Can you remember when you first fell in love? I was 17 and it resulted in a three-year relationship that ended in tears.
But I don’t mean that.
Can you remember your first book love? I mean properly loved, forever, ’til death do you part?
It’s called A Little Love Song and I first read it during a lazy summer between finishing my GCSEs and starting my A-Levels. Remember summers when you didn’t have to work? They were great.
I borrowed the book from my local library. I spent most of the summer there, selecting books, having them stamped out (it was the days before electronic checkouts as I’m that old!) and devouring them on our sunny garden patio before rushing back the next day to restock.
The copy I borrowed was a hefty hardback, made all the more cumbersome by the rigid plastic cover the library installed to protect the dust jacket from countless grubby fingers. The first page held the library borrowing log, stuck with PritStick by the upper centimetre, which displayed the unevenly stamped chronology of the book’s outings.
I remember being drawn to the dusty blue cover of the book but put off by the ever so slightly chintz artwork. As a Point Horror aficionado in my teenage years, I preferred a dark, moody and sinister cover featuring vampires or a sinister window. A book cover adorned with a grinning 40s pinup was not my usual fare. But, I spun it around, read the synopsis and never looked back.
The book is a coming of age tale about a young women in wartime Britain. Rose, our heroine, is sent to a remote Cornish seaside town to hideaway while her mother, an actress, entertains the troops abroad. Rose is accompanied by Diana, her elder and more beautiful sister.
As the story develops, the sisters grow up on every level. Their middle class sensibilities are shattered when they have to learn to cook and clean for themselves. Their prejudices about shame and scandal are mellowed when they meet and befriend an unmarried mother. And, they both learn to understand more about the physicality and emotional turmoil of their burgeoning sexuality.
There’s a second-hand bookshop (and a charismatic owner), a mystery about the former cottage inhabitant told through old diary entries, and a developing writing career for Rose who becomes a published short story author by the end of the tale. Sufficient sustenance for a restless 16-year-old dreaming of one day becoming a writer (aka me!).
It embodies all of the romance and accelerated libido of the Second World War, alongside the sweet naivety of an innocent teenager of that time. It has tea dances, jitterbugs and homemade dresses, GIs, ration books and chaperones for the unmarried young ladies.
Yes, it’s a little quaint in places and very middle class in others, but it has a lot of heart.
This story has stuck with me since I first read it 18 years ago. Shadows of the story stayed in my literary memory throughout my early 20s, and I went out of my way to track down the book that had made such an impression on me in 1998. When I found it again, I bought my own treasured copy and re-read it once a year.
I’ve just devoured it again, this time as a 33-year-old. Each time I read it, I discover another nuance of the story but also unearth a part of myself entwined in tale. I share many things with Rose – the love of bookshops, an inquisitive nature, a desire to write, and the inseparable link between my hair and control of my life (I, like Rose does, cut it off as an act of empowerment whenever I feel things are getting out of my control) – and meeting her at such an impressionable age meant she will be with me forever.
Just like my first real love, Rose and A Little Love Song were with me when I was learning who I was and indelibly shaped who I would become.
Sure, it’s not the greatest book ever written. It’s a gentle romp through a privileged world but it has an emotional resonance that goes beyond the stylistic composition of the text. This book is my comfort blanket. When the world is against me, I’m tired and unmotivated, I can dive back into this familiar world and be instantly uplifted by the characters and lives that patiently wait between the pages for my return.
A Little Love Song helps me to measure the changes in my own life. Each time I read it, from 16 to 33, I have a new perspective on the story infused by my own life experiences. The older I get, the more I adore Rose’s innocence and recognise my own teenage naivety in her. I understand more about myself with each read, chronicling the changes in my own life and views with every visit.
Falling in love with a book is a precious thing. It will stay with you forever, far beyond that teenage boyfriend, and give you lifelong succor whenever you need it.
Think back to your first love and dive back into it now. You’ll be surprised by how much of you is embedded within the pages.