longest was not the doomed central love affair, but rather the ashes of roses dress that Meggie wears – it was the first time I realised fashion could fuel fantasy. It can send a message, too – Lace perfectly captures an era of great change, in part by showing how women threw off the constraints of the past to embrace the youthful fashions of Mary Quant and Biba.

lowish res - Barbara Taylor Bradford - A Woman of Substance

4. Never be afraid of your ambition. It doesn’t matter how small your start in life – you could be an overworked teenage servant at a grand house like Emma Harte in Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance – it’s what you make of it that counts. By the end of the book Emma heads up a retail empire and her biggest headache is working out which of her many children or grandchildren to leave it all to. Retail is actually a major theme of 80s sagas and never more so than in Judith Krantz’s Scruples, which introduced me to one of my favourite bonkbuster tropes: there’s nothing so bad in life that it can’t be solved by opening your own shop. Don’t worry if you’re not sure about how or whether it will survive the simple act of opening, it is enough to have put the razzle-dazzle back in your life. Anyway once you open it, they will come.

Sally Beauman - Dark Angel

5. It’s OK to be unlikable. Two later authors, Penny Vincenzi and Sally Beauman, introduced me to the notion that a heroine can slip up, make mistakes and even openly choose to do the wrong thing. In Dark Angel, Beauman’s anti-heroine Constance is shown more as a force of nature than a relatable protagonist. First referenced almost as a bad fairy at a disastrous christening, she is later shown to be damaged, deceitful and quite possibly deluded, but she is also one of the most vibrant, compelling characters ever committed to page. Reading about her made me realise that not everything exists in black and white; that most of us inhabit the grey worlds in between. Similarly Vincenzi’s Celia in No Angel is autocratic, demanding and selfish, but she also has a clear purpose – the preservation of her beloved publishing house – which often (although not always) justifies even her worst actions. Vincenzi wasn’t interested in creating a heroine you simply rooted for. Instead, she gives us something much more complex, a woman you don’t always like but who feels believable.

Paperback copy of Kinflicks by Lisa Alther. First published in 1976.HT16EE Paperback copy of Kinflicks by Lisa Alther. First published in 1976.

6. It’s also OK to fail. Long before the current plethora of podcasts and books about the art of failing there was Ginny Babcock. The heroine of Kinflicks, Lisa Alther’s bawdy romp of a book, is a bad daughter, failed cheerleader, sexually confused scion of 60s America and a woman who spends her life trying on a series of different personas, permanently dissatisfied because none of them quite seems to fit. Ginny’s life is one long stream of failure – in that sense Kinflicks is as much the female answer to John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces as it is a true bonkbuster – punctuated by scenes of eye-popping sex, some good but most often bad. As a 15-year-old I snorted my way through it, eagerly turning its pages to see what misfortune would befall Ginny next. As an adult I realise that Alther’s strength lay in the way she allows her heroine to fail without judgment. Like every good bonkbuster heroine Ginny picks herself up after each disaster and carries on.

Class Reunion - Rona Jaffe

7. And to enjoy sex… Rona Jaffe’s Class Reunion showed me a woman doesn’t have to be afraid of her sexual appetite. Her gorgeous free-spirited heroine Annabel Jones is initially punished for enjoying her sexual encounters at university, but Jaffe makes very clear that this is a problem with 1950s American morality, not with Annabel herself. Of all her four heroines it is Annabel who eventually creates the most contented life. The implication is that it is because Annabel is content in her body and knows who she is and what she likes that she lives a happy and fulfilled life. Elsewhere, Rita Mae Brown’s raucous Rubyfruit Jungle showed me love and sex didn’t just have to be between a woman and a man, while Lesley Lokko’s smart and addictive Sundowners taught me you should never be afraid to express your opinions, even if it means that the boy you fancy might see you in a different, less-flattering, light.

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