Wednesday, 14 October 2009

DOUGLAS KENNEDY: a best-selling novelist

A few years ago now, it seems, (and just checking the dates of publications it is indeed a few years ago now!) I spotted a book in W.H. Smiths bookshop that caught my eye, because of its ‘oh, so attractive cover’. This was The Pursuit of Happiness’ by Douglas Kennedy. Now, looking at the date of publication, I see that this was published in 2002 in paperback, with the Random House Group; the hardback being published the year before by Hutchinson, in 2001. At the time, it had just been published in paperback and Smiths was promoting it as a new book out. The picture on the cover was of a lady on a beach, reading something. Now, I have always loved the beach and I have always loved reading; so perhaps, for these two reasons it caught my eye. The lady also had rather a classical look about her which appealed and I liked the relaxing feel to it. Another thing was that the beach reminded me somewhat of one of my all-time favourite beaches – which is Holkham in Norfolk (near Wells) – see (perhaps, indeed, for all I know, the picture actually was of Holkham). Here is the cover:

Holkham is an amazing and a truly beautiful place. It has this wonderful and very large sandy beach and sand dunes, which stretches on and on, and with pine woods at the back of it all. Grasses also grow towards the back of the beach. It is all just so very magical. As it says on the website ‘Holkham National Nature Reserve’, “Holkham is the most extensive, diverse and dramatic nature reserve on a coastline famous for nature reserves.” One can easily get lost in the pinewoods; and indeed, a friend of mine and I did on one occasion many years ago! Holkham beach is privately owned; and car parking there is quite expensive. But this means that it keeps some exclusivity which also helps to make it something special and it has not been commercialised. No ice-cream vans or amusement arcades are to be found there, for example. Holkham beach is part of the estate of Holkham Hall, and it was my Aunt who first took me there. I fell in love with the place immediately. I have had many a swim and a walk there over the years. Here is a picture of Holkham.


So, anyway, I decided on a whim to buy this book. Now, this was not something that I would normally do (thinking it more prudent to borrow fiction books from the library!). Oh dear. For some reason (which was connected with the fact that I had just started getting my writing published), I had the attitude, at the time that I should ‘go’ for something in a spontaneous way.

Now, how right my instinct proved to be! From the word go I was totally enticed; I just could not put the book down; it was, indeed, a real page-turner. As The Times said (quotes and endorsements at the beginning of the book):

“Kennedy really can tell a story…the twists in the plot are perfectly timed to keep the pages turning.”

Whilst Woman and Home said:

“This superb story of divided loyalties and personal tragedy will leave you pinned to your seat.”

Writing this blog now, I am suddenly struck by a certain similarity with my first glimpse of this book, with my first glimpse of the Aslib magazine, Managing Information (MI). I first saw Managing Information when it was being circulated at Clifford Chance, an international law company that I was working in at the time. Various journal and magazines within the library and information profession were circulated there on a regular basis to staff – the company had plenty of money, so subscribed to quite a lot of different journals. However, many of these seemed a little dry, or at least, not enticing enough to make me want to write for them, but Managing Information caught my eye. It was very colourful with lovely photographs, and presented in a very engaging way – I quickly found Managing Information to be an uplifting read; it was, indeed, something that cheered up my day. So, a bit later, when I was approached by the editor, asking me if I would like to write an article for it, how could I possibly refuse? And so I did, and it was published in the very next issue (in April 2000), and the rest, as they say, is history. All this also demonstrates the power of the visual, of course, which is interesting because I have always seen myself as more of a words person (writing and reading), rather than a visual one. But clearly, the way in which something is presented is also very important and very powerful.

But leading on from all this, in terms of my public persona, I am rather immersed in the non-fiction world. This blog is a sign of me ‘breaking out’ from this. The third clear sign really in fact; the first being in a piece that I wrote about the best-selling novelist Michélle Roberts, and the second being in a piece about my ‘Artistic Outlook’. Both of these pieces are available on our website – see Roberts (for the Michélle Roberts piece) and Outlook
(for the Artistic Outlook piece). In both articles I talk about my love of fiction.

So, anyway, here we go with some of my thoughts about Douglas Kennedy’s books. With ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ I was totally enticed; just wanting to know what happened next in the book; not being able to put the book down etc. I had a completely new dimension to my life. A modern book; a book that races along with a complex plot; yet a book that had real style as well, I thought. Then, I could not wait for the next one to come out, which it did in 2003 with Hutchinson, although I did not actually buy it until it came out in paperback with Arrow books in 2004. That was A Special Relationship’, and also had a picture of a lady sitting on a beach. But this lady was more modern looking, with sun glasses, and not reading. Here is the book cover.

The same thing happened. Once again, I was totally captivated, it was another real page-turner. As the Daily Telegraph said (at the front of the book):

“This novel is a fairground ride, lulling you into sitting comfortably and then plunging you into a gravity-defying journey…As it gathered pace towards the denouement I found my heart beating faster. I cannot remember a more compulsive book…Kennedy has created a wholly convincing female lead character…Having finished it, I am bowled over by the art of the novelist.”

Absolutely! And Tribune said:

“Kennedy has always been able to drive a story forward with zest but his writing here reaches a new level of empathy…Kennedy has probably never written better…Absolutely compelling and written with a scrupulous honesty and attention to detail. Kennedy deserves the highest praise for constantly pushing at boundaries and setting new challenges both for himself and for the reader.”

Then, I think it was around this point (although I’m not exactly sure) that I started to reflect a bit more. What was it about these books that I found so particularly engaging? It clicked. For me, it was because Douglas Kennedy had and has this amazing ability to get inside the minds of intelligent, educated and sophisticated, but troubled women. In the books that particularly captivated me, he writes in the first person as a woman; he goes through many of the emotional traumas and pains that intelligent women can suffer from so easily in this cruel world, whilst also looking at the various twists and turns they can find themselves going through in life. And he does it all with such power and conviction. His heroines are writers, journalists, academics, librarians etc. And his American background often plays some part in the framework – he was born in Manhattan in 1955 (although now divides his time between London, Paris and Maine). I think it is fairly clear that he does not like certain aspects of American society, especially with its seemingly dogged determination, at times, to hound certain people and to try to bring them down, even destroy them (Michael Jackson being a classical example here). I also became fairly sure that he was quite left-wing. So, basically, I could identify with these books of Kennedy’s and his work; I had some similarities with the type of women that seemed to intrigue him so much. I am still rather curious as to why he is fascinated with this; why he is so good at it etc. But perhaps that is something that I should not really be enquiring into too much! He also comes up with amazingly gripping, complex and fascinating plots.

Anyway, all that was revealing; and I realised that it was also telling me something about myself. This point was brought home to me in a really clear and powerful way earlier this year, when my patriarchical father-in-law died. I was beside myself; whatever could I do to help to lift myself out of the situation? One of the solutions was to re-read some of these Douglas Kennedy books (to re-read three of my favourites, in fact). I did this with great zest and enthusiasm. Indeed, I poured myself into them.

At the same time, I find that I am not quite so enticed with some of his books when he writes in the first person as a male. ‘The Dead Heart’ (his first novel published with Little, Brown and Company in 1994) did not pull me in the same way; and his last but one book, ‘The Woman in the Fifth’ (published by Hutchinson in 2007), I found to be somewhat disappointing. The plot twisted and turned, but for me, there did not seem to be enough point to it all. Still, never mind. On the other hand, I did find ‘The Big Picture’ (published by Abacus, in paperback in 2003) totally gripping – about a man who has to take on a new identity, leading on from his wife having an affair, him then killing the bloke, taking on the bloke’s identity and becoming a successful photographer. Wow! An amazingly intriguing, complex and gripping plot! And ‘The Job’ (published by Abacus in paperback in 2005) was pretty good. Well, all his books are good in my view; it is just the degree that we are talking about here!

But his latest book, ‘Leaving the World’ (published by Hutchinson in 2009), returns once again to the intelligent and educated but troubled woman. I only bought and read this at the beginning of September this year. Now, I just buy the hardbacks; I can’t be patient enough to wait until the paperbacks come out! Although I occasionally try buying other novels that look engaging from covers and presentations in the bookshop (in paperback versions), but they have not been as successful as that Douglas Kennedy purchase was.

Anyway, let me now provide some further information, opinions and insights from me about some of these books. My favourites (all written in the first person, as a woman) are ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’, ‘A Special Relationship’ and ‘State of the Union’ (the last of these being published in hardback by Hutchinson in 2005, and then in paperback by Arrow Books in 2006). ‘State of the Union’ has another picture of a lady on the beach; this time in a bikini, and playing with the sand. Here is the cover.

These are closely followed by 'The Big Picture' and 'Leaving the World', and then 'Temptation' (published in hardback with Hutchinson in 2006 and in paperback with Arrow Books in 2007); then, 'The Job' and finally 'Woman in the Fifth'. I did not finish reading 'The Dear Heart', I am afraid.

Now, let’s talk about the plots in some of the books. In ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’, Part One begins with Kate at her mother’s funeral, where she is being hassled by a woman who wants to show her a lot of photographs of herself and her family, and insists that she reads a document that she has compiled. Part Two suddenly and dramatically goes back in time, and is about Sara, who is a writer. First of all, one struggles to find the connection between Kate and Sara but all is revealed in time. Sara falls in love with Jack at a party and has a one-night stand with him, but then he disappears. He goes off to the army, but never writes to her (even though she sends him lots of letters). She is very disappointed but then gives up and goes off and marries a boring man, who has a very interfering mother. It cannot possibly work; they get divorced. Then, several years later, she suddenly and completely unexpectedly, sees Jack walking down a street with a lady and two young children. The lady is his wife, Dorothy. Jack is determined to get in touch with Sara. He says that he still loves her and wants to have an affair with her and that he only married Dorothy because she was pregnant. However, out of loyalty to Dorothy he cannot now leave her. Sara is reluctant at first, but eventually, an agreement is reached (an agreement that Dorothy was also party to) and they have an affair, but he keeps the two sides of his life quite separate.

However, all turns sour, because the FBI turns on Sara’s brother (this brings in something about Kennedy’s political views, as well as some of his views about American society). She is very close to, and very much loves her brother. Her brother is gay and at one time had some involvement with the communist party. Her brother was told that he would only be ‘let off’ if he named names – i.e. other people that had had some involvement with the communist party. He refused to do this. He started drinking heavily; then he very tragically dies. After that, Sara cannot bring herself to have anything more to do with Jack at all, because it materialises that Jack named her brother. Then, even more tragically, Jack becomes ill and also dies. Then, at one point, Sara goes into ‘shot-down’ mode.

“I didn’t want company. Or conversation. Or any form of human contact. I wanted to shut down; to close myself off from everyone. I did just that.” (p. 501)

Kennedy is very good at describing these moods. He does this very effectively in ‘Leaving the World’ as well. He shows how life can get too much for people sometimes; and they want out, shutting down all connections with people; leaving jobs; closing bank accounts etc. He presents it all so very convincingly. Sometimes, his characters even try to kill themselves, without success; which is symbolic, I think, of the difficulties that people can suffer from in this cruel world sometimes, this capitalist world, how overwhelming it can be, and how difficult it can be, at the same time, to escape from it all. The Sara story is in both Parts 2 and Parts 3.

Part 4 reverts back to Kate. We now discover that Kate is the daughter of Dorothy and Jack. After Jack dies Sara feels guilty about ‘abandoning’ him. She has inherited a lot of money and is quite well off, and wants to give some of it to Dorothy to enable her to bring up her children well. So, Kate benefits from all of that. Sara then documented Kate and her brother’s activities as they were growing up; taking photographs of them when they were at school etc. And it is this document that she shows Kate as the beginning of the book. We have come full circle. What a gripping read; Douglas Kennedy’s pace is also fast, which I enjoy. In fact, I find myself surprisingly endeared to some of the American, modern, fast way of talking in the books. Here is a simple example in ‘State of the Union’:

“I hit the delete button on the voicemail and scrolled on to the next message…”
(p. 499).

I like the slow, classic novels of the 19th century, but these novels of Kennedy’s make a delightful change.

In ‘A Special Relationship’ we find Sally Goodchild, an American journalist who comes to the UK and marries Tony Hobbs (who is also a journalist). She soon gets pregnant. But then she gets very bad post-natal depression. I think it is amazing – Kennedy’s ability to get into a woman’s mind here, going through what it might be like to experience post-natal depression. Sally has great difficulty breast-feeding and keeping awake as and when it is necessary. She also says some things about the baby (such as wanting to kill it) in the heat of the moment, when she was very low. When her thoughts are awry in this way, Kennedy puts the words in italics, which is also very effective, I think. Here is one example:

Oh, listen to yourself. Little Miss Self-Pity. A mild postnatal dip in your equilibrium – something any sensible balanced person could handle – and you are cleave in two. Toby’s right to treat you as some sort of silly recalcitrant. Because you’re making an idiot of yourself. Worse yet, you keep going down this manic road, and questions will start being raised about your sanity. So get a grip, eh? And while you’re at it, go make your husband a cup of tea. (p. 176)

Having finally lifted herself out of the extremities of her post-natal depression, her friend’s father then dies, and she goes back to the USA to comfort and be with her friend. She leaves Tony to look after the baby, but basically he runs away with their baby. When she comes home, all his and the baby’s possessions have gone. He moves in with another woman. The three of them get custody for a while. Their case is strengthened by them bringing to light the fact that Sally said she wanted to kill her baby when she was in the extreme low in her post-natal depression. It is further strengthened when witnesses are called in relation to Sally’s parents’ death. Sally’s mother and father were killed in a car crash. Sally persuades her father to have a drink before he hits the road and he subsequently gets involved in a car crash and her parents die. Sally has felt guilty about it ever since. This is used as an argument against her; that she is not careful enough, responsible enough with people that she cares about, so she should not have custody. But the court do not fall for it all. Sally fights back and gets custody in the end. But it caused her much heartache as well as money.

In the front of ‘State of the Union’, the Irish Independent says that:

“Kennedy has become highly successful with his female-narrated page-turners, and this highly readable novel is likely to prove another winner.”

The central character in ‘State of the Union’ is Hannah. Hannah’s father is a radical, and her mother is a painter; in rebelling and reacting against all of this, she decides that she wants a conformist marriage, a conformist life. She marries a doctor, Dan, and has a baby. Suddenly, whilst her husband is away (looking after his sick father who subsequently dies) her father’s friend, Toby, turns up on her doorstep. He talks about the revolutionary cause and says that he is on the run from the FBI. She phones her father asking him if she should let Toby stay the night and befriend him, and her father says that she should. But in a sudden moment of weakness she has sex with Toby. Now, he is in the driving seat. He uses it to blackmail her, and demands that she takes him across the border to Canada to escape from the FBI. She tries to argue against it, but in the end she has no choice; she has to do it. Her baby son has to go with them as well.

She goes back home, goes back to her husband, picks up her life, and everything seems fine. Until, it all comes back to haunt her 30 years later, when Toby writes a novel based on these events. Then, the truth comes out in the press. Dan her husband is beside himself, and leaves her. Her son and his wife do not want anything to do with her. She gets a teaching job, as she needs some money. Then, her daughter Lizzie becomes infatuated with a married man. She stalks him and wants his baby. Then, she disappears. Hannah is even banned from a book club – no-one much seemed to want to be associated with her. Then, Dan finds another woman – but heavens, it is someone at the book club! I interpreted this as Hannah just being completely witch-hunted and isolated in the end. It was dreadful. I felt for her just so much. Finally, she goes off to live in Paris.

On the back of the book, the Daily Mirror says that:

“Kennedy is a complete genius when it comes to understanding the minds of stylish but troubled women. What’s more, he does so enthrallingly and movingly.”

Again – absolutely!

‘Leaving the World’ begins with the heroine, Jane Howard, vowing at the age of 13 years, that she would never get married and never have children. This was after one of her parents many arguments. The result of this was that her father walked out on her mother and his home. Forever after, her mother blamed her for the break-up of her marriage. Heavens! Years later, Jane is a Professor, falls in love and becomes pregnant. Then, life takes a turn for the worst; there is one calamity after the other. Her father rings her up asking her to lend him some money, for example. She does, he disappears, and it then materialises that he wanted the money for criminal activities. He also worked for the far-right Pinochet regime in Chile at one time. Jane is informed that:

“According to the documents found a few months ago, your father readily informed on people he knew to be leftists, dissidents and/or potential troublemakers for the dictatorship. One of them happened to be his ex-lover, Isabelle Fernandez.” (p. 93)

Because of all of this she then loses her job; how unfair is that! Anyway, after a sequence of other dreadful events, she decides to ‘leave the world’ – which basically involves her going to Canada and becoming a librarian, which I of course, found rather amusing! However, this book has only just come out so I probably should not say any more at this stage, or reveal any more of the plot, other than to say that it is a great read. As it says on the flyer of the book:

“Like his previous highly acclaimed novels it is also a compulsive read – and one which speaks volumes about the dilemmas we face in trying to navigate our way through all that fate throws in our path.”

And here is the cover of the book:

In regard to a few biographical details, Douglas Kennedy was born in Manhattan in 1955. In 1977 he started a co-operative theatre company with a friend. He was then hired to run the Abbey Theatre’s second house, ‘The Peacock’. Then, at 28 years old he resigned from that, in order to write full time. He wrote three non-fiction books (which I haven’t read any of, I must confess): ‘Chasing Mammon’, ‘In God’s Country’ and ‘Beyond the Pyramids’. Then, he went on to writing fiction. In 2006 Douglas Kennedy was awarded the French decoration of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His work has also been translated into many different languages. He is married, with two children.

In terms of films, his novel ‘The Dead Heat’ was the basis of the 1997 film ‘Welcome to Woop Woop’, and a French film version of ‘The Big Picture’ will be released in 2010.
In an interview in the Telegraph on 1st July 2007, entitled ‘The Insider’ Kennedy said that 3 of his novels are being made into films; ‘A Special Relationship’, ‘The Job’ and ‘The Big Picture’. He also said that he ignored his friend’s advice about never getting involved in the film business, as he was writing the screenplay of ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ for the French director Olivier Assayas! Personally, I think that nearly all of his novels would make for very good films indeed.

It is also interesting to hear what Douglas Kennedy has to say about his work. In an interview with Random House Readers’ Group (see, Kennedy is asked why he thinks his novels are so popular. He replies saying:

“I write about ordinary lives going into free-fall after some unforeseen mistake or …event. In other words, I write about the potential nightmares lurking behind day-to-day life. And as we all like to read about the nightmares of others…”

Then, when asked where he got his inspiration from, he says simply:

“That wonderful, maddening mess called life.”

In another interview on the web, in The Independent, entitled ‘American writer Douglas Kennedy on the “Kennedy Theory of Human Behaviour” ‘ (see it concludes the interview by saying:

‘For Kennedy, one of the pleasures of writing is the power to shape events and dictate consequences. “All our lives are narrative arcs. Writers put characters in terrible situations and get them out, or not. We all need crisis. But who’s the controlling hand? God, the government…your husband, your wife? Chacun á son destin. Life is a contradictory business and anyone who thinks otherwise is a priest.”

Douglas Kennedy’s books are best-sellers of course, and there are many reviews of his books on amazon, with many others saying how his books are real page-turners, compulsive reads etc. One reviewer on, for example, talking about ‘The Big Picture’ on 13th January 2008, said:

“I loved this book. It is a real page-turner. It is also very insightful into the human condition: pride, ambition, discontentment. I think Kennedy writes about these themes extremely well.”

Whilst another reviewer, this time of ‘The Job’ on, on 29th June 2008, says:

“I just LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this book. I was recommended Douglas Kennedy last week and after flying through “The Big Picture” (I also highly recommend) I picked up “The Job” yesterday and finished all 500 pages in 2 days. I could not put the thing down!”

And finally, I cannot resist including this review, also on, as the reviewer was first enthralled by the book for the same reason that I was – i.e. the cover. Wow – what a coincidence. Here is what they say (written on 6th February 2003)

“I bought this book on the strength of its cover (I liked the shade of blue!!!), and it was one of my better impulse buys! It’s a totally compelling story. The pages almost turn themselves, and it’s almost impossible to put down once you start. The plot twists and turns, and takes you to places where you imagine there is no way out, but Kennedy’s rollercoaster of a book is unpredictable, exciting, and manages to lift the character out of situations that seem impossible. Towards the end of the book, you find yourself thinking ‘how much more can this woman take?’, thoughts echoed by Sara herself, but her life is portrayed with sensitivity, humour, and a wonderful kind of stoicism that reminds you of the period in history in which the book is set. Buy the book now!”

However, I am still of the opinion that he should be even bigger – e.g. big buster movies, modern classics. Hopefully, he will be in time. I am glad that I have written this piece about his work anyway, as I feel that I have given something back. So, thanks so much Douglas Kennedy for helping to improve the quality of my life a little!

All this was the start of me buying a few more novels. Now, I just can’t wait for his next book to come out. And oh yes, the covers on all his books are great, by the way.

So, that provides the reader with information about some of the many fiction writers that I love to read. Perhaps, I’ll write some blogs about some of my other favourite fiction writers in time – we’ll have to see. It would be a way of giving a little something back, that’s for sure. Art in its many different forms so enriches ones life, does it not, but sometimes we can take it all too much for granted. Meanwhile, happy novel reading, to one and all!

4788 words


  1. Hi Ruth

    Wow! I confess I hadn't heard of this author before reading your post. Thanks for such an enlightening read. I'll have to try and get around to reading some Douglas Kennedy now.

  2. Hi Martin,

    I was just wondering whether you ever got round to reading any Douglas Kennedy in the end?

    Have you seen my latest posting, about one of his books that has recently been made into a film - 'The Woman in the Fifth'? Also, had some interesting comments about 'The Moment' - his most recent book, which I wrote quite a long blog on. This includes interveiws with him about 'The Moment' and such like, on YouTube.