Bestselling comic romantic novelist
Saturday 15 April 2006
Melissa Jane Nathan, writer: born 13 June 1968; married 1995 Andrew Saffron (one son); died London 7 April 2006.
Melissa Nathan was a novelist and journalist whose entertaining romantic comedies were deservedly bestsellers. Her work had a broader range than many love stories aimed at young women; she focused on the world of work for the post-feminist generation in the hugely popular novels The Nanny (2002) and The Waitress (2004). Her final book, The Learning Curve, which will be published in August, has a teacher as heroine.
Nathan was as witty and warm in person as in her writing. Her exceptional ability to express herself with total honesty shone through in her column in The Jewish Chronicle, where she struck a chord with many readers by proudly owning to a particularly British brand of not-quite-secular, not-quite-religious Jewishness.
Born, in 1968, and raised in Hertfordshire, Melissa Nathan studied Communications at the Polytechnic of Wales in Pontypridd (now the University of Glamorgan); always a keen actress, she had turned down a place at drama school but continued acting at college, taking one play to the Edinburgh fringe. She took a post-graduate course in journalism at Cardiff University and worked as a writer and sub-editor for various women's magazines, but her ambitions lay in creative writing.
Her first novel, Pride, Prejudice and Jasmin Field (2000), reworked Jane Austen in a modern setting; she used her acting experience to portray a group of amateurs putting on a play version of Pride and Prejudice - with Mr Darcy transformed into a celebrity actor.
When working on her next book, Persuading Annie (2001), Nathan was diagnosed with breast cancer. She refused to let the illness dominate her life, and - in public anyway - was unfailingly positive. She had no time for most journalism written by cancer sufferers: "self-indulgent dirges without a helpline in sight", as she described them. Instead she joked about breast cancer's unoriginality in her Jewish Chronicle column and then added:
That was what you call laughing in adversity. It's what makes people smile mistily at me, as if I'm fading in front of their very eyes while telling knock-knock jokes. What they don't know is that I have daydreams about being the oldest person at their funeral.
Melissa Nathan feared that the cancer would prevent her from becoming a mother, but initial treatment went well and in March 2003 she seemed to have triumphed over adversity - her adored son Sam was born and The Nanny shot into the top ten bestselling British novels. Her work was finding an international audience too, particularly in the United States.
Alas, just weeks after Sam's birth, it was confirmed that her cancer had returned and spread to her liver. Nathan underwent gruelling cycles of treatment, but carried on with extensive research for her latest novel, The Waitress, including working in a café.
Melissa Nathan's heroines always achieved more than just falling in love; as a feminist, she created rounded characters struggling to find their vocation, and she skilfully observed the social, family and career pressures faced by young women. The Waitress was another bestseller, and Nathan signed a new two-book deal with Random House. The publishers now plan to reissue her first two novels, and will also, with her agent, set up an award in her memory for comic romantic fiction.
Melissa Nathan faced terminal illness with great courage, preferring laughter to tears. She was extremely happy in her marriage to Andrew Saffron and delighted in her son; she made an incredible effort to attend his third birthday party. She spent her final weeks finishing The Learning Curve, and writing letters and stories for Sam to read when he is older.
In her last column for The Jewish Chronicle, published on 2 March, Nathan wrote about our culture's hatred for looking older:
Of course, no one likes the frailty that can come from old age, but guess what? The opposite of age is not youth: it's death. Age is not the approach towards death, it's the increasingly precious alternative to it. So, as I grow older, I want to look older, dammit. Otherwise where's the glory in survival?
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