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8 best Marian Keyes books: From ‘Rachel’s Holiday’ to ‘Grown Ups’

Ferociously funny yet deeply moving – it’s time for you to discover these contemporary classics 

Daisy Buchanan
Monday 20 December 2021 16:32
<p>These stories are the perfect source of comfort and joy during challenging times</p>

These stories are the perfect source of comfort and joy during challenging times

Marian Keyes means many things to many readers – a household name, a multimillion selling literary phenomenon, your sister’s favourite writer. Many of her readers consider themselves to be full-on fans.

A few missed out on her brilliant earlier novels because some critics were slow to catch up with what the rest of us knew – that wise, moving, clever and brilliantly written books were contained within the feminine covers.

Since the publication of her first novel, Watermelon, in 1995, Keyes has been a fixture on the bestseller lists. She’s a prolific novelist as well as a beloved essayist, and even has a cookbook to her name – Saved By Cake is a funny and moving collection of recipes where the author opens up about how baking allowed her to get through a period of debilitating depression.

Read more: ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ and previous Costa Book of the Year Award winners

Every work is a testament to the generosity with which she has shared the more painful details of her personal life. She is a recovering alcoholic, and frequently addresses the subject of addiction in her work, as well as sensitively exploring other complex issues including partner abuse, eating disorders and Ireland’s abortion ban.

However, although her novels are courageous in their honesty, they are ultimately uplifting. In her 2017 Desert Island Discs interview, she said: "I've always used humour as a survival mechanism. I write for me and I need to feel hopeful about the human condition. So no way I'm going to write a downbeat ending. And it isn't entirely ludicrous to suggest that sometimes things might work out for the best."

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Funny, emotionally intelligent and filled with love, these books are the perfect source of comfort and joy during challenging times. But where does a new reader start? 

While we’ve never met a Keyes novel that we didn’t adore, these eight titles are our all-time favourites – the ones with tattered covers and shattered spines that we keep reaching for, reading and re-reading. Any of these will move you, make you laugh and convert you to the Keyes fandom.

The best Marian Keyes books for 2021 are:

  • Best overall – ‘Rachel’s Holiday’ by Marian Keyes, published by Penguin Books: £8.99, Waterstones.com
  • Best take on the working world – ‘Sushi For Beginners’ by Marian Keyes, published by Penguin Books: £7.37, Whsmith.co.uk
  • Best character-led story – ‘The Other Side of the Story’ by Marian Keyes, published by Penguin Books: £8.43, Blackwells.co.uk
  • Best portrayal of illness – ‘Last Chance Saloon’ by Marian Keyes, published by Penguin Books: £7.37, Whsmith.co.uk
  • Best dark novel – ‘This Charming Man’ by Marian Keyes, published by Penguin Books: £8.99, Waterstones.com
  • Best story of community – ‘Anybody Out There’ by Marian Keyes, published by Penguin Books: £8.43, Blackwells.co.uk
  • Best political novel – ‘The Break’ by Marian Keyes, published by Michael Joseph: £8.99, Waterstones.com
  • Best family drama – ‘Grown Ups’ by Marian Keyes, published by Michael Joseph: £7.09, Hive.co.uk

‘Rachel’s Holiday’ by Marian Keyes, published by Penguin Books

Best: Overall

Many of Keyes’s biggest fans pick this as their favourite of her novels. Rachel’s appeal as a heroine is instant and irresistible. What begins as a pitch-perfect, bitingly funny romantic comedy quickly becomes dark, profound, heartbreaking... and then light again. Rachel is the ultimate unreliable narrator, and learns, just after the reader does, that she has been crippled by bad habits and secret pains.

This is a shockingly smart and knowing book about the emotional roots of addiction. Keyes’s comic gift is always evident, and the prose itself is propulsive. As a piece of work about addiction and recovery, the novel deserves to be considered alongside the work of Elizabeth Wurtzel and James Frey.

‘Sushi For Beginners’ by Marian Keyes, published by Penguin Books

Best: Take on the working world

This book nails the joy and pain of the working world, celebrating the fun and thrill of ambition while exposing the most boring bits of office life with hilarious and devastating accuracy. Keyes peoples the novel with a cast of characters who could all carry spin-off stories of their own and, once again, the reader starts by believing they are holding a brilliantly written and fabulously well-observed romantic comedy. Within pages they are frenziedly reading a devastating and insightful novel about living with depression and managing mental illness – albeit one with a happy ending.

‘The Other Side of the Story’ by Marian Keyes, published by Penguin Books

Best: Character-led story

Maybe the most meta of her books, Keyes takes on the publishing industry to dazzling effect. This is a fast-paced three-way tale, led by a trio of markedly different but adorable women. As always, Keyes's genius lies in making the darkest, most difficult aspects of humanity mentionable and manageable.

We don’t just sympathise, but we empathise with Jojo as she falls for her married boss and puts her heart on the line. We rage for Gemma, who is too funny to pity, and we feel every part of Lily’s guilt, hope and despair. Keyes’s plot is cracking, but the story becomes even bolder and brighter than the sum of its parts because she lets her characters tell it.

‘Last Chance Saloon’ by Marian Keyes, published by Penguin Books

Best: Portrayal of illness

Keyes adroitly uses illness as a way to force her characters to confront their past and present. "Grumpy" Thomas is emotionally abusive, while Tara’s abuse of food and shopping is gently revealed as a harmful coping mechanism. Katherine’s emotional shutdown is a response to a traumatic relationship that defines her past, and Fintan isn’t a martyr to his illness – he grieves, loves, and rages with the rest of us.

Moving, relatable and infinitely tender, Keyes takes the most uncomfortable human experiences and treats them with real dignity. But of course, because it’s Marian, it’s still very, very funny.

‘This Charming Man’ by Marian Keyes, published by Penguin Books

Best: Dark novel

Arguably one of Keyes’s darkest and most powerful novels, protagonist de Courcy becomes a touchstone for the cast of characters to reveal their experiences of physical and emotional abuse, alcohol dependency, depression and anxiety. The scope of the novel is enormous. Lola uses her styling skills to assist the local cross-dressing community and opens her heart to an unexpected romantic possibility. Grace’s fierce loyalty and sense of justice is moving, inspiring and occasionally puts her in real danger. This is an emotional tour de force, with a plot that packs great power but is lifted, as always, by genuine human warmth.

‘Anybody Out There’ by Marian Keyes, published by Penguin Books

Best: Story of community

Anna Walsh has been in a terrible accident. She’s recuperating at home in Dublin, but she’s desperate to get back to New York to find Aidan, the husband who appears to have abandoned her. Through flashbacks, we’re given the opportunity to fall in love with Aidan too as Keyes explores – with real love and tenderness – Anna’s vulnerability, and the surprising community she connects with as she attempts to contact Aidan. This novel is searingly insightful, and Keyes finds lightness in the darkest and most violent of emotions.

‘The Break’ by Marian Keyes, published by Michael Joseph

Best: Political novel

This is an addictive book, with urban life in Ireland drawn crisply and wittily. Amy’s daughter Neeve is a YouTube star in waiting, and unlike many contemporary novelists, Keyes writes about that world with genuine respect and interest. There’s so much to be said about the richness of Amy’s world and the generosity and empathy with which it is written – lust and desire is described brilliantly, as is the frustration and pain of becoming your spouse’s carer. But the most moving plot point is a terrifying, expensive trip to London for a young woman’s abortion.

The Break was published in the autumn of 2017, and the abortion-prohibiting eighth amendment of the Irish constitution was repealed by a landslide vote the following spring. Many of Keyes fans have said they made the decision to vote to repeal after reading the novel. 

‘Grown Ups’ by Marian Keyes, published by Michael Joseph

Best: Family drama

Keyes’s latest novel might just be her greatest. Grown Ups is a stylish family saga centring around the Casey brothers – Johnny, Ed and Liam – and their glamorous partners. It’s subtle, sophisticated storytelling; threads are woven and broken, and there’s a real sense of life at its most keenly painful, occasionally joyful, and dull. Jessie struggles with a shopping addiction that threatens to shatter the carefully constructed frame that holds everyone up, but it’s Cara’s experience of bulimia that is drawn vividly and delicately enough to break any reader’s heart. 

The verdict: Marian Keyes books

Keyes’s genius lies in her ability to balance dark and light, the way she finds humour in the darkest human experiences, and how she allows her characters to navigate the narrow gap between hope and despair. Rachel’s Holiday might be the greatest example of that. It’s utterly charming and highly entertaining – but the deeper themes will stay with you for the rest of your life.

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