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4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
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I have read, enjoyed, and would recommend Cressida Connolly's biography: The Rare and the Beautiful: The Lives of the Garmans so I was interested in seeing how her fiction writing would fare. I believe she has published a book of short stories but 'My Former Heart' is her first full-length novel and one which I was looking forward to reading.

This novel tells the story of three generations of the same family: Iris Browning, her daughter, Ruth, and Ruth's daughters, Isobel and Emily. It starts during the Second World War when Iris takes Ruth to the cinema and, whilst watching a news reel showing General Montgomery in the desert, Iris sees a glimpse of her lover on film and decides to drop everything and head off to the Middle East in order try and find him. Iris sends Ruth to her paternal grandparents and arrives in Cairo but, as her search for her lover is unsuccessful, she find herself in Lebanon where she meets her future second husband, Digby. Meanwhile Ruth, although living reasonably happily with her grandparents, feels she has been abandoned by her mother and longs for her return, but when Iris does return, her love and attention has to be shared between, Ruth, Digby and Iris and Digby's new son. Ruth grows up feeling slightly ashamed of her parent's divorce and she also feels that, to her, Iris is only a good mother who is "generous in fits" and she can feel her mother "invisibly tugging away from her, like when you tried to push one magnet against another". As a result of this, Ruth envies her best friend, Verity, because her parents seem to be loving and so ordinary and when she meets Verity's brother, who is the epitome of ordinary, she is ready to fall in love, get married and have children. At first Ruth is happy and has two children in quick succession, but when she falls pregnant for the third time, her marriage ends and she is abandoned by her husband and his family. After a time living with her uncle, Ruth finds someone quite different to spend the rest of her life with.

Cressida Connolly's prose is spare and not over sentimental, although there is sentiment present. When Connolly does decide to let her prose flow, the descriptions trickle like water; Iris's eyes are the colour of the pebbles in the bed of a river, Ruth falls in love with her own body after lovemaking as she langours in the bath; when Ruth falls pregnant: "..sleep tugged her into its depths with the irresistible pull of a tide.." ; and after Ruth's daughter Isobel is born, "..the baby's pink fingers waved open like the fronds of a sea anemone.."

This is a very easy novel to sink into and the subject matter is simple: it is story of how three generations of women live their lives, how they love, how they cope with parenthood, and how they manage disappointments. It is also about how they settle for what they have - especially the third generation, Isobel and Emily, who seem to just go along with what is offered to them by men who say they love them but actually do very little to prove this. I found myself becoming slightly irritated with both Emily and Isobel - at least Iris and Ruth tried to take charge of their lives and make things happen. That said, this novel did entertain me - I read the complete book whilst lazing on the sofa after a lengthy Sunday lunch and I did enjoy it, and kept thinking throughout that this is the sort of book my mother would love. It is a perfectly nice holiday or bedtime read, but I did feel it lacked a compelling narrative drive and that is why I have given it 3.5 stars - which on my rating scale means 'Rather Good'. I am interested to see what Cressida Connolly's next novel will be, but I might just wait for the paperback version instead of spending out on the hardback as soon as it is published.

3.5 Stars.
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on 19 August 2011
In 1942, Ruth is 8 years old when her restless mother Iris puts her on a train to stay with grandparents in the country, while she pursues a lover out in Lebanon. The novel is about three generations of women; the glamorous Iris, Ruth who comes of age in the fifties, and her daughters Isobel and Emily who develop their adult lives in the seventies and eighties.
Sparely and attractively written, the author involves us at specific times in the lives of each woman. We are moved, but not bogged down with too many details, it is enough to skip a few years and we are still in touch. The structure is both involving and refreshing.
Lives unfold, first loves don't always work out, but there is an ambience of acceptance and quiet fulfilment when love, in its various forms, comes about. There are struggles and losses, but also a recurring sense of ongoingness and inevitability about some of the relationships, as indeed the life-cycle flowing on (there is some lovely water and music imagery).

The men in the womens' lives are a varied bunch, but also some of the most beguiling characters, such as Digby the doctor, and Ruth's uncle Christopher. And there is some fine humour, not least from Birdle, Iris's determined and irascible pet parrot, or Isobel's first boyfriend Andrew who is into obscure bands, album covers and 'freaking out.'
Ruth listens to an aria by Bach 'Ich habe genug - I have enough.' At different times in her life she wonders whether the singer is weary of the travails of life (he's had enough!) or whether his acceptance of his own mortality comes from tranquility (he has enough). This novel explores and goes some way towards illustrating the question of what does it mean to 'have enough.'
A more than good enough read which I do recommend.
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VINE VOICEon 8 March 2012
This novel tells the stories of three generations of women in the same family, and spans the period between the second world war and the end of the last century. There is Iris, who leaves her young daughter,Ruth, to be with her lover in Cairo. Ruth, in her turn, has two daughters, Isobel and Emily, and we see them through to adulthood and their own loves and losses.

These are the bare bones of the novel. The writing is smooth and effortless, and some of the descriptive writing is wonderful. The characters, too, really come to life, and are very sympathetically drawn. But I do have a couple of reservations. Firstly, the storyline does move about, between characters and also in time, and I found this sometimes interrupted the flow. Also, nothing much seems to happen, so there is little tension in the novel. The characters live out their lives, and there are the usual ups and downs, but nothing to make the story particularly compelling. I fact, I felt when I'd finished it that the novel could have ended at almost any point. Writing this review several days later, I am having difficulty in remembering exactly what did happen without referring back to the book itself. So while this was a worthwhile read, I don't think I could necessarily recommend it, hence only three stars.
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All human life is here - ageing, loss, joy, fear, the confidence to take up one's pack and strike out on the path ahead, where ever it leads. Entrancing prose, putting into exquisite words the very thoughts that have recently crossed your own mind; emotions presented with forensic clarity.

No one needs to be disappointed, there's someone here to relate to whatever age the reader may be. I especially enjoyed the way you are left slightly hanging on an outcome, the times move on and you wonder what became of... then the answer is slipped casually into the conversation with an elegant ease.

Cressida Connolly you are just wonderful. I hope you can write many more such beautiful books for me to fall on and get lost in.

A total treat.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 4 October 2013
Any reader with a grain of empathy has to take a big gulp when a child is badly treated by a parent in a work of fiction. My Former Heart opens in London during the Second World War when self-centred Iris runs off to Cairo to find her lover, leaving her bewildered daughter in the care of her grandparents. Things for 8-year old Ruth will never be the same again.

As the story continues, three generations of women find love, lose love, recover from love...and discover the outcomes of love: "The baby's pink fingers waved open and shut like the fronds of a sea anemone." Exactly so.

The writing is so good; this author has mastered the art of 'show, don't tell' and rarely puts a foot wrong. An affecting read.
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Cressida Connolly's elegantly understated first novel tells the story of three generations of women in the same family, from World War II until the 1980s. Beautiful careless Iris gets pregnant and marries young in the 1930s, takes a lover and then abruptly abandons her daughter during World War II to do war work in Cairo after a clip on a cinema newsreel convinces her that her lover is there. Iris doesn't find her lover - but she does find the man who becomes her second husband after World War II. As a consequence of Iris's second marriage, her daughter Ruth grows up dividing her time between her maternal grandparents and her uncle Christopher in Malvern (with whom she lived while her mother was abroad), her father and a much disliked stepmother, her mother and kindly stepfather and boarding school. She begins to long for a 'normal' and stable life, and, while still training as a music teacher, marries Harry, the amiable elder brother of her best friend at school, Verity. While Verity launches herself into a career as a doctor and has an unhappy affair with a married man, Ruth is raising her daughters and trying to keep going with her music while also being the perfect housewife. But a sudden rash decision on Ruth's part abruptly ends her marriage, and she finds herself back in Malvern, living with her uncle and gradually rebuilding her life - working as a teacher, singing in a choir and eventually meeting someone very special, and very unexpected. Meanwhile Ruth's daughters Isobel and Emily end up spending their childhood divided between parents, much as their mother did. Very different in temperament, the girls drift off into contrasting lives. Isobel moves to Swinging Sixties (or Seventies by then?) London, where she takes a job in an art gallery, and has a tempestuous marriage to a promiscuous theatre director. Emily, the academic one of the two, heads off to the small Warwickshire town of Alcester to work as a vet, and cultivates a quiet and organized life - until she meets Gary, a local odd-job man and ferret lover, and begins an affair with him which will have profound consequences. There isn't a huge amount of plot as such - Connolly simply recounts important events and periods from the lives of Ruth and her partner, Emily and Isobel, showing how their experiences change them and ending in a mood of quiet optimism.

Apart from her journalism I haven't read any Cressida Connolly so far and I was impressed by the writing style here. Connolly is particularly good at describing places - London in the 1950s, Malvern and the countryside around, wartime Egypt - and her prose style when setting a scene is very vivid. I also found the quietly understated nature of the story appealing, and was keen to read on and find out what happened to each of the characters. My main criticism of the book was that I found all four main female characters both oddly passive and (a bit like the heroines in Penelope Lively's 'Consequences') a bit quick to pick themselves up and get over crises as though there was nothing to worry about - this was particularly the case with Emily and her affair with Gary. For quite long sections of the book, the women seemed to drift through the book letting things happen to them. Iris, for example, seems to agonize remarkably little about ending her marriage or about leaving her daughter in the UK when she goes off to Cairo - and after her active behaviour in the first part of the book just drifts into the role of elegant lady of the manor. Ruth never seems to actively fall in love with Harry or make a decision as to why he'd be the right partner for her - he's simply there at the right time, and the 'right sort of partner'. Nor does she seem to make much effort to get him back later and I was unclear what Connolly was trying to imply here - that she never really loved him? I liked very much the details of Ruth's affair with the person who becomes the love of her life, but thought that she might have been more surprised at falling in love with that particular person at least to start with (it would be a spoiler to say more). She was also (despite her valuable work as a music teacher) oddly unambitious for a musician. And both her daughters seemed emotionally very passive, letting men take advantage of them and never thinking about what they particularly wanted for themselves. Connolly may have been trying to make a point here about the effect of having divorced parents and not growing up with one's mother, but if so she didn't to my mind make it clearly enough. However, I could forgive all this for some of the wonderful descriptive passages, for some of the discussions of relationships (particularly those between Ruth and her uncle and between Ruth and her lover) and for the last few pages, which contained some of the most beautiful prose I've recently read. This book is a quick read - like Susie B I read it in an afternoon - and in many ways definitely worth taking the time over. I'll be interested to see what Connolly's next novel will be like.
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on 19 July 2012
I wanted to post a review of this book to let others know about how good I thought it was. I picked it up in a bookshop and had not heard of the author before. I read it fairly quickly and despite it covering a wide period of history, the pace is swift and it is all fitted into just over 200 pages.

It was one of those books that stayed with me for several days after. I particularly liked the way the author wrote about loss and parts of the book were very emotional.

Definitely a 5/5 recommendation from me!
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on 31 March 2013
I think I can safely say that this is my favourite novel ever, to date. In just one book, Connolly manages to capture what it is to live, to love, to make love, to love your family. And all those things through the facets of more than one highly individual personality.

It's a book that speaks to me gently, reassuring me that relationships can sometimes be wonderful and endure, and that they can occur in ways you're least expecting. I feel that Connolly is painting a realistic picture of life - life in all its oddity, happiness and sadness.

As an author, she is clearly not afraid to explore some of the deepest and most complex issues a human can experience, and she does so in such an understanding and knowledgeable way that I find it quite astonishing.

This is an absolute masterpiece in form and characterisation, as far as I'm concerned. As ever, Connolly's wonderful poetic imagery sings out from the page. And it's more than a well-crafted book - it tugs at the heart strings too.
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on 4 October 2011
This is one of the best books I've read in years : an engrossing, feelgood, unconventional family saga told in flawless prose, with not a word wasted, and sprinkled with breathtakingly good metaphors and similes. There's nothing strained or false, and every imaginative little detail adds a layer of understanding to her very real characters, about whom she makes you care deeply.

Initially, the fact that each chapter picks up the story again after a gap of several years was a little disorienting, but I came to like the way that Connolly tells you what has happened in the intervening years by snippets of information that gradually surface, rather than laboriously telling the whole of everyone's story. The result is an extraordinarily concentrated novel of only 230 pages, which is bliss to read. I was left feeling bereft when it ended. A masterclass in gentle, warm, perceptive storytelling, and all the more impressive for being her debut novel. I suspect this is a book you could re-read as often as you like, because it isn't the revelations that matter so much as the journey that Connolly takes you on. What a find this was. I feel a rare sense of excitement at what is to come from this supremely talented author.
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This novel carried me away with its layer upon layer of precisely nuanced emotion, capturing the needs and wants of women's loves with an acuity that moves between sweetness and pain. Written with a realism that is imaginative and penetrating, it draws you further and further in to a world that the author has created and is the world of every woman who has ever loved.
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