6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Notes on a Scandal’ to ‘You Belong Here’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to take part in Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. In this meme, Kate suggests a starter book and the idea is to then create a chain of six more books, linking each one as you see fit.

Anyway, without further ado, here are the six books I have chosen for my chain. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘Notes on a Scandal’ by Zoë Heller (2003)

This is one of the first books I ever reviewed on this blog. I read it in one sitting and described it as a “cracking read”. Essentially it’s two intertwined stories about two very different relationships: the secret and scandalous love affair between a teacher, Sheba, and her 15-year-old pupil; and the developing friendship between Sheba and her confidante, Barbara, a history teacher at the same school.

The Best Kind of People

‘The Best Kind of People’ by Zoe Whittall (2016)

Another novel about sexual misconduct at a school, this one was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2016. The book explores the outfall on three members of a family, whose patriarch, George Woodbury, a popular science teacher, is accused of sexual misconduct with three female students under his charge on a school ski trip.

‘Vladímír’ by ulia May Jonas (2022)

This is a story about a popular English professor whose husband — a professor at the same small upstate New York college at which she teaches — stands accused of inappropriate relationships with former students decades earlier. But the narrator has her own sexual picaddilloes and develops an obsession with  a new male colleague, Vladímír, which highlights timely issues about power and consent.

‘Stoner’ by John Williams (1965)

Another campus novel, Stoner charts the life of one man — William Stoner — from the time he begins university to study agriculture in 1910 to his death as a just-retired English professor more than 40 years later, covering his career, which becomes slightly curtailed by university politics and his rivalry with another professor as time goes on, and a loveless marriage that falls apart.

‘Matrimony’ by Joshua Henkin (2008)

Marriage between a young academic couple forms the major focus of this compelling novel which covers a 15-year-period, from the pair’s college courtship to the onset of middle-age. It’s essentially a novel about domesticity, and how easily we fall into it, but it’s also a story about friendship and how  life happens to us while we’re busy making other plans.

‘Everybody has Everything’ by Katrina Onstad (2012)

Another portrait of a marriage, Everybody has Everything is about what happens when a happily married couple — a high-flying corporate lawyer and an out-of-work documentary filmmaker — have parenthood unexpectedly thrust upon them when a friend’s toddler is left in their care. The tensions come to the fore because one is ambivalent about parenthood while the other embraces it with enthusiaism.

‘You Belong Here’ by Laurie Steed (2018)

The long-lasting impact that parents can have on their children forms the hub of this brilliantly written novel, which spans more than 40 years. It tells the story of Jen and Steven who meet as teenagers, marry young and begin a family. It then charts how the marriage disintegrates and then looks at the impact the divorce has on their three children who struggle with various psychological issues long into adulthood.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a tale about an inappropriate relationship between a teacher and a student to a novel that explores the long-lasting impact of a divorce on three children well into adulthood, via stories about sex scandals on campus, academic life and marriages under stress. 

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note that you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2012

Books-of-the-yearAs the year draws to a close, it’s time to choose my favourite reads of 2012.

Until I sat down to do this task, I would have described the past 12 months as a fairly average reading year.  I read a lot of books I awarded four stars and several that I thought worthy of five stars, but there were few that really stood out in the memory. And yet, when I went back through my archives, I recalled so many fabulous books that I began to find it hard to narrow it down to just 10 titles.

Without further ado, here’s what made the cut. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks take you to my original review.


The Pilgrimage by John Broderick (1961)

I loved this book for its insights into human nature, its political and social commentary, its spotlight on hypocrisy in the Church and people’s spiritual obsessions — all told in such a simple, crisp prose style and at a surprisingly gripping pace.


Plainsong by Kent Haruf (2001)

Plainsong is a beautiful, sincere story about real people with complicated, messy lives — and I loved every single carefully chosen word of it.


Gillespie and I by Jane Harris (2011)

I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun reading a novel. It transports you into a strange world of art, deception, troubled families, disturbed children, grumpy housemaids and caged greenfinches, and then takes you on a rollicking good ride that you don’t want to end.


The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy (2012)

The Devil I Know, came out in the summer and I greedily gulped it down in a matter of days. It is an extraordinarily funny satire about the recent collapse of the Irish economy — and certainly the best Irish book I read all year.


The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon (2012)

The Colour of Milk is a truly compelling book because Mary’s voice is so urgent and authentic. And the ending, which is shocking, unexpected and heart-breaking, is the kind that makes you gasp out loud — and then you want to have a big sob.


Fly Away Peter by David Malouf (1999)

This is a truly beautiful and devastating story set before and during the Great War. I read it in two sittings and felt stunned by the sheer power and emotion that Malouf wrings from just 144 pages of eloquently written prose.


The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (2012)

I loved that from such a tiny package — the book is less than 200 pages and can be comfortably read in a handful of sittings — Moore has crafted a delightful, tightly crafted and incredibly suspenseful story.


Everybody Has Everything by Katrina Onstad (2012)

It is so filled with home truths — about relationships, friends, family and society — that if you don’t recognise yourself within these pages you will see someone else you know, perhaps a friend, a sibling or work colleague.


The Imposter Bride
by Nancy Richler (2012)

I loved the detailed world that Richler creates here — her characters are wonderfully alive, flawed and judgemental, but also hard-working, determined and independent. Her prose style is clean and elegant, and she has a terrific ear for dialogue so it feels like you are eavesdropping on real-life conversations.


Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (2011)

Heaven and Hell is a powerful story about friendship, redemption, despair and the ocean. It was an unexpected delight to read it and certainly the most enchanting book I have read this year. It deserves a wide audience.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own top 10?

Author, Book review, Canada, Emblem, Fiction, Katrina Onstad, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Everybody has Everything’ by Katrina Onstad


Fiction – paperback; Emblem Editions; 312 pages; 2012.

Katrina Onstad’s Everybody has Everything — longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize — is billed as a story about parenthood, but I think it’s more accurate to describe it as a portrait of a marriage. It is also a compelling examination of how different people find fulfilment in different ways. More importantly, it is so filled with home truths — about relationships, friends, family and society — that if you don’t recognise yourself within these pages you will see someone else you know, perhaps a friend, a sibling or work colleague.

A portrait of married life

The story revolves around a married couple — Ana, a high-flying corporate lawyer in her late 30s, and James, 42, a documentary film-maker who has just been laid-off from his television job. From the outset, it can be assumed that it is Ana, the major breadwinner and ambitious career woman, who wears the trousers in the relationship, but as the narrative evolves we learn that nothing is quite what it seems and that both partners are deeply flawed and grappling with their own needs and desires. The title of the book may suggest that “everybody has everything”, but do they really?

For a start, Ana and James cannot have children. They find this out on the morning they are to attend the wedding of their friends Marcus and Sarah, who is eight months pregnant. They have only known Marcus and Sarah for a short time, but the friendship becomes a central part of their busy lives and the resultant child, a boy called Finn, effectively becomes the child they couldn’t have.

James had developed an unspoken narrative in which he and Finn had a special bond. He did not tell Ana how it made him feel, this warm bag of socks over his shoulder, the pleasure he got when Finn moved his penny-shaped mouth. […]  Sarah and Marcus waved as they walked away, pushing the stroller, calling thank-yous behind them as Ana and James stood on the porch, James’s arm protectively around his wife, wondering if anyone else had noticed that Ana had never once held the baby.

This difference in attitude towards Finn — James is warm, affectionate and doting; Ana cool, detached and indifferent — comes into sharp relief when a car accident leaves Marcus dead and Sarah in a coma: two-and-a-half-year-old Finn is left in their care. Having parenthood thrust upon them in this way is an unexpected — and for Ana in particular, unwanted — challenge. Much of the book highlights how they deal with this change in circumstances and priorities.

Finding fulfilment

The crucial element of the story is not so much whether everyone can be an effective parent, but how people find fulfilment in their lives. For Ana fulfilment comes through work and career; for James it is is being a father. It is this unconventional take, in which Onstad pits the ambivalence of motherhood against the warm glow of fatherhood, that I most admired about this book. And because she does it in such an intelligent, perceptive way, without ever casting judgement or aspersions on Ana, it feels all the more real — and hard-hitting.

In highlighting the ways in which both individuals approach their new-found parenthood, Onstad is able to show their strengths and weaknesses as a couple. And by the end of the novel you come to understand that no matter how far apart marriage partners may grow, the importance of a shared history can never be underestimated. (On more than one occasion I was reminded of Joshua Henkin’s 2008 novel, Matrimony, which is a wonderful portrait of marriage over the course of 15 years.)

Admittedly, there are a couple of narrative “twists” near the end which I felt weakened the story  (I won’t reveal my concerns, for fear of the spoiling the plot), but on the whole I loved this sharply observed novel and devoured it in a weekend. It is tender and compassionate without being cloying or sentimental, and intelligent and wise without being dry or preachy. And I would dearly love to see Everyone has Everything make the short-list for the Giller Prize, which is revealed on Monday.