12 Best Classic Christmas Movies

12 Best Classic Christmas Movies

December is here! My favourite month, it is a time of mulled wine, good cheer and lots of gift-giving. However, it could not be the most wonderful time of the year without a good Christmas movie to get one in the festive mood. Despite being blessed with new ones every year (not to mention all the Christmas specials most TV shows run), you just cannot beat the classics. Below is a compilation of all my favourite classic Christmas movies, to make it easier to get in the mood for the holidays!

  1. The Nightmare before Christmas

A blend of spooky and heartwarming, The Nightmare Before Christmas is the perfect transition movie between Halloween and Christmas.

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Being described as “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” in reverse”, watching Jack Skellington, famous for his scary feats at Halloween, marvelling at the discovery of Christmas and trying to create his own version of the holiday will inevitably rub off on you.  Every song in this musical masterpiece will get you singing along, and you will not be able to look away from the wonderfully strange characters that inhabit Halloweentown.

Tim Burton’s animated movie is the perfect choice to kick off December with.

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2. The Holiday

With the holidays being on everyone’s mind, The Holiday is a great pick to help make the days until then better.

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The two female protagonists, played by Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz, are bound to end up being relatable, especially since they are dual in nature: from their rocky relationships and subsequent desire to get as far away as possible, to the struggles of Diaz’s character of adjusting to the weather and customs (especially driving on the opposite side of the road) of England, while Winslet’s character revels in the luxury of Los Angeles. The clichéic “you will find love where you least expect it” trope works well within the setting of the Christmas holidays, adding to the feel-good nature of the movie.

3. Deck the Halls!

A movie all about preparing for Christmas (and being able to have your house seen from space), Deck the Halls is great for all those who are considered to be a bit extra in their preparations for the holidays.

The unfolding rivalry between Matthew Broderick and Danny DeVito’s characters, Steve and Buddy, begun due to Steven losing his status as “the Christmas guy” around town because Buddy’s Christmas lights have made him well-known among his neighbours (how relatable though? I would be angry, too, if someone stole my status as the most festive person in town), makes a strong point of how traditions should not get in the way of the true meaning of Christmas, of coming together and embracing each other’s differences. It also provides an abundance of comedic opportunities.

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It might have negative reviews online, but this festive comedy is one I greatly enjoy. Worst case scenario, it works well as a background movie while wrapping presents or decorating the house.

4. Jack Frost

A heartwarming movie about the importance of second chances and family, Jack Frost is yet another classic that centers around the meaning of Christmas.

First of all, how cool is it to be called Jack Frost? I was pretty young when I saw this movie for the first time, and this was my first impression – Jack Frost is a pretty sweet name to have. I also loved the idea of having a snowman as a best friend, but here it’s even better – having your father come back as a snowman. As a child, I liked the idea that you could get more time with your parents for Christmas – I could not imagine the holiday season without them.

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Having grown up, my impressions have not changed much from my initial ones. However, I now realise that it was not only Charlie, the protagonist of the movie, that is given a second chance to spend time with his father and come to terms with his death, but it is his father that benefits from this – he gets a second chance to be there for his son, when he wasn’t before he died. He gets to teach him all the valuable life lessons he was too busy to teach him while alive, due to his efforts of bringing his band to success.

More than a family movie about second chances, it is also about friendship. As the movie progresses, we see Charlie constantly clashing with Rory Buck, the neighbourhood bully. Towards the end of the movie, however, when Charlie and Jack are in trouble and in need of help, who should lend a hand but Rory himself? By the end, the two become very good friends.

5. Arthur Christmas

Talking about cool names and the importance of family, Arthur Christmas has got all this and more.

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The animated movie starts off by showing us the Christmas family hard at work on Christmas Eve, in their modern, technologically advanced sleigh-ship, the S-1: Malcom, the current Santa Claus on his 70th mission, is more of a symbolic leading figure now, while his eldest son, Steve, is the one who runs the show with military precision. Arthur, his younger, clumsy, brother, is in charge of responding to Christmas letters, which he does with a lot of passion.

Despite completing the mission of delivering presents, there is one girl who has been missed – an elf named Bryony finds the undelivered present. Arthur is the only one interested in trying to deliver the present before Christmas day, and with the help of his grandfather and his old sleigh, and a stowaway Bryony, they set off on their mission, which proves to be highly amusing and entertaining.

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The culmination of the movie sees the members of the Christmas family coming together to help Arthur out, leaving aside their egos and pride and embracing Arthur’s untainted Christmas spirit.

It’s a movie I don’t think I will ever get tired of – and it brings my family together, just like it happens in the movie, only mine gathers around the TV rather than in an attempt to get a missing present to its rightful owner.

6. the Home Alone series

Here are some movies that do the opposite – separate a family. However, the Home Alone series proves that distance does make the heart grow fonder, and this separation is what puts the idea of family into perspective, especially with the holidays as its backdrop.

I think it’s impossible not to know these classics (especially the first two), since they are always shown on TV during the month of December. Everyone is familiar with the youngest of the McCallister family, Kevin, and his eventful days just before Christmas, either defending his home from burglars (in Home Alone) or trying to survive in the Big Apple (in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York). It’s no wonder it is the highest grossing Christmas movie of all time in the States.

However, I feel like the third and fourth movies that I feel do not get as much love as they deserve. (There is also a fifth movie that was released in 2012, but I have never seen it so I cannot state my opinion on it). I blame it on the focus changing from Kevin to Alex Pruitt in HOME ALONe 3. It also has more of a spy theme, but that’s what makes it so amazing. The danger that Alex is in feels more real, and much bigger, than it did in the previous two movies. There are four hitmen working for a North Korean organisation that want to steal Alex’s remote-controlled car because it hides a very important chip. A little kid who is left alone because he has chickenpox has to handle these very serious and extremely dangerous people!

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As for the fourth movie, we are once again following the adventures of Kevin – yet the main cast is different, which is not a very pleasant surprise, I must admit. There are many other changes that have happened in the characters’ lives, such as Kevin’s parents divorcing and his father moving in with his rich girlfriend. Kevin is invited to spend Christmas with them. There he meets once again with his old nemesis, one of the burglars from the first two movies. The movie follows Kevin’s adventures trying to defend Natalie’s house from him. The references to late 90’s, early 2000 culture is what really gets to me, and makes me appreciate this movie.

7. The Polar Express

This is my personal favourite Christmas movie EVER. It’s already a tradition in my family to watch it each year on Christmas day. We know all the songs off by heart and always sing along – we might even be able to recite the script. Despite the countless times we have re-watched it, The Polar Express has not lost its charm.

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It is a heartwarming movie about the spirit of Christmas and our belief in it (not to mention, the belief in Santa Claus, who is, after all, the embodiment of the Christmas spirit). The protagonist, whose name is never revealed, boards the Polar Express with an air of scepticism. On his journey to the North Pole, he gets to befriend a girl with an unwaveringly strong belief in Christmas, a know-it-all (who honestly always gets on my nerves) and Billy, the boy who never gets a visit from Santa, and seems to have less faith in Christmas than the protagonist. Billy is the only character whose name we know, showing the importance of his character arch – his confidence slowly increases as he builds friendships with the other children on the train, and the result of his adventures is a newfound belief in Christmas. This is also reflected in the development of the protagonist (who is ambiguously listed as “hero boy” on the Internet, but I have always wondered if he is worth that title).

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But beside the heartwarming story, the soundtrack of this movie is what truly makes it so amazing – the best songs being “Hot Chocolate” and “When Christmas Comes to Town”, which you will find me humming throughout the year.

8. Miracle on 34th Street

When thinking about a newfound faith in Christmas and Santa Claus, I feel like people naturally come to think of Miracle on 34th Street.

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The movie can be a seen as a commentary on the way Christmas has become a commercial holiday, and its subsequent effects – Kris Kringe brings in substantial sales for Cole’s, and the rivalry between the store and Shopper’s Express is what gets Kringe jailed and leads to the trial where the existence of Santa is to be judged.

However, it cannot be denied that the charm of the movie is seeing Susan, who was raised to believe that Santa is a made up concept, slowly grow to believe in him, after the movie’s climax, when her Christmas wishes come true – getting a father, a new house, and (so it is implied) a brother.

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9. Nativity!

When I was in primary school, the nativity play was among the biggest events of the academic calendar. The memories of the rehearsals, the costumes, and the performances (where something inevitably ended up going wrong) are all stirred up by Nativity!, one of the most British Christmas films I have seen.

The movie follows the attempts of Paul (played by none other than BBC’s Sherlock faithful companion, Dr. Watson) to win against one of his former friends, Gordon Shakespeare (who runs a private school) in putting on the best nativity play. In an attempt to put him off, Paul tells Shakespeare that his school’s play will be turned into a Hollywood movie, since his ex-girlfriend works in the industry. This lie ends up getting out of hand when it gets out to the press, and Paul has to try and make it a reality while simultaneously trying to put on a play with his pupils, which sadly aren’t as talented as Shakespeare’s. His assistant, the childish Mr Poppy, ends up being a great help, creating a nativity play that showcases the pupils’ various talents and quirks. The media attention means the play is acted out in the town’s cathedral – not only does the play end up being a success, but Paul, his ex-girlfriend, and Shakespeare are all reunited, also.

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All’s well that ends well, but this time, it’s with a sprinkle of Britishness and a touch of Christmas.

10. Love Actually

If we are to judge nativity plays, I think the consensus would be that the one in Love Actually wins, with its lobsters and octopus.

With the numerous plots, this movie has something for everyone: There’s Hugh Grant dancing through 10 Downing Street, Alan Rickman almost being caught buying a gift for his mistress because Rowan Atkinson is taking his sweet time over-wrapping the present, Martin Freeman being a professional body extra for sex scenes, Thomas Brodie-Sangster learning to play the drums to impress his first love, Keira Knightely being stuck between two guys, Colin Firth declaring his love for his housekeeper in Portuguese, Kris Marshall going to America to get laid thanks to his British accent, and Bill Nightly releasing a Christmas hit which sucks and then declaring his love for his manager.

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Despite all these entangled narratives with various interlinked individuals, they all examine the complexity of love, and reveal the various appearances it can take.

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11. How the Grinch Stole Christmas

From love we move swiftly on to hate.

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In the town of Whosville, all its enjoy celebrating Christmas, with the exception of the Grinch, who lives isolated from them, on a mountain overlooking the town. The Whos do not much care for him, a sentiment which is returned by the Grinch. However, Cindy Lou feels that the Whos are wrong in being concerned only about presents and festivities, feeling they are missing the point of Christmas. The generously spirited child takes a strange liking to the Grinch, attempting to include him in the community of Whoseville. He takes advantage of this in an attempt to sabotage Christmas for the Whos and crush their festive spirit. When all else fails, he steals their presents, yet this turns out to teach the Whos the real meaning of Christmas – time spent with family and friends. This ends up teaching the Grinch the same lesson, who eventually reconciles with the Whos and joins them in Whoseville.

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And so the movie goes from hate to love, while commenting on how people have lost sight of the real meaning of Christmas thanks to our consumer mindset. What a classic!

12. Elf

Leaving the best till last, there cannot be a list of Christmas movies that does not include Elf.

The movie is just brilliant – who wouldn’t want to be adopted by Santa Claus and live in the North Pole with elves? However, that isn’t the only dysfunctional family Buddy is part of, because after he finds out that he is in fact from New York and goes to meet his real father, he wakes up in another family where he doesn’t quite fit in.

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As the movie progresses, Buddy slowly wins over his family, who help restore the Christmas spirit of people so that Santa’s sleigh (which has crashed in Central Park) can fly again. Buddy also ends up finding love and starting his own family, who are shown to visit Santa at the North Pole. Buddy has finally found somewhere he truly belongs.

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First Impression – Life is Strange: Before the Storm

First Impression – Life is Strange: Before the Storm

Summer is now officially over, and as we turn over a new page in the calendar, there are several things to be excited about now that it’s September, the most important of them being the release of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, which came out on Thursday. This was also followed by the release of the whole soundtrack for the game by Daughter on Friday. It was a glorious end to summer, and start of autumn.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

Before the Storm takes place three years prior to the events in the first game, Life is Strange (2015), and focuses on Chloe Price. Chloe’s father has died, and her best friend has stopped keeping in contact with her.

When I finally managed to calm down after opening up the game, and actually started playing, the game flew by so fast! I was done with episode one in what seemed like a heartbeat (although the game sure made my heart race).

I am still not over it, and so, to prolong this post-“Before the Storm” dreamy state, here are my first impressions of Episode 1!

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What I liked about it:

  • The soundtrack: it was one of the first things we got to experience before the actual release of the game; the trailer  featured one of Daughter’s songs, and the announcement that they were going to heavily feature on the soundtrack brought me a lot of joy. I am a HUGE fan of Daughter and to know that they are going to work on MY FAVOURITE video game was just a dream come true. How amazing! The songs are beautiful and so emotive; they go really well together with the action of the game. I am also really glad that Life is Strange fans get to fall in love with the band too.
  • Animation: now, Life is Strange is not perfect, and animation is where the game lacks (when characters cry it just looks like their skin is slightly damp – where are the tears?) Before the Storm is an improvement on the quality of the animation, especially when it comes to facial expressions. It makes everything seem much more natural and therefore really improves the player’s experience. They still need to work on the tears, but they do look better than in the original game.

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  • Backtalk challenges: I was really worried, before playing the game, about Chloe’s fiery attitude and the way she does not mince her words. She could get in some very serious trouble in this game, and this time, there was no Max to turn back time and fix it. But Deck Nine have managed to dispel all my worries, by turning her verbal confrontations into challenges. They are very well done – you have to pay attention to the words the other person uses and use them to your advantage. If you successfully talk back to them several times, you win. The challenges are surprisingly enjoyable, even for someone like me, who never has the courage to talk back to people. They also bring out Chloe’s talent with words.
  • The Dungeons & Dragons game: all nerds rejoice! How amazing is this completely unexpected surprise from Deck Nine, that you can actually get involved in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign? Even those who don’t play D&D, or have no idea what that is (a fantasy tabletop roleplaying game) should give it a try. It’s immensely fun, and I loved seeing Chloe go from wanting to dismiss it as a nerd thing to getting really into it and earning the respect of the other players.
  • Chloe’s sexuality: Even though, in the original Life is Strange game, the Dontnod team tiptoed around the actual sexuality of the characters, merely giving hints, Deck Nine seem to have heard the fans and have taken a different approach, by simply letting Chloe be herself, not hindering her thoughts and feelings towards those around her, regardless of their nature – simply letting them be, without additional comment or the need to draw attention to them. This is a very authentic approach towards Chloe, which characterises the whole episode. The result is an amazingly honest, raw side of Chloe that we have only been able to glimpse in Life is Strange.
  • Chloe and Rachel: just as with Life is Strange, where, despite the mystery of the storm and Max’s rewinding powers of time, the core of the game inevitably becomes the relationship between herself and her long-time best friend, Chloe, the same happens in this game. In episode 1 we get a first glimpse of the “friendship…but more” between Chloe and Rachel. Still trying to come to terms with her father’s death, as well as having to deal with an increasingly absent best friend, it is not hard to see why the charming Rachel Amber ended up having such an impact on Chloe, and becoming her “angel”. We also get to see a side of Chloe we have never seen before, the “useless lesbian”, as it has been deemed online – her awkwardness when interacting with Rachel is very relatable.

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  • Nathan Prescott: Nathan greatly annoyed me in Life is Strange. He was arrogant and entitled, a bully and a creep who ended up being guilty of Rachel’s death. He was a very flat character – other than being the student antagonist of the game, there was not much to him. Before the Storm does a great job of turning him to a more rounded, complex character, showing us the origin of his asshole behaviour. While it could be considered clichéic that he becomes a bully because he was bullied, alongside the implication that his father pressured him into the football squad (for which he was mostly bullied) to uphold the family name, it does all make sense. It does not undo his wrongs, but it does make him three-dimensional as a character.
  • Secondary characters: Stephanie, Samantha and Mikey are amazing side characters, and I am glad that Deck Nine has not focused solely on the characters we all knew from Life is Strange, but has also added new dynamic, relatable secondary characters. They play an important part in the choices you make throughout the game, depending on the impression they leave on you.
  • Max Caufield: Being the main character in Life is Strange, it was pretty easy (and expected, even) to side with her, especially when it came to her time away from Chloe – there were times when Chloe ‘s anger at Max seemed a bit too much, and we never understood the full extent of the things that had happened (or better said, had not happened) during the time the girls had not spoken. But that was because, after all, we only had Max’s side of the story. Now we get to experience those years after Max has left for Portland from Chloe’s point of view. And what a difference this makes! Chloe is trying so hard to hold on to her friendship with Max, and all she gets in return is silence. I am aware that we don’t actually know how it was like for Max in Portland, but is it really hard to reply to a text once in a while to let your best friend know you haven’t forgotten about her? We really get a chance to adjust our ideas about Max in Before the Storm.

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  • “dickhole”: what a lovely mashup of “dickhead” and “asshole”. Chloe truly has a way with words.
  • Chloe’s wardrobe: This is the additional feature no one thought they needed but is in fact pretty enjoyable. Playing dress up with Chloe is really fun – her wardrobe is a blend of “don’t care” and hipster, which, for someone who’s wardrobe is on the other side of the spectrum, is just fascinating.

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What I didn’t like about it:

  • “This action will have consequences”: The message first appears when you decide to steal the $200 from the shitty dude who overcharged for Firewall t-shirts. It keeps coming up throughout the episode, which is to be expected, since this is in the game description. However, we never really get to experience any of those consequences, at least in this episode. After a while, it’s pretty easy to just see the message as a feeble threat, laugh in its face, and go about doing whatever you feel like it without the pressure of actual consequences. It allows for a more relaxed environment that in Life is Strange, where your actions caught up with you much faster than here, but it also creates a sense of annoyance, since they start seeming unnecessary.
  • PC controls: Deck Nine has made several changes when it comes to game controls – instead of the using the arrow keys to move, you now use the WASD keys. And while you still need to left click on object to be able to select it, you now need to also press the WASD keys to interact with it, which is much more complicated at first glance than the simple “drag the mouse” that Life is Strange used. However, the use of the WASD keys is overall better, it’s much easier to navigate the game once you get used to it. This is initial dislike is mostly a personal thing, as I was simply used to the controls for Life is Strange. However, I was really not a fan of the fact that you cannot use the touchpad on a laptop in the game, you must have a mouse plugged in – a touchpad was fine in Life is Strange, would it have been so hard to do it here, too? Especially since you need the mouse much less.
  • Texting: I have never minded the inability to send text messages in the Life is Strange games….until now. I understand that Chloe is supposed to be a rebel and doesn’t want her mum to cramp up her style, but the fact that you cannot answer her text messages kind of annoys me. All Joyce wants is to know Chloe is safe, would it have hurt the game devs to have Chloe send an “I’m ok” message to her mum?

I really look forward to the release of the second episode!

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Book Review – “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Book Review – “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Having fallen in love with Elizabeth Gilbert after reading Eat, Pray, Love (as I imagine many of her fans have), I was really looking forward to reading Big Magic. There’s something about the conversational tone that she seems to always adopt in her books that really creates a sense of closeness between you as a reader and Gilbert herself. It feels like the two of you are engaged in a private conversation. Big Magic is the same.

The thing is, though, I’m not one for motivational/inspiring/guiding books. They put me on edge. They seem to point out one way to do things, and if I’m not already planning on doing them in the same manner, they create a sense of failure. Self-help books such as Big Magic never really seem to do the trick for me, so I proceeded with caution.

Big Magic has a very promising start.

The book opens with a section about fear and the way it holds you back, eventually getting to the idea that only courage will allow you to be more creative. It’s not anything ground-breaking, but I consider it a very good opening to a self-help book; we can never be reminded too often to try and let go of our fears. Gilbert accompanies this motivational message with a personal example, something which she consistently does throughout the book. In this case, she talks about her friend who, after years of not practicing, decides to pick up figure ice skating again. While talking about this, Gilbert stresses both the simplicity of the action – her friend didn’t aim to get competitive again, nor did she completely change her lifestyle to accommodate this new pursuit, she simply enjoyed the sport and wanted to practice it – while also emphasising the impact this creative pursuit had on her friend – it brought her a lot of joy, which she did not get from other activities in her life.

Now, with the reader all fired up, wanting to gain the same pleasure from their own brave, creative pursuits, Gilbert does a U-turn. She talks about creativity as something bigger than us, mentioning the “external daemon of creativity”, which the ancient Greeks and Romans believed lived in your walls and helped you with your work – the message being, you are not a genius, you have a genius. She also talks about ideas floating around, searching for a human that will put them into practice.  While I have a hard time getting behind her former belief in a creative genius, I do like the latter. It encourages you to hold on to the moments of inspiration you experience, and try to turn them into something solid as soon as you get the chance, otherwise they might float away. I have heard a similar idea from a Creative Writing teacher of mine – she told her students that if we don’t turn our ideas into a story, if we let them hang in the air, someone else will think of those same ideas and they will use them instead. So if you have a great idea, don’t let it go. Gilbert states that “Done is better than perfect.”

There are a lot of great lessons to take away from Big Magic.

The most important one, that runs across the whole book, is to cut yourself some slack. Perfectionism holds you back. It’s something that I have had to come to terms with as well – we all want to make sure that everything we do is perfect, so that we won’t get badly judged by others. However, most of the time, it turns out that the person judging you the harshest is yourself. This usually applies the most in the case of anything creative, and Big Magic really brought home the relief that it’s fine for creative work to have rough edges. Gilbert stresses the importance of keeping at it, working daily at your craft, and letting your inspiration and creativity do its thing. Persistence brings about the idea of learning to stop procrastinating, since there will never be a perfect time for putting your ideas into action – Gilbert insists that you have to make the time for your creative pursuit.

She also reassures us that we do not have to worry about having a “big idea” as soon as possible, to put it into motion as quickly as can be. We can take our time. It’s important to continue being actively creative and curious. Gilbert uses an example from her own life, telling us how a simple desire to have a garden turned into a new novel – as her interest in flowers grew, and she did more research about them, the idea for a new story appeared, and turned into her new novel. You never know when inspiration may hit you.

I absolutely appreciate that Gilbert talks down the “suffering artist” myth. I personally haven’t seen it done before, and I feel like people really need to understand that creativity does not need to come from pain and suffering, and romanticising the negative things in your life does not mean you are making art, nor does it necessarily help you in healing/overcoming them.

HOWEVER

There is something which really, really irritated me. At one point in Big Magic, Gilbert says you don’t have to quit your job to write, or be creative. It will do your craft no good to put the pressure of making it pay the bills on it. She points out that it can be reassuring to know you are being creative only for the sake of it, for yourself. This, however, does not mean that you are not allowed to dedicate all your time to your creativity. Talking about this, Gilbert gives herself as an example, telling us how she kept her day job for years, never wanting to let the responsibility of having to make her writing pay the bills tamper with her creativity. That’s all good, but she adopts a tone that I feel is different to the one she used until this point. She becomes preachy.

She continues the next section by saying how you shouldn’t pursue a degree in the arts to be creative. She is very against creative related higher education, painting a very false, very negative picture of it, saying it only results in debt while having no benefits. As an English Literature student, and someone who has loved all the Creative Writing courses and workshops I have attended in my lifetime, this almost made me give up on the book. (I never stop hallway through books, but this infuriated me so much I did consider it).  Pursuing higher education in the arts is a very rewarding experience that feeds into everything you do – and it will make a very noticeable difference. You become exposed to so many different styles of art (writing, literature, painting, drawing, sculpting…you name it) that will then allow you to figure out your personal taste and style. Sure, you don’t need a degree in the arts to be creative – curiosity, passion and perseverance are all you need to succeed in your pursuit, but it doesn’t mean it’s not helpful. And, first of all, a degree paves the way for your future, so if you want to study the arts and work in that domain after you graduate, go ahead. I salute you, I am doing the same.

Yes, this bit made me really mad. It does not take away from all the good bits, however. I just needed to step away from the book for a while, and accept that opinions differ from one person to another. The book can be a very easy read. It’s not split into long chapters, but rather into sections, which are further spilt into subsections. It makes it really easy to stop reading at any point during the book, and continue later on. Moreover, Gilbert’s writing style is very conversational – easy going and comforting. This makes all the important messages in the book stand out. They are very complex, yet told to you with such ease, it’s really easy to take it. And it’s all very motivational, without seeming to be trying too hard.

 

Book Review – “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini

Book Review – “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini

Synopsis: Born a generation apart and with very different ideas about love and family, Mariam and Laila are two women brought jarringly together by war, by loss and by fate. As they endure the ever escalating dangers around them—in their home as well as in the streets of Kabul—they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other, and that will ultimately alter the course not just of their own lives but of the next generation.

This was my first encounter with Khaled Hosseini. Yes, despite this being his second book.

Regardless, it was a very memorable one.

I had heard of Hosseini before, and even though I was aware of the praise being sung for The Kite Runner, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for this book, and Hosseini’s poignant and immersive writing.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is never described as an educational book, but it taught me so much.

When I picked it up the first time, I scoffed and thought to myself “I know about Afghanistan and what’s going on there!” But reading a few newspaper articles and hearing about the Taliban on the news wasn’t actually enough for me to make that claim. Hosseini proved my arrogance wrong, and proceeded to actually tell me what had been going on in the country we all know the name of, but not its story. The novel takes you through thirty years of the country’s modern history, from the end of monarchy to the rule of the Taliban. Because the story is told from the point of view of two women, who initially have nothing else in common besides being neighbours, we learn about Afghanistan through the characters, a much more meaningful experience. Hosseini truly manages to show the horrible effect of war on ordinary people’s lives this way – one of the reasons this book is so heart-breaking is because you get to feel the fear and confusion of the people whose backyards are being bombed. Secondary characters also take centre stage when it comes to teaching the reader vital history lessons. Laila’s father, a school teacher and huge bookworm, offers a lot of insight into the country’s current state of affairs, as his interest in politics seeps through almost everything he says. Laila’s two older brothers are actively involved in the fighting that takes place for most of the book. Even Rasheed, Mariam and Laila’s horrible husband, offers vital information regarding the social and political climate through the various regime changes, which would have been more confusing were it not for his indirect explanations.

The characters in this book are all amazing.

I adore Mariam and Laila, they are such strong women, yet so human and relatable. They experience a lot of complex emotions and are really well-developed. Laila’s father is an adorable sweetheart whom I felt very protective towards. Tariq, the boy Laila falls in love with, is a bad boy with a soft heart that even I fell for. Rasheed is THE villain, violent and mean to his wives, only showing compassion for his son (and not for his daughter), and it is impossible not to hate him. The difference between the men portrayed in the novel is a significant one. It points out that there is no one type of man in a society, something which is not only valid just Mariam and Laila’s world, but also to ours.

More than the characters though, I love the interactions and relationships between them. My favourite is the friendship-turned-into-romance between Laila and Tariq. It’s just so pure and honest. And there are a few very heart warming, and some equally heart-breaking, moments between the two. I also love the friendship between Mariam and Laila – yes, even the rocky start. There are people who comment that Mariam’s initial jealousy and anger at Laila (after she marries Rasheed) is unjustified. But when trying to win Laila over, Rasheed was kind to her, something which Mariam never got to experience. Mariam had also been the woman of the house longer – despite the suffering she experiences at the hands of her husband, I can understand why suddenly having to share everything with a stranger would make you upset. I also really love Laila’s children, especially the way they interact with Tariq.

It’s a really tough book, though – very far from an easy read.

The hardship Mariam and Laila endure is not easy to get over, even after closing the book. Mariam has a tough life from the beginning. She is the illegitimate child of a wealthy business man, and lives with her mother in an isolated place outside Herat (the city where the majority of the plot takes place). The relationship between her and her mother is strained, her only joy being the visits from her father. However, he isn’t the brilliant man she has made him to be, and later, he never welcomes her into his home or his family, marrying her off to Rasheed to keep her away. If this isn’t painful enough, the suffering she must endure as Rasheed’s wife is unbearable, yet becomes something of the ordinary for Mariam. By contrast, Laila has a much better upbringing, going to school and making friends, as well as having a proper house to live in. Despite all this, she also ends up married to Rasheed, enduring the same suffering as Mariam. It’s a really tough lesson about hardship. It can strike and any time, regardless of upbringing or social situation.

But the real lesson is about friendship and love, and how these can persevere against any obstacle and challenge. Female friendship in this book is the purest form of joy and hope. It made me cry happy tears. And love…this is no fairy tale, but it portrays love in the same way. Despite the war, the poverty and the hardship this book keeps telling us about, it is also overwhelmingly positive in its message.

A Thousand Suns was life changing, and I do not say that lightly. It taught me about Afghanistan, and made me realise how much I take for granted every day. It taught me about hardship, abuse and loss. It taught me about strength. It showed me there is beauty among the rubble, love among the hate, and above all, there is always hope.

It made me cry on the bus. People shot me strange looks, and the elderly lady next to me gave me a tissue. I don’t cry on buses. But that’s the kind of boo this is – it will make you cry in public.

five-stars

You need to watch Sense8

You need to watch Sense8

Today is the last day of June, a day which also sadly marks the end of Pride Month. As is my habit when something comes to an end, my mind wondered back to the beginning of June and on all the things that have happened this month. I remembered that, on the 1st of June, Netflix announced the cancellation of Sense8, my favourite TV show of theirs. I was very angry. As were millions of fans around the world – the Sense8 fandom spent Pride attempting to bring back the show and reminding everyone why it is so amazing, by sharing the best moments from it (if you don’t believe me, just go on Tumblr).

This made me decide to dedicate the last blog post of Pride Month to one of the most diverse and inclusive shows on Netflix. I am simply doing what all Sense8 fans have been doing this June – telling you why it’s so brilliant and why you should watch it immediately.

In a nutshell, Sense8 is about eight strangers who are emotionally and mentally connected to each other, being able to share their knowledge and language – something they discover as a result of experiencing the same vision at the beginning of season 1. The rest of the first season deals with the sensates coming to terms with their connection while also trying to live their normal lives, while season 2 delves deeper into the implications of being a sensate and shows the numerous ways they help each other on a daily basis.

Sci-fi isn’t usually my thing, and at a first glance, the whole idea for the show sounds pretty complicated and “meh”.  But every Buzzfeed quiz and “what to watch based on your zodiac”-type post pointed me to Sense8. It was actually freaky. Since destiny wanted me to watch it (not to mention loads of my friends), I pressed play on episode one and did just that. Now, I had been warned it would take a while for me to get into it, and that was nothing new – it does usually take one or two episodes to get into a new show; you need to get used to the dynamic between characters, the world they live in, etc. But with this show…it took half of season 1, I was so unsure of what I felt towards the whole thing. It did make me really curious, if only to see if I will ever like it as much as everyone liked it.

I loved it.

I was addicted to it by the second half of the season. Just hooked, I am telling you. When I finally understood what the deals was with their connection, and got the hang of the pace of the show, pieced together the plot…that was it for me. “Slowly, and then all at once.” This is the perfect way to explain my growing love for the show.

You will love it, too – I promise you.

Sense8 is pretty much a twenty-four-hour long movie, broken down into episodes, and unlike other shows that I have seen before, the pilot doesn’t just explain everything. Instead, it leaves you asking the same questions as the characters (namely, “what the hell is going on?”). This establishes a great foundation for the relationship between viewers and the characters. The way the story is told really helps build up that relationship as well – each episode is told from one of the characters’ point of view. As a result, we never know more than them, which I find helps me put myself in a character’s shoes much more easily, and therefore emphasise more with them. As this show is very heavily focused on its characters and the bond between them, this storytelling choice seems very fitting for the show.

Speaking of characters, it is impossible not to fall in love with them. I am completely honest when I say that I do not have a favourite out of the eight protagonists; I have the same passionate love for all of them. They are very diverse – they all come from different corners of the Earth, are of different races, identify as different sexualities, speak different languages, know different things. There’s Capheus Onyango(also known as Van Damme), a Nairobi bus driver; Niomi Marks, a trans woman hacktivist and blogger from San Francisco; Lito Rodriguez, a gay Mexican actor; Sun Bak, a badass kickboxer who is also the daughter of a powerful Seoul businessman; Kala Dandekar, a pharmacist and devout Hindu based in Mumbai; Wolfgang Bogdanow, a Berlin locksmith and safe-cracker; Riley Blue, an Icelandic DJ living in London; and Will Gorski, a Chicago police officer.

They are very unique, yet have been so carefully written, and are so well-rounded, you would truly expect to meet them on the street. One of the reasons why just happens to be that some characters are inspired by real people. Niomi is inspired by Lana Wachowski herself, one of the writers of the show. Niomi’s girlfriend, Amanita, is inspired by Wachowski’s wife. And while not being the alter ego of anybody, Wolgang’s difficult relationship with his father is inspired by the equally difficult relationship between J. Michael Straczynski (the other writer) and his own father.

If they are this amazing by themselves, I hope you can imagine how extraordinary they are as a group. The dynamic they have together is something that goes beyond the connection they have as sensates. It’s not only that they understand each other so well, it’s also the support they give one another, and the way they help each other out in need. They’re truly friends – because, after all, the connection they have doesn’t necessarily mean they have to like each other, right? Let alone be friends. The secondary characters are just as brilliant. They provide a great support system outside the cluster, and it’s very heart-warming to see how positively people react to the “gift” the “main eight” have. Moreover, they allow for glimpses inside each protagonists’ life outside of the cluster, because sometimes it’s quite easy to forget they’re thousands of miles apart and have very different lifestyles.

The whole cast really becomes a family as the show progresses, not only among themselves, but also for the viewer.

What makes Sense8 even more special is the way it was filmed.

Yes, it can be very confusing plot-wise, but it is visually stunning, and that is because the amazing producers of this show wanted to shoot on location for the whole show. And boy does this method deliver! What’s also great is that, because of the focus on the characters, you don’t just get to see the eight different cities, you get to know them, since you get to experience places that have emotional meanings to the protagonists. (I for one grew attached to the Palace of Westminster in London, even though I knew it really well already, thanks to a scene in season 2. I even went there specifically to recreate that scene. It gave the building more meaning, even though I’ve gone past it hundreds of times before. Sense8 does this kind of thing to you.)

You know how I mentioned diversity before?

The show tackles a lot of very current, very serious issues – culture, gender, sexuality, politics, religion. The idea of empathy is what lies at the core of Sense8. When talking about how the show came about, empathy was the starting point, as Straczynski mentions: “We started out at one point talking about how evolution involves creating ever greater circles of empathy: You belong to your family, then you belong to your tribe, then two tribes link up and now you have empathy for your people on this side of the river, and you’re against the people on the other side of the river… on and on through villages, cities, states and nations… So what if a more literal form of empathy could be triggered in eight individuals around the planet… who suddenly became mentally aware of each other, able to communicate as directly as if they were in the same room.”

The “us vs them” idea can be used to understand the overarching idea of the plot, as the sensates are battling against Whispers and the BPO (the bad guy of the show and his evil organisation), who are after them simply because they are different. The show is very well-loved for the positive portrayal of LGBT characters, and is very sex-positive (the several orgies that are included in the show aren’t there just for the sake of it, although I can guarantee no-one would mind if that were the case; the whole cast is very good-looking). Overall, the show really advocates for acceptance and inclusion.

When I began writing this blog post, this amazing show had been cancelled, never to be continued again, because Netflix, despite being the only ones interested in the show in the beginning, are jerks. However, things are quite different as I am finishing this post – a two-hour special episode has been announced for 2018.

Therefore, go and watch Sense8.

It is a “visual feast” and an “emotional touchstone”, as it has been described online, and if it all seems confusing…just go with it. It will be worth it, I promise. Just as the sensates do, let yourself discover the wonder of this “ability” and the show. Plus, who doesn’t like a TV show with such a great pun for a title?

It’s very binge-able, so consider your weekend sorted. There’s a lot of amazing moments, like Christmas and Pride, that will really get to you, so have some tissues ready as well. Just go and watch it. It will make life better.

Book Review – “More Happy Than Not” by Adam Silvera

Book Review – “More Happy Than Not” by Adam Silvera

Warning! You might stumble upon a few spoilers.

Synopsis: In the months after his father’s suicide, it’s been tough for sixteen-year-old Aaron Soto to find happiness again—but he’s still gunning for it. With the support of his girlfriend Genevieve and his overworked mom, he’s slowly remembering what that might feel like. But grief and the smile-shaped scar on his wrist prevent him from forgetting completely. 

When Genevieve leaves for a couple of weeks, Aaron spends all his time hanging out with this new guy, Thomas. Aaron’s crew notices, and they’re not exactly thrilled. But Aaron can’t deny the happiness Thomas brings or how Thomas makes him feel safe from himself, despite the tensions their friendship is stirring with his girlfriend and friends. Since Aaron can’t stay away from Thomas or turn off his newfound feelings for him, he considers turning to the Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-alteration procedure to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he truly is. 

Why does happiness have to be so hard?

This book is brilliant for a lot of different reasons.

For one, there’s the diversity offered by this novel. I have personally never read a YA novel set in the Bronx before, so just the setting itself got me really excited. The novel never strays from this side of New York City, and Adam Silvera manages to convincingly capture life in urban poverty, where Aaron’s mother works two jobs yet can barely afford the small flat the family live in, and things like a friend owning a desk or their own bed rouse Aaron’s feelings of desire. The group of friends that Aaron spends his time with is made up of people we might not consider even going near at first, such as criminals or school drop-outs, but whom, as the novel goes on, turn out to be more than just their social status.

The novel isn’t just about life in the Bronx, though. It also deals with the difficult subject of depression.

I am always weary when it comes to mental health in novels. There are too many ways in which it could go wrong (see the review for All The Brilliant Places and Thirteen Reasons Why, which I dislike too much to comment on). But this book does it well, and it is thanks to Aaron’s narration. Silvera has really managed to make his narrative voice very realistic. It’s through the progression of days that we get a clear sense of the difficult journey he’s going through, the suicide of his father and his l own failed attempt never leaving his mind for long. Despite this undertone of dark emotion, Aaron is quite the quirky guy. I really love the way he engages with those around him.

And it doesn’t stop with depression, the novel also tackles the process of coming out – it does this through the wider topic of self-acceptance.

I really love the relationship that Aaron and Genevieve have (their “Trade Dates” is a really interesting idea that should actually become a thing in relationships, I am telling you). She is his rock, and yet I love that she is not simply reduced to that. In fact, it’s the other way around; Aaron is the one who, I feel, identifies himself through the label of “Genevieve’s boyfriend”. And it’s something that I felt he does with everyone around him in the first part of the novel, before he starts questioning his feelings for Thomas. Funny Thomas should come up, because he is the boy onto whom Aaron projects his fears regarding himself. Aaron assumes Thomas is gay very early on, and then keeps quiet about it because he knows his friends would not approve if they found out, yet it becomes increasingly clear as the narrative progresses that he is fearing for himself, not for Thomas. Which is why Aaron can’t accept Thomas’s confession that he is straight and accuses him of denying his sexuality. The comic book Aaron was working on is another fascinating insight into Aaron’s journey of acknowledging his sexuality. Aaron says: “If I were faced with Sun Warden’s decision – whether or not to save his girlfriend or best friend from a dragon – I’m sorry to change my mind, but Thomas would fall away without me moving a muscle. And I would make that choice without a doubt because the bottom line is that Genevieve is my girlfriend and I’m her boyfriend, and Thomas and I are just friends and that’s that.” He is clearly fighting himself.

The plot twist that happens towards the end of the novel was anything but that for me.

There are so many moments scattered throughout the novel where things either don’t make sense, so you know something is up, or it’s easy to guess that something will happen. However, this isn’t what ruined the latter part of the book for me. The ending was something I did not see coming, and sadly, not in a good way. The positive message conveyed at the end contrasts with how sad it is, which you could say achieves the effect of making it more poignant, but I felt like the whole ending was just…wrong. Also, while the last few pages leave us with amazing quotes, such as “If there’s happiness tucked away in my tragedies, I’ll find it no matter what. If the blind can find joy in music, and the deaf can discover it with colours, I will do my best to always find the sun in the darkness because my life isn’t one sad ending – it’s a series of endless happy beginnings,” it also left me extremely confused about the overarching message of the novel.

There’s also the sci-fi side to the book.

The Leteo Institute, which allows people to erase memories. It can be seen as a metaphor for the dreaded conversion centres/ therapy, and the fact that it ultimately fails to make Aaron’s wish come true clearly adds to the comparison. The existence of the Institute really troubled me as I was reading the book, mainly because it seemed to promise an easy escape when life got too hard, and surely dealing with the bad stuff that life throws at you is ultimately what makes you grow as a person, so this was taking it all away (and where would that leave the emotional growth of the characters). Silvera seems to be aware of such worries the reader might have, since the latter part of the novel pretty much gives you the answer. The Leteo Institute, while actually being put to one side for most of the novel, plays a really big part in the ending, and as you know by now, that left me baffled. As a consequence, I am not too keen on this whole Leteo Institute side of the story.

I didn’t like this book when I first read it, I must confess.

I wanted to, so badly, and, to be honest, I think that might have been the problem. I have only heard good things about this book, and I ended up seeing only the negative, because in my mind I was sceptical about the hype surrounding this book. Therefore, things suddenly seemed stereotypical and clichéic and annoying. Everything you have read in this review until now is still completely honest, though. It took me a while to realise that I might have been judging the book too hard. Sure, I found it annoying that Aaron seemed to love his girlfriend mostly because she put up with him. Yet thinking about it, he had just gone through the traumatic experience of his father’s suicide. I think all of us would be grateful to have someone who stays, no matter how ugly the process of coping with the aftermath of such an event is. And yes, I found Aaron’s revelation that he is into guys quite the cliché, especially since Aaron didn’t seem to consider the fact that he might be bisexual, he just went ahead and called himself a “dude-liker” (I am aware that the ending might kind of explain why he unconsciously jumps directly to the “gay” label, but for me that still isn’t a good enough reason). Later I realised that it was something I could identify with, because I was myself only aware of homosexuality and heterosexuality in the beginning, before I realised there could be a “middle ground”, let alone a whole spectrum.

This book is quite a journey, for the characters themselves and for the reader (or so it was for me). Silvera deserves to be proud of this debut novel, he manages to tackle some incredibly complex issues with a lot of honesty and emotion. I am not 100% in love with this book, there are things like the ending which I just can’t get behind, but it is still a book I would recommend, especially if you’re looking for class diversity and sci-fi, all with a lovely sprinkle of LGBT.

3-stars

Book Review – “The Price of Salt”/”Carol” by Patricia Highsmith

Book Review – “The Price of Salt”/”Carol” by Patricia Highsmith

Synopsis: The Price of Salt is the story of Therese Belivet, a stage designer trapped in a department-store day job, whose salvation arrives one day in the form of Carol Aird, an alluring suburban housewife in the throes of a divorce. They fall in love and set out across the United States, pursued by a private investigator who eventually blackmails Carol into a choice between her daughter and her lover.

Say hello to one of my all-time favourite books!

I don’t even know where to begin, I have so many feelings and thoughts about this, so let me start by telling you that this novel was loved from the moment it first came out in 1952. It wasn’t called Carol back then, but The Price of Salt, and Patricia Highsmith published it under a pseudonym, Claire Morgan, because she claims she didn’t want to be known as a “lesbian-book writer”, but the lesbians loved it anyway. Why?

Because this was the first novel where the gay couple had a shot at happiness at the end of the story.

Sure, it can be argued that the ending of Highsmith’s novel isn’t all that happy, and we don’t really know what’s in store for Carol and Therese, but they don’t die, or go depressed and crazy, or have to try to lead a “normal” life. And even today, that is a big thing. Because the “bury your gays” trope is still there, and still annoyingly popular, so novels like this one are paperback pieces of hope for the LGBT community looking for better representation. Right from the start, Highsmith was praised for writing a story that lesbian women could identify with, and while we no longer live in the 1950s, having your sexuality held against you, as happens in the case of Carol, is something that many of us still have to deal with today. Not to mention figuring out the nature of your feelings for someone of your own gender for the first time, which is what Therese has to go through in the first half of the novel.

And Highsmith did something else, too. She changed the way lesbian women were viewed in society by going against the stereotypical portrayal, where one of the women in the relationship was expected to be visibly butch.

(Does anyone else’s mind wonder to one of the most annoying things lesbian couples get asked, “which one of you wears the pants/is the man in the relationship”? It makes me both happy to see how such a great book is still relevant today, yet this also saddens me, because after 60 years, it shows that not that much has changed regarding the LGBT community.)

I love the way she breaks this stereotype, too, because Highsmith doesn’t just simply make Carol sophisticated and then expects us to be impressed that her character isn’t butch, but she shows how ingrained this idea of the butch lesbian was in society by having Therese herself be amazed by Carol’s appearance: “She had heard about girls falling in love, and she knew what kind of people they were and what they looked like. Neither she nor Carol looked like that. Yet the way she felt about Carol passed all the tests for love and fitted all the descriptions.”

But being a relevant lesbian story is not the only thing that makes this novel so amazing. After all, as Highsmith is not simply a lesbian-book writer. She states that she planned the novel while having a fever, and while this might not actually have anything to do with the writing itself, “feverish” is definitely the word I would use to describe it. The writing is packed with details and action, and is just as intense as the plot itself. The story is gripping from the first sentence, and then it keeps you hooked like an addict, until your eyes are hurting and the words are swimming on the page and it’s so late you can no longer make out reality from fantasy. The novel provides a very intense reading experience, even if the writing style can be described as conversational (because, even though it may be packed with detail, it flows just as easily as a conversation). It really works, though, the seemingly laid back style with the intensity that it nevertheless depicts. It really brings the character’s feelings into a better perspective, allowing us to experience the confusion, disorientation and even obsession they might have felt, too – especially Therese, who has to deal with thoughts and emotions that are very new to her.

I have to admit that, as nuanced and well-rounded as the characters are, they are not always the most lovable. Although Carol seems amazing when looking at her through Therese’s eyes, I often found myself in a love-hate relationship regarding her while reading the book. There are times when she is simply cold and cruel. Therese herself isn’t that much better, she seems heartless towards people at times, especially towards her boyfriend. Yet it’s both of them, together, that I love the most. The moments they share together, when they can be themselves and joke or reveal secrets about their lives. Such moments, which might not be the ones where the two protagonists fell in love with each other, are the ones where I fell in love with them.

I greatly love the road trip setting that most of the novel offers. This feeling might have been fuelled by Kerouac’s On The Road, which I read prior to my first reading of this book, but it is on this trip that Therese matures in the way she loves Carol and the way she views the world. And it is this trip that reveals what it was like to be a lesbian woman in the 1950s, which are perceived as having been very restrictive times. However, from this novel alone, we can see that the times weren’t as we depict it today. Not only were people aware of homosexuality, but you could also find accepting communities, most clearly shown through Carol and Abby’s friendship, as well as through the interaction between the actress and Therese, whom she meets towards the end of the novel. Also, as the road trip shows, two women could share the same bed at a hotel and not draw attention to themselves, the possibility of them living together also being implied.

The road trip section of the novel also makes Highsmith’s talent for writing thrillers felt, from the gun in the suitcase all the way to the detective that follows them. And don’t you think a road trip to … nowhere, really, is a great metaphor for their relationship? They have no idea where they’ll end up, they have no guidance, not even a map like they do for the trip, and you could read even deeper into this and say that the detective following them is the views and expectations of society (ok, so I might be stretching it a bit here, but it could work, right?).

I will always be grateful to Highsmith for defying the norm and paving the way towards a more positive representation, not only for lesbian women but for the whole LGBT community. It is for this reason, and for her amazing writing, that her novel will surely win the hearts of many generations to come, too.

five-stars.png