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I wish more people would read ... The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank | Hadley Freeman | Books


I find it very hard to talk about The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank, even though I talk about it all the time. I’m completely obsessed with it, and I’m obsessed with how hardly anyone has heard of it.

It goes beyond being my favourite book – I have lots of favourite books: Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, Edward St Aubyn’s Some Hope. The Wonder Spot is my perfect book. The tone is perfect, the stories are perfect, the characters are perfect and every word, seemingly so casually chosen, is perfect. In many ways, Bank is as much of a stylist as St Aubyn, who also always chooses the perfect word. But whereas he is celebrated, she tends to be dismissed, because he is a serious male writer who writes about child abuse and addiction, and she is a funny female writer who writes about being single in New York. And that’s how that old chestnut goes.

That is also why so few people have heard of The Wonder Spot, because her publishers have given it – and I do not make this claim lightly – the worst covers of all time. My copy has a silly-looking woman making a moony face at the sky. Other covers I’ve seen include a Twilight-esque one of a woman covered by her fringe, a sad woman walking down a sad street and, most bafflingly, two elephants. None of these have anything to do with the actual book, but they do explain why it failed to sell. Do we have the energy to talk, again, how publishers routinely denigrate smart and funny fiction by women with disastrously insulting covers, while elevating very middlebrow fiction written by men with lofty “State of the Nation”-esque designs? No, we do not. But we always have the energy to be angry about it.

The Wonder Spot is exactly the book I would have wanted to write if I were a novelist. This is why I find it quite hard to talk about, because I love it so much, and I know any attempts to sum it up it will never do it justice. It’s a very funny book of short stories spanning 20 years in the life of a woman called Sophie, each one focusing on a different relationship in her life. But that shorthand omits so much, not least how Bank also leads us, so satisfyingly, through the lives of everyone around Sophie: her brothers, her mother, her friends, her work colleagues. Also, my description of the book makes it sound very schematic, but Bank is incredibly clever with structure. Each story is ostensibly about a relationship, but we don’t find out until almost the very end, in a devastating single paragraph, that Bank has withheld the story of the biggest relationship in Sophie’s life. As a lesson in literary compression, how to condense a story without sacrificing emotion, it is breathtaking.

Bank had a flurry of fame at the beginning of this century with the success of her first book, The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. The book was excellent, but The Wonder Spot is a million times better, more fully realised, more confident and more true. It came out in 2005 and I have now been waiting for 15 years for a new Melissa Bank book. Someone told me that she stopped writing after a reviewer, very wrongly, described The Wonder Spot as “chick lit”, a diss that says a lot more about the reviewer than it does about the book. I desperately hope that’s not true, and Bank is, as I type, putting the finishing touch on her next novel, getting the right word, the perfect punchline. It would be immoral to put a stopper in writing this good.

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