Culture

Shelf Life: Maggie O’Farrell

Welcome to Shelf Life, ELLE.com’s books column, in which authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re on the hunt for a book to console you, move you profoundly, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (since you’re here), love books. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours, too.

The Marriage Portrait: A novel

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Maggie O’Farrell’s last novel, Hamnet, was set in 16th-century Stratford and imagines the life of Shakespeare’s son who died at 11. For her new and ninth novel, The Marriage Portrait (Knopf), she travels south to 16th-century Florence and Ferrara and imagines the life of duchess Lucrezia de’ Medici. She has also written a memoir in which she recounts 17 brushes with death including a childhood illness that left her bedridden for a year, a flight plummeting toward earth, and a knife held to her throat, and in lighter fare, two children’s books. Hamnet, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and Women’s Prize for Fiction, is being adapted to film with Sam Mendes as a producer.

The Northern Ireland-born, Edinburgh-based O’Farrell wanted to be a poet; studied English at Cambridge; taught English in Hong Kong; was an editorial assistant at The Independent on Sunday; is the middle of three sisters; has three cats named Moses, Selkie, and Gingko; planted a medicinal plant garden (including valerian, comfrey, chamomile), learned falconry with a kestrel, and once worked as hotel housekeeper, where a friend dared her to try on a guest’s (Chanel) dress, only to have the guest walk in.

Likes: yoga, swimming, the Salar de Uyuni salt flat in Bolivia, Radiohead, the National Museum of Ireland. See her collection of book recs below.

The book that…

…kept me up way too late:

I recently tore my way through Virginia Feito’s Mrs. March, an unsettling, twisty, Highsmith-ian novel about a woman convinced that her husband has committed a murder. It has one of the most intriguing and most unreliable of narrators I’ve encountered for a long time.

…currently sits on my nightstand:

A proof copy of A.M. Homes’s new novel, The Unfolding, which I’m just desperate to start. I am a devoted Homes fan: her books are sometimes shocking, always beguiling.

…I last bought:

Claire Keegan’s short story collections, because I loved her novels with a passion. Her stories are every bit as compassionate and elegantly economic as her novels.

…I read in one sitting:

I recently sat down one evening to re-read the opening pages of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. I was still sitting there at 2 a.m., crying over the ending. I’ve read it many times before but Celie’s voice is so compelling and immediate that I just couldn’t stop.

…I recommend over and over again:

Alice Munro’s Selected Stories because each and every one is a lesson in perfection and narrative generosity.

…has the best opening line:

It has to be Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” It’s got everything you need from a first-line, and more.

…made me laugh out loud:

Nora Ephron’s Heartburn still makes me guffaw – and I never guffaw – every time I read it. Something about its axis between tragedy and observation gets me every time. “Overly tall” has to be the best understated insult ever written.

…has the greatest ending:

That’s a tricky one. How about John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which pulls off the magic trick of having two?

…I’ve re-read the most:

It’s probably a toss-up between Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, and Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour, all of which I resoundingly recommend.

…surprised me:

Abi Daré’s The Girl with the Louding Voice is a harrowing, revealing, and ultimately uplifting novel about a young girl sold into a marriage with an older man. Adunni’s spirit is vivid and undaunted.

…I’d want signed by the author:

Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. I’d like to meet him. I have a feeling he’d be excellent company.

…I asked for one Christmas as a kid:

A complete set of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, which I still have. They have the original cover artwork and are living proof that in the 1980s, in her biography, Jansson was described as “living alone on a Finnish island,” when she of course lived with her long-time female partner, Tuulikki Pietilä.

Read O’Farrell’s Picks: