My Favourite Book: Danielle

Lauren Bacall

Words can't describe how much I'm loving this series. Every time I contact someone asking them to participate in My Favourite Book, I'm amazed when they say yes. This next post is by Danielle from the blog, Carnet. She's a super smart lady I've come to know and admire through blogging, and I now consider her my friend. Danielle's work involves the arduous task of translation. If you've ever picked up a great translated copy of a book, spare a thought for the person who spent countless hours translating it from its original language. Translation is a tricky task, which often requires someone with a unique personality, patience, intelligence and attention to detail. This describes Danielle perfectly. Danielle has just finished a mega-project, so I'm extra grateful she found the time to write this post. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did!

'Gosh, me? Write something that will appear on Hila's blog? And something about a book? One book? My favourite book? Oh dear!'

Reader, I am ashamed to admit that I very nearly gave in to panic and declined Hila's kind invitation. You see, even after overcoming the intimidation factor (Hila has set a certain standard around here, in case you haven't noticed) and the quasi petrified state of my poor, long-neglected writing muscles, being asked to contribute a post to Hila's My Favourite Book series still brought up the thorny issue of choice. With a list of possibilities that includes Jane Eyre, Gaudy Night, Bleak House, EugĂ©nie Grandet, Agatha Christie's autobiography and M. R. James' collected ghost stories amongst many others, how could I in all honesty settle on only one, forsaking all others? In the end, I came to realize that this opportunity is in fact one of life's rare treats. How likely am I to ever again be offered the chance to not only ramble on about a book that I love, but to pay homage to one that — pardon how pretentious this sounds — has shaped the person that I am today?

At the age of 24, I unexpectedly found myself the sole female owner of a small business in a field little known and little understood by the world at large (translation; thank you for asking). This, compounded by an immediate move to a city where I knew not a single soul, was one of the most traumatic events I have ever experienced. Alone, without even the comfort of familiar faces around me, could I truly hope to make a success of it?

After a moment of sheer bloody panic, I turned, as ever, to literature. Where else can one be assured of finding guidance than in the pages of a crime novel? In the many years of our close acquaintanceship, this precept has seldom failed me, and in this precise instance I knew I could not go wrong with P. D. James' An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.

Following the suicide of her mentor, our heroine, Cordelia Gray, inherits the struggling private detective agency in which she has recently been made a partner. A rather inauspicious start to her budding career as a private investigator, an occupation perceived by many as, well, not the thing for a young lady, or a female of any age for that matter. (No doubt the novel reflects the attitudes prevalent at the time of its publication in 1972; how far have such opinions progressed, I wonder?) She must now deal with the bills, the office's rent, and the quite real possibility that she will soon be homeless should no clients call on her services. This dire situation appears to brighten when she is hired to find the answer to what initially seems a simple question: why did Mark Callender, son of an eminent scientist, suddenly leave Cambridge, then hang himself a few weeks later?

Although Cordelia's atypical upbringing — in a succession of foster homes, then in a convent, and later as 'cook, nurse, messenger and general camp follower' to her father and his band of amateur revolutionaries — has taught her self-reliance, self-control and inner strength, her intellect and choice of employment have isolated her from her peers, a combination that leaves her ill-equipped to deal with the deceit and self-interest she encounters in dealing with those closest to the dead boy. She is somewhat naive and a tad romantic (what 22-year-old woman isn't?), but also bright, eager, idealistic, quietly competent and resourceful ... and she desperately wants to do a good job, to prove herself worthy of both her inheritance and the trust placed in her by her very first client. But is she being manipulated? This providential case that at first appeared no more than a mere puzzle to be cleared up through the judicious use of intellect and empathy takes on implications far graver than she could have imagined. Suspecting that the mystery she is meant to unravel may not be the one she was asked to solve, she is thrust into situations that will sorely test her physical courage and moral integrity; that she may be falling a little in love with Mark, in whom she sees so much of herself, adds its own element of peril. Justice, as she is reminded, is a very dangerous concept.

Over the course of those first few challenging years as a young businesswoman, I modeled myself on Cordelia, drawing strength and inspiration from her commitment to her work. In my lonely state she became as a close confidante to me. If I may be so bold as to establish parallels between her trade and mine, I will say that they suit our rather solitary, independent temperaments, and that both require patience, resourcefulness, keen observation, as well as a certain amount of self-discipline and conscientiousness in order to carry them out well. They are, in fact, eminently suitable jobs for women such as we.

Image source: Lauren Bacall at Gotham Hotel, New York, 1945, by Nina Leen. This image made me think of the 'doubling' described by Danielle between herself and Cordelia.

EDIT: Danielle posted some further reflections on her favourite novel here, read on!