Hard Time

Escapist Fiction Is Now a Dire Necessity

Real or fake, the news these days is enough to make even hardcore politics junkies look for some relief. Literature is here to help. Let these titles take you away from it all.

02.25.17 5:01 AM ET

Let’s be honest, it’s been a rough couple of months, and the headlines over the past few weeks have been jarring and unsettling. Yet even the most die-hard political activist has to recharge and reboot every now and then.

It’s no surprise that small pleasures can provide a little well-needed escape in times such as these. The cosmetics industry claims lipstick sales rise when morale is low. I’ve noticed since October, when I’m out to dinner with friends, they are now ordering a glass or two of wine to soothe their battered spirits, or indulging in dessert even after admitting they’re full.

Historically, people have always looked to the arts for distraction from the hardship of reality. During the Depression, the movies of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers provided a bit of glamour and sparkle in contrast to the bleakness of the economy. During World War II, films with exotic locales like Arabian Nights transported moviegoers to more evocative landscapes, far from the roar of bomb sirens or the deprivations of ration books. Walt Disney’s animated film Dumbo, about a flying elephant, also generated some well-needed comic relief.

Books, too, have always been an easy and affordable way to escape into another world. My daughter first fell in love with reading through Mary Pope Osborne’s “Enchanted Tree House” series. She adored the two siblings, Jack and Annie, who could travel back in time to periods of historical significance. Even before she had a chance to visit France or Italy, she felt she had visited those countries in her mind. To this day, my son’s favorite novel is Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella, a story about a man who dreams of creating a baseball diamond in the cornfields of Iowa and soon is visited by the ghosts of the White Sox, including Shoeless Joe Jackson.

My latest novel, The Velvet Hours, was inspired by the true story of an elusive 19th century courtesan and her alluring art-filled apartment, which was discovered in Paris in 2010 after it had been mysteriously shuttered for 70 years, ever since the Nazis invaded France. While on tour in support of the book, I soon discovered the premise of the novel seemed to strike a more romantic overtone with my readers than I had anticipated. What if you could lock the door of your apartment and literally shut out time from penetrating inside? Could you literally create your own silken cocoon, where art and antiques softened the glare of what was happening in the outside world?

The great thing about a book is that you can fall into its pages whenever you have a few hours to spare and need an escape from reality. Here are a few of my favorite recent reads that prove a welcome distraction or transport you to another world:

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline. What better way to escape the present than to fall into the story that inspired one of America’s most beloved paintings? Kline recreates the life of Christina Olson, the young woman immortalized in Andrew Wyeth’s famed painting “Christina’s World.” With beautiful and stunning prose, the novel explores the sensitive and complex bond between artist and muse against the beauty of the rural American landscape. The reader will be transfixed by the lens through which Kline shows how Wyeth was able to see a beauty in Christina that was overlooked by so many.

The Tumbling Turner Sisters by Juliette Fay. Against the colorful, often turbulent world of ’20s American vaudeville, this novel depicts four feisty sisters who embark on a roller-coaster of adventure to obtain independence during uncertain times. While the four Turner sisters will be forced to endure great personal hardship, the novel proves the strength of familial love and the resilience of the human spirit to persevere against incredible odds.

The Tea Planter’s Daughter by Dinah Jefferies takes us on a compelling, exotic journey to ’20s Ceylon. Set against a lush, exotic landscape, a young Englishwoman marries a charming tea plantation and widower only to discover that he has hidden terrible and haunting secrets from his past, including the mysterious circumstances surrounding what happened to his first wife, a revelation that proves to have dangerous consequences.

Alyson Richman is the bestselling author of six books. Her latest novel, The Velvet Hours, is inspired by the true story of a sumptuous Paris apartment that was mysteriously shuttered for 70 years on the eve of World War II, and once belonged to the elusive courtesan Marthe de Florian.