Audiobook Review: The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams

An unforgettable and heartwarming debut about how a chance encounter with a list of library books helps forge an unlikely friendship between two very different people in a London suburb.

Widower Mukesh lives a quiet life in the London Borough of Ealing after losing his beloved wife. He shops every Wednesday, goes to Temple, and worries about his granddaughter, Priya, who hides in her room reading while he spends his evenings watching nature documentaries.

Aleisha is a bright but anxious teenager working at the local library for the summer when she discovers a crumpled-up piece of paper in the back of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a list of novels that she’s never heard of before. Intrigued, and a little bored with her slow job at the checkout desk, she impulsively decides to read every book on the list, one after the other. As each story gives up its magic, the books transport Aleisha from the painful realities she’s facing at home.

When Mukesh arrives at the library, desperate to forge a connection with his bookworm granddaughter, Aleisha passes along the reading list… hoping that it will be a lifeline for him too. Slowly, the shared books create a connection between two lonely souls, as fiction helps them escape their grief and everyday troubles and find joy again.  

CW: death of family members, cancer, divorce, suicide, mental illness/agoraphobia

I’ve been a huge fan of Ellery Adams’ Secret, Book and Scone Society series for a few years now and I loved the idea of bibliotherapy in those books. So even though this one is a contemporary and I hardly read this genre these days, the theme of books attracted me immensely and I knew I will like it.

And I was totally right. This is probably the only kind of contemporary I could have read in these times. The writing is easy to read and I found myself immersed pretty quickly. But it’s also very slow paced, so anyone who is more used to faster paced books might not enjoy it. This is also not very plot focused, so the story just meanders through the everyday lives of the characters and we never know where this is going or if there is a larger purpose to the story, but this type of storytelling didn’t bother me. I actually liked that it was mostly low key and I could breeze through it slowly.

However, it’s definitely the themes of the book that resonated with me the most. The idea of books and reading helping with healing during bad times in our life is something that I truly believe in, and it’s always amazing to know that there are many others like me. This story is a love letter to the power of stories – the ones where we feel like we are seeing parts of our life being played out in the pages, the ones where we find comfort and solutions within, the ones where the characters feel like our friends and we start caring for them immensely, the ones which give us the much needed catharsis to feel lighter – stories are beautiful and we can find so much good in them and I loved seeing all that adoration for stories reflected in this book. The other aspect of the book which I found very relevant was the importance of libraries as a community institution that needs to be preserved and how much we should push back against government’s efforts to cut off access to public libraries. I know this is mostly a western issue because many countries in the global south don’t have free public libraries, but it just means we should try for them to opened everywhere and fight the closures wherever we can.

The characters in this book were some I didn’t like on first glance but they won me over slowly. Mukesh is a widower who is still not over his beloved wife and feels like he has nothing much to live for anymore. But he slowly realizes that he wants to keep in touch with everything that his wife loved, one of which is reading, and finally takes the momentous step of getting out of the house and into the library. Aleisha is a young girl who is reluctantly working the summer at the library because she needs the financial support as well as needs to get out of her house. She is also dealing with her parent’s divorce and her mom’s debilitating mental health issues and even though she hates her job initially, the library slowly becomes a much needed escape. Both of them bond over the common books they read, discuss them and find comfort in the lessons they learn in those pages, find new friends in the fictional characters, as well as form a genuine friendship between themselves.

We also meet many characters who don’t appear for more than a couple chapters who also find some some sort of healing for their issues by discovering books and sharing that joy with others. I also liked Mukesh’s family, especially his bookworm granddaughter Priya who felt like a mini version of me. Nilakshi is another of Mukesh’s friends whom I adored because she was a widow too who had also lost her son, and she and Mukesh formed this beautiful friendship to confront their loneliness and it was lovely. Aleisha’s brother Aidan also has some presence but he is almost mysterious, that we don’t know about him enough. But the most important side character I thought was Naina, Mukesh’s dead wife, whose presence felt palpable and everywhere even if she wasn’t living. The love she had for her family, husband, community and books all permeated every word in this story.

Overall, this was a nice read. If you obsessively love reading like some of us and totally believe in the power of healing in books and storytelling, I think you’ll love this book. Just know that it’s very slice of life without ever feeling like there’s an endgame. I also happened to listen to the audiobook and I absolutely adored the three narrators. I particularly loved Sagar Arya who brought Mukesh to life with his narration. This was a nice respite in between my recent nonfiction binge.

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