HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksHT reviewer Sonali Mujumdar picks her favourite reads of 2021

HT reviewer Sonali Mujumdar picks her favourite reads of 2021

Rediscovering an old gem; A short epistolary novel written in 1912 features the coming-of-age tale of an orphan. The author Jean Webster, who also happened to be Mark Twain’s grand-niece, wrote more than half a dozen novels before she died at 40

There is something to be said about the classics. They spell nostalgia and a certain je ne sais quoi, almost like meeting old friends. I have always had a soft spot for them, from the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen to Louisa May Alcott and many others. So every once in a while I reach out for an old beloved or at times discover a new gem. On my father’s goading, I picked up Daddy-Long-Legs written over a century ago by American author Jean Webster (nom de plume of Alice Jane Chandler Webster) who was also Mark Twain’s grand-niece.

Falling into the Young Adult fiction genre, this short epistolary novel written in 1912 is the coming-of-age tale of an orphan Jerusha Abbott. 17-year-old Jerusha doesn’t much care for the John Grier Home where she has spent most of her young life nor for her ‘given name’, one picked from a tombstone and the surname from a phone book. The story begins with her lacklustre existence being considerably brightened by the unexpected benevolence of one of the Home’s trustees who decides to pay for her college education, helping open up a world of possibilities for her. Webster’s young heroine exudes a joie de vivre and amicability. Jerusha’s anonymous benefactor’s only condition is that she should keep up a frequent flow of letters and updates. The correspondence is almost entirely one-sided. What emerges is the portrait of a spirited personality who dreams of being a writer, someone who occasionally despairs at life’s little twists yet is always delighted by all things big and small. She craves a family, someone, anyone, to call her own, and invents the name Daddy-Long-Legs for her faceless and nameless benefactor having seen the passing shadow of a tall man with unusually long legs, at the start of the book. But “Daddy-Long-Legs” belongs wholly to her.

Sonali Mujumdar (Courtesy the reviewer)

Webster wrote a little over half a dozen novels in her short 40-year life but this one remains her best-loved work. She imbues her protagonist with a firmness of thought, wit and intelligence in alignment with her own reformist streak and background. The slim book makes for an effortless read with its cheery story filled with droll undramatic moments. It’s a good antidote to the multiple complexities of contemporary life.

Sonali Mujumdar is an independent journalist. She lives in Mumbai.

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