We’ve all seen the opening lines of Anna Karenina referenced a million times: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ I never read the book. My book club has occasionally considered, then decided against, choosing it. Over the summer, one of those authors interviewed in Newsweek put it in his top five list. This was the final straw for me. “OK, OK, I get it, it’s an important classic, required reading before death for every literate person on earth.”

So in August I checked out an old 1944 edition, green and frayed, from my local library. Few and far between are illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg. This book has been slow going. I could write a novel faster than I’m reading this one. It’s huge, and it’s sometimes very boring (the endless chapter on mowing a field with the peasants unfolded in real time), and, in the only similarity to my sons’ yearbooks, everyone is named Alexander. Worse, they’re Alexander Alexandrovitch. Or Alexey. Or they’re sometimes called something completely different, bearing no resemblance to Alexander, but you’re not told this explicitly, you have to infer it by the fact that a guy with a different name just walked into the house owned by the guy with the other name. The Russians were fabulous nick-namers. Katya=Kitty=Katrinka. My advice: keep a character list with the book, with names and AKAs, or you’ll be hopelessly lost.

I’ve renewed Anna once, and now I’m getting daily overdue emails from the helpful but pesky Library Elf service, which means I’ve been reading Anna Karenina for six weeks and counting. All I can manage before falling asleep is a few pages per night. I vowed to persevere until the end, but the going is slow. Obviously. I’m on page 310, out of 736.

Unlike the adulterous Anna, I was faithful. I kept my promise to Leo, starting no other books, forsaking all other authors, allowing no-one to rip us usunder, until an Amazon carton thudded on the porch, containing a book I’d pre-ordered using a birthday gift certificate. I should not have opened Pandora’s Box. Inside, the latest work by the absolutely brilliant Kate Atkinson, a Scottish writer whose books are, at their best, un-put-down-able. You have to read Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but you can skip Emotionally Weird and Human Croquet, and then read Case Histories and One Good Turn.

Atkinson takes you by the hand, links you up to ordinary and extraordinary denizens of Edinburgh, makes you really care about them, makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you think, then starts a thrilling game of crack-the-whip, with you, the reader, at the end of the chain.

She’s interested in time, the passage and meaning of. She’s morbidly fascinated by death, by how fast or how slow it can be (murder, drowning, cancer, crash, suicide). By words, their meaning and root. By the importance of chance and choice in our lives. By the significance of personal histories, possessions and artifacts. Her intellect is formidable. She’s a spot-on social observer. I can’t rave enough.

In bed last night, I had a choice, and I reached for Kate. I couldn’t help it, it just happened. I cheated on Leo. Because not all good books are alike.

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