Recommended reading: Books for making a fresh start

Feeling stuck? Find inspiration for seeking new beginnings in one (or all) of these five reads. 

Words and Images: Meredith Hicks is thrilled to welcome self-proclaimed reader, writer and bibliophile Meredith Hicks as our resident book reviewer. Fiction, non-fiction, new releases and old faves, Meredith will be putting together recommendations and reviews for those topics that call for the wisdom of words on a page. For her inaugural review, she’s penned a list of books for making a fresh start.

Spring is an opportunity to consider new beginnings, fresh starts, and the possibility of following dreams. These tempting possibilities grow along with the lengthening of the days.

Here’s a selection of titles with the theme of starting anew. Maybe amongst them is something to inspire change or, at the very least, offer comfort in knowing you are not alone in yearning for something different.

Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler, published 1982
” ‘I’d have nothing rattling around,’ Delia said, ‘nothing interfering, so at a moment’s notice I could hop behind the wheel and go. Travel with my house on my back, like a snail. Stop when I got tired. Park in whatever campground caught my fancy.’ “

In my 20s, I read about a woman who ran away from her family and I was appalled. How could she leave her children? When I became a mother (of three) I confess there were the occasions when I fantasised about running away – getting in the car and driving off. Being in the thick of a mother’s life, needing to be something for everyone and forgetting myself, I was much more able to understand that impulse to run.

So, this blurb resonated with me, and as I’d read Anne Tyler years ago and liked her writing, I thought the novel worth trying. While I could never have abandoned my children, the urge to start anew somewhere else still holds an appeal and I got to vicariously experience it via this book.

Delia Grinstead is a 40-year-old woman, mother of three young adults (all living at home), wife to the local family physician, and realises she has lost who she once was. One day, while during a family holiday, she gets up and leaves the beach and keeps going. In a new town she slowly starts to build a new life for herself – one dress, one person, one step at a time. She doesn’t know why she does this but feels compelled to before she disappears completely.

Even though this book was written 40 years ago, the underlying premise is relevant today. Many women feel lost in being mothers, partners, money earners and carers. While it may not be possible to up-sticks and start afresh someplace new, it raises the possibility that it is important to remember to care for yourself while caring for others, to avoid the need to run away. Maybe start by taking time out to sit and read.

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The Year of Pleasures by Elizabeth Berg, published 2005
“I felt myself being pulled more and more strongly in this direction, with no practical sense at all of how it could come to be. And little courage to do it, if truth be told. But was I not here, after all, in an entirely new place, entirely on a whim? Could you not in fact dream some things into being?”

Both the title of this book and that it’s by best-selling US author (and former nurse) Elizabeth Berg hooked me. I’m in my early 50’s and recently widowed and the concept of a year of pleasures resonated with me. Some books are best read at a certain time in one’s life when it seems they’re written for that very moment, with the knowledge of exactly what you think and feel. Sometimes, you don’t know what it is you think and feel yourself. Yet the author gets inside your head and thoughts and feelings are there, words on a page.

Betta Nolan is in her mid-50’s, newly widowed and staring down the barrel of a grief journey she knows she must take. On a whim she follows the loose plans she and her late husband had to sell up and move to a small town. She acts on impulse, wonders if it’s appropriate, and does it anyway to see where it takes her.

At its heart, this is an American middle-class novel in which someone has the financial means to live out their grief by fulfilling a dream. I realise this is far from possible for many people but, for escapism and for Ms Berg’s insightful writing, it is worth reading. She captures many thoughts and feelings related to grief and the aftermath of death. It is for those insights alone that this book worked for me.

It also gave me a sense of hope that grief is survivable when one is surrounded with good people. Allow yourself to dream, and have the gumption to take risks and follow them. It reinforces the idea that despite the tough stuff in life, it is still possible to find beauty and hope in its small pleasures. We merely need to stop and take notice.

Paris Letters by Janice MacLeod, published 2014
“By the end of February…a question was revealed. A question that had never occurred to me before…A question so startingly simple that I am still astounded that I didn’t think of it before… ‘How much money does it take to quit your job?’ “

I picked up this book a while ago in a thrift shop – attracted by the cover and the mention of Paris. When I read the blurb the word ‘burnout’ jumped at me, and I decided to buy it. I could completely relate to that issue.

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It’s a memoir by an American woman working in the corporate world and not enjoying her job, or life, in general. She decides to throw it all in and go to Paris but not before she has saved enough money to live for a year without working. Initially, she writes about her year of saving enough money and then she’s off.

It is the story of her journey; meeting someone, learning about a water colour artist she finds inspiring and the business she subsequently starts. It is not without its hiccups, but she makes it seem so much more possible than a sensible, responsible, regular person might feel it is. She has neither children nor a husband, and no mortgage – therein lies the rub for many people.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed this light read allowing me to vicariously live her life and dream about what I might do if I was able to run away from my everyday life. There’s romance, travel and a sense of new beginnings rounded off with a list of money saving suggestions, should throwing in your job become a possibility.
This is a great holiday read and, who knows, it might be the inspiration needed to tell the boss you’re not ever coming back. Paris calls.

A Trip of One’s Own by Kate Wills, published 2021
“Now that my life was in ruins and I was still trying to get away from it all, I started to wonder about the women who had gone before me. The ones who had also felt this need to shuttle across foreign lands, miles from home. “

The title’s play on words drew me in having recently read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own additionally, Kate Wills is contemplating her future and hoping it involves lots of travel, albeit solo. I wondered if there might be inspiration to help me on my way as a newly minted widow.

Ms Wills is a travel journalist who spent her twenties travelling far and wide, often on her own, on the hunt for stories. This book, however, came about after she married her long-time boyfriend in her early 30’s then, shortly after, divorced him. This and a failed rebound fling, sees her single, and looking for ways to heal her heart.

Travel is what she knows. She dons her journalistic hat and starts researching solo women travellers. Her book is part memoir (a tad too detailed about her relationship woes for me), part history lesson and part travel inspiration with handy tips for solo travellers at the end of each chapter.

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She weaves these threads together and, in the process, visits obscure destinations following the travels of her solo women travellers. She considers the ways in which travel allows personal healing and transformation – from a pilgrimage, to a new cultural experience, an epic journey to travelling to the sites of your hometown. Her travel tips are practical and several of them I will, potentially, use.

Anyone looking for a reason to get out exploring the world but without a travelling companion might find the courage to start thanks to this book. Many women have gone before and been fine – and who knows, travelling solo might be the beginning of the rest of your life.

Devotion by Hannah Ken, published 2021
” The deck was crowded; I saw the sea in the air first. The sky was hazy with ocean-breath that kissed my lips, and when I licked them I tasted salt.”

I found this book in a little free library in near-new condition and that worried me in case it’d been discarded as no good. I didn’t know the author but I can never resist a free book acquisition.

It is historical fiction centred around German Lutherans living in Prussia in the early 19th century. Persecuted for their beliefs, they managed to arrange passage to a new life in South Australia. The book is divided into three parts – their life in Prussia, the harrowing boat journey and then the development of their settlement in South Australia. It follows Hanne, a young woman who is socially isolated until she meets Thea. In Thea she finds friendship and, ultimately, love.

The writing is exquisite; poetic, lyrical and never cliched. I found myself drowning in the beauty of her words while captivated by the story – the historical aspects, the immense journey these people undertook and its subsequent consequences.

At the heart of this book about starting anew is a love story. It is unrealised for various reasons and not least because a lesbian relationship would not have been tolerated at that time in history or within a close religious community. There is also acknowledgement of the Aboriginal people who were forced from their ancient land by the colonial settlers. Sensitively rendered, this story and its characters will stay with me for a long time and certainly has me searching the other books by this author.

Keep up with Meredith’s reviews on our website, alongside her Instagram page, When Books Become Air.

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