The awkwardness of love in middle age: You Are Here, by David Nicholls, reviewed

Zip up Heathcliff in Gore-Tex, give Cathy laugh-out-loud lines, fold in the poignancy of E.M. Forster, embed quaint maps, blisters, a dash of existential terror and heaps of heartache and you have David Nicholls’s latest novel. If Nicholls’s One Day (recently adapted for Netflix) is a bildungsroman, then You Are Here explores learning to love again later on in life. In One Day we had Emma and Dexter, and here we have Marnie and Michael. Michael is a 42-year-old geography teacher living in York, and Marnie is a 38-year-old proofreader from London. Both have endured the casual cruelty of broken marriages and have withdrawn into themselves to avoid future hurt.

Could I find love at the British Museum?

Mirabile dictu, as we Latin lovers like to say. In other words, wonderful news! Attractive women have fallen for ancient Rome – and for classicists. Well, that’s what the British Museum thought when it cooked up its advertising campaign for its new show, Legion: Life in the Roman Army, about Roman legionaries. The Museum put up a controversial social media post, promoting the exhibition as an opportunity for single women to find single men. I spotted a lissom blonde in green T-shirt and tie-dye trousers. We fell in step as we approached the gift shop The post read: ‘Girlies, if you’re single and looking for a man, this is your sign

Wishful thinking: Leaving, by Roxana Robinson, reviewed

One evening, a man and a woman who haven’t met for decades bump into each other at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It’s a familiar tale, but one to which Roxana Robinson brings many twists in her highly enjoyable latest novel, Leaving. Sarah and Warren were childhood sweethearts in a suburb outside Philadelphia. Sarah was uncertain, made biddable and cautious by cool, judgmental parents. Warren was bold and full of ambition and crazy-sounding dreams. They proved too much, too threatening, for the timid Sarah and she married a man she thought a safer bet. It turned out to be a mistake. Rob, who has electric blue eyes and an

Extremes of passion: What Will Survive of Us, by Howard Jacobson, reviewed

There is not going gently into that good night, and then there is teetering into it on spiked-heel boots while strapped into a leather corset in search of clandestine kicks among like-minded fetishists. If it sounds an exhausting and chilly way to spend an evening, well, it is. At least, that’s how it feels to Sam Quaid, the middle-aged playwright who is beset by misgivings – he himself is dressed in ‘the more chicken-hearted guise of a fallen Quaker who had never seen the sun’ – but gamely determined to accompany his lover, Lily. Where is Sam’s obeisance going to lead him, or Lily? Here is where the novel becomes

The summer I dwelt in marble halls

The discovery of a cache of long-lost love letters might be an over-familiar inspiration for a memoir, risking a bit of a dusty lane indulgence – a charming, nostalgic featherbed flop into a past romance. But although the events described by this delightful nonagenarian first-time author took place three-quarters of a century ago, there is nothing sepia-flattened about Gill Johnson’s writing. This is a book which shimmers with remarkable recall as the author returns us to the post-war vibrancy of Venice and the dazzling inhabitants who transformed her young life. The youngest of four children, Gill reached adulthood in Blitz-scarred, rationed 1950s London. She shared a depressing, claustrophobic Westminster flat

Escape into the wild: Run to the Western Shore, by Tim Pears, reviewed

Quintus, an Ephesian slave, is in attendance on his master, Sextus Julius Frontinus, the Roman governor of Britain, when Cunicatus, the chief of one of many warring tribes in ‘this hideous island at the edge of the world’, seals a marriage alliance between Frontinus and his daughter, Olwen. She, however, rejects the match, escaping from the camp at dead of night and impulsively asking Quintus to accompany her. Despite having seen a recaptured fugitive in Gaul torn apart between four horses, he agrees to go. Tim Pears’s Run to the Western Shore follows the pair as they flee through south Wales, hotly pursued by Frontinus’s legionnaires. They encounter a host

An old man remembers: The Librarianist, by Patrick deWitt, reviewed

It’s a mark of how difficult Patrick deWittis to pigeonhole that I’m tempted to reach for reductive mash-ups to sell you his winning fifth novel. The lovechild of Elizabeth Strout and Wes Anderson? Katherine Heiny meets the Coen Brothers? It’s not quite any of that. On the surface, The Librarianist is his most conventional narrative yet (the Man Booker shortlisted The Sisters Brothers was an absurdist western; his other novels are similarly left field). A chance encounter leads the friendless, but ‘not unhappy per se’, retired librarian Bob Comet to volunteer at the Gambell-Reed Senior Center, where he forges new bonds and reflects on his past. But it’s odder and

Is Scottish reeling the route to romance?

‘Remember to flirt outrageously.’ This essential piece of advice is imparted courtesy of Country and Town House magazine for its readers curious about Scottish reeling. The reel, a social folk dance, dates back to 16th-century Scotland and has remained popular for all this time, notwithstanding a brief hiatus in the 17th century when the Scots Covenanters assumed the stance (rightfully, some might say) that such amusement leads to mischief leads to sin. Less curious about the dancing than the flirtation, I joined some friends for the final, sweaty session of the season at London Reels. The group meets in St Columba’s church in Knightsbridge on the second Tuesday of each

Caught between conflicting desires – for liberty and belonging

A friend recently moved back to the UK after living in China for ten years. Being English, he was always going to be an outsider in China, but what surprises him now is how foreign he feels in England too. He asked me whether this feeling ever ended. I told him that I suspect people like us will never fully belong anywhere again. The novelist and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo articulates this sense of alienation exquisitely, knowing exactly what it’s like: ‘Part of me is always in exile.’ She left China in her late twenties when she was already a published author. In Radical, she tries to come to terms with

The lonely passions of Emily Hale and Mary Trevelyan

This year marks the centenary of the publication of The Waste Land, the poem that made T.S. Eliot famous. His story is familiar and yet still surprising. What is well known: Ezra Pound whipped The Waste Land into shape, it was published in The Dial and then The Criterion, and it was quickly recognised as a poem of great importance. Eliot emerged as the poet of his age and his views on the ‘impersonality’ of poetry would dominate the next several decades of poetry and criticism. What is less well known is how Eliot’s work was shaped and influenced by a few key women. This dynamic is what Lyndall Gordon’s

Love in a cold climate: Snow Country, by Sebastian Faulks, reviewed

In the months before the outbreak of the first world war, Anton Heideck arrives in Vienna. Family life offered him the prospect of a job in his father’s meat factory, but he goes to the big city to start a career as a writer. What he finds is Delphine. They fall in love, move into a flat, then a house in the countryside outside Vienna; but when war breaks out the fragility of their happiness is brutally exposed. Snow Country moves from this doomed love to post-war Vienna, and to Lena, the daughter of an alcoholic part-time call girl. Lena eventually goes to Vienna, where she comes close to following

The fossil-hunting is more interesting than the sex: Ammonite reviewed

Ammonite is writer-director Francis Lee’s second film after God’s Own Country, one of the best films of 2017, and possibly the best film about a closeted gay Yorkshire sheep farmer falling for a migrant worker ever. This is another unlikely romance, but set in the 19th century between the real-life palaeontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and real-life Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), whose wealthy husband had an interest in geology. Mary and Charlotte were friends yet there is no historical evidence they had an affair. This is all poetic licence but told so poetically you will substantially buy it, albeit with a few reservations. Plus it’s Winslet and Ronan and while