Six Degrees of Separation: From a Redhead to a Blue Dress

This month we begin with Redhead by the Side of the Road (2020). (See Kate’s opening post.) Anne Tyler’s lackluster latest somehow got longlisted for the Booker Prize. Still, I’m a solid Tyler fan and I’m taking advantage of Liz’s readalong to get to the books of hers that I own but haven’t read yet. Currently reading: The Clock Winder (1972).

#1 Sorry to break it to you if you haven’t read the book yet, but the title refers not to a person with red hair but to a fire hydrant: Micah, a typically useless Tyler antihero, makes this visual mistake commonly when he’s out running without his glasses on.

The Unlikely Redemption of John Alexander MacNeil by Lesley Choyce (2017) is beloved of a couple of Canadian book blogger friends, including Naomi (here’s her review). I came across it on my Goodreads TBR the other day and the blurb caught my eye. An old man starts doing peculiar things, like picking up a hitchhiker … except that it’s actually a neighbour’s mailbox. This reminded me of Micah’s folly, not least because of the glasses on the cover.

#2 One of the key images in The Great Gatsby (1925) is of the eyes of optician Dr. T. J. Eckleburg peering out from an old billboard. They’re explicitly equated to the eyes of God looking down on the immoral lifestyle of characters blinded by the pursuit of money and happiness. Gatsby was our neighbourhood book club choice this month. Whether we’d read it multiple times before (it was my third read) or not at all, we found a lot to talk about – and two members took the opportunity to dress up in vintage 1920s fashions for the Zoom meeting!

#3 Although those bespectacled eyes appeared on the copy I read in high school, the book group set cover featured a couple of 1920s figures: a woman on the front cover and a man on the back. They look rather like a young Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, but I can’t find evidence that it’s an original photograph. In any case, I thought the image looked awfully familiar, and finally located it as the cover of Fred & Edie by Jill Dawson (2000), which is set in 1922 and was inspired by a true crime. In a sensational trial, Edith Thompson and her lover, Freddy Bywaters, were found guilty of murdering Edith’s husband and the pair were executed the following year. Cathy’s review whetted my appetite to read it.

#4 Also featuring a murder committed in 1922 is The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (2014). I will say no more – not least because I don’t fully remember what happens, though I have a vague sense that it is quite similar in plot to the Dawson – except that this was a stand-out from Waters. (My review for BookBrowse.)

#5 “Paying guests” was an old-fashioned euphemism used by people who didn’t like to admit they had lodgers. Another random recent find on my virtual TBR was The Dress Lodger by Sheri Holman (2000), which is about a 15-year-old prostitute trying to provide for herself and her disabled baby boy during a cholera epidemic in Sunderland, England in 1831. Victorian pastiches can go either way for me, but when they’re good I adore them. There are enough positive friend reviews of this on Goodreads for me to keep it on the list: it sounds reminiscent of The Crimson Petal and the White, and the epidemic theme sure is relevant.

#6 The blue dress on the cover led me to Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold (2008), a novel about Charles Dickens’s longsuffering wife, Catherine. (Though the central pair are given different names, it’s very clear who they’re based on.) I’m a sucker for any book about Dickens. Like Redhead, this was longlisted for the Booker Prize.


This month I’ve gone round to a different primary colour, by way of a classic and much historical fiction (with 1920s settings aplenty, and lots of marcelled hair!).

Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.) Next month’s starting point is Phosphorescence by Julia Baird.

Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?

36 responses

  1. Thanks for the link Rebecca – oddly, I nearly included Fred and Edie in my Six Degrees this month but went for something else. I love your link to The Paying Guests, very well done!

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    1. I’d forgotten that in the author’s note at the end, Waters specifically mentions the Thompson/Bywaters case as one of her inspirations. Probably best for readers not to know that before they pick it up!

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      1. Oh excellent. I didn’t know that!

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  2. The Dress Lodger sounds interesting as an epidemic read, especially as i was just investigating the cholera epidemic that was in the background of Middlemarch, which I recently finished, though it hadn’t yet reached the eponymous midlands town.

    https://marketgardenreader.wordpress.com

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    1. I’ve read a couple of other cholera novels: Sweet Thames by Matthew Kneale and The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham. (Of course, there’s also Love in the Time of Cholera, but I’ve not gotten on with Márquez’s work on a couple of previous attempts.)

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      1. Love in the Time of Cholera is on my TBR shelf for this month. Whether I’ll get to it is another question entirely. It’s a recent acquisition and I’m attempting to clear my way through the thickets of books I acquired between 2008 and 2010, even though there are probably good reasons they have been ignored for so long.

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      2. I forgot to mention another favourite from last year: The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson, set in the wake of a cholera epidemic in mid-1850s Scotland.

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    2. If the thought of reading those books doesn’t ‘spark joy’, maybe it’s time to pass them on? 🙂

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      1. That’s the idea. But I’m going to at least give them a chance to delight me first.

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  3. I have only read The Great Gatsby, which I hate, sorry to say. I found your connection with book #1 fascinating. I read quirky books, but I have never read anything like this, lol.
    My chain is here: https://wordsandpeace.com/2021/02/06/six-degrees-of-separation-from-a-redhead-to-an-alien-head/

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    1. Many people dislike the texts they are forced to read for school! I found that Gatsby stood up to multiple readings and felt fresh and relevant, and not like a nearly 100-year-old book.

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  4. I love all your links. I’ve read the Waters, but not the Dawson (it’s in the TBR) which is probably the right way around given the theme material. Shocked to discover redhead=fire hydrant too! I must re-read more Fitzgerald.

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    1. Of course Waters puts her own twist on things. I remember it being quite the read, turning from a cosy domestic drama into something sensational.

      Lots of people will have used red hair as their first link this month, which is entirely fair enough! I thought everyone would choose Anne Shirley, so I decided not to go down that route. Finding the random Canadian novel with a similar mix-up of person and street furniture was a boon.

      I’ve not gotten on with any of the other Fitzgerald I’ve tried, but some in the book club said they were going to reread his others as well.

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  5. I went sideways from redhead to blonde! 😀

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  6. A very smartly worked chain, and I didn’t know about the fire hydrant!

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    1. I’m not sure if it would be classed as a spoiler. I had been curious about the title before reading, and was somewhat disappointed to find that it was named after a quirky mistake.

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  7. Such an interesting chain – apart from The Great Gatsby (which I enjoyed) I haven’t read any of the books. The one that tempts me most is Girl in a Blue Dress – by all accounts Dickens treated his wife badly.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by! Yes, he was pretty horrible to her, denouncing her in a Times article so that he could feel justified in pursuing his own separate life (with the young actress who was his mistress), when all she’d done was give up her life to raise his many children. I’m currently reading a novel about his youngest son Edward’s exploits in Australia (The Dickens Boy by Thomas Keneally); he always feels like he has to defend his father when people bring up the article. It was quite the scandal at the time.

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  8. Hm… Fred & Edie sounds a lot like the story of Alias Grace (also based on a true story about a man and woman who murder her husband) by Margaret Atwood. I also like the idea behind Girl in the Blue Dress… I’ll have to look it up.

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    1. I’d forgotten the details of Alias Grace; it was one of my earliest Atwood reads.

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  9. Ah, clearly, not having read the book, I thought the redhead was real… and used that for my first link (my post coming tomorrow). Ah well… I am shortsighted too and have often greeted strangers on the street, believing them to be acquaintances.

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    1. Not a problem at all! Many of my links most months are based on title words, so it’s a valid connection.

      Well, at least that’s the right way round to do it. Whereas I might not be sure it’s an acquaintance in time thus and not say anything, which ends up being unintentionally rude. Better to be friendly anyway just in case.

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  10. Isn’t Tyler’s novel The Clock Winder the one in which a woman hired to care for an older woman who’s had a stroke ends up being called Gillespie? That’s always the first thing that comes to mind when I hear the name Anne Tyler. Great chain.

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    1. I’m 60 pages into it so far and that doesn’t ring a bell…

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    2. I must apologize: you are absolutely right! The name “Gillespie” didn’t pop up until nearly page 200, which is why I didn’t recognize what you were talking about.

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  11. Wasn’t The Paying Guests a great novel? Loved your links for this month’s prompt.

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    1. I’ve read all of Waters’s novels, and this is one of my few favorites. Thanks for stopping by!

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  12. I have never read Sarah Waters before, somehow – I keep meaning to and never get around to it!

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    1. I think you’d like this one or The Night Watch, which has a 1940s setting.

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  13. It seems your first link was made for this 6 degrees exercise!

    I’ve read a couple in your chain (Gatsby and Guests) but will add Fred & Edie to my list.

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  14. Just went over to Goodreads – I’d put Fred & Edie on my list in 2016! 😜

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    1. I do that all the time — think I’ve heard about a book for the first time from a friend’s blog, then head over and see that it’s been on the TBR for years 😉 No matter, it jogs the memory.

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  15. Haha! That’s the very thing that made me want to read the book! I would never have thought that a fire hydrant was what the “redhead” in the title was referring to. Funny!

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    1. It’s a fun, quirky title, but doesn’t really tell you anything about the book!

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  16. Just from the title alone, of the Anne Tyler, my thoughts went to books about hitchhikers (which I’ve already said on Whispering Gums’ blog): one by Tom Robbins book and the famous Douglas Adams. Also, I loved that Sarah Waters story. She always pulls your interest in hard and fast!

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    1. Hitchhiking would have been an interesting route. (Alas, I don’t get the Adams sense of humour, though my husband loves him.) It’s always fun to compare how different people approach this meme.

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