Melissa Nathan died in April 2006 aged just 37 from cancer. She was a successful journalist who went on to become one of the best-selling comic romantic novelists of her generation. She wrote with an intelligence and intuition that went far beyond 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 was published in August 2006, has a teacher as heroine. Creating credible, sympathetic, modern characters that her readers identified with and desperately wanted to fall in love with, was her greatest strength. Melissa’s heroines always achieved more than just falling in love – as a feminist herself she created rounded characters struggling to find their vocation, and she skilfully observed the social, family and career pressures faced by young women today.
‘We live in a world of increasing alienation, where meeting the right person for life grows harder and harder. Why would we want to spend our free time reading about this grim reality? I have spent many happy months escaping into the writing of my feel-good world of Happy Ever Afters. And what is wrong with that? It makes people feel good. I’m not selling anyone a lie.’
Born in 1968 and raised in Hertfordshire, Melissa 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, sub-editor and commissioning editor for various women’s magazines, but her real ambition lay in novel writing.
In her first novel, Pride, Prejudice and Jasmin Field (2000), Melissa reworked her greatest heroine 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 cleverly and convincingly transformed into a twenty-first century celebrity actor.
When working on her next book, Persuading Annie (2001), Melissa 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 one of her newspaper columns and 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 feared that the cancer would prevent her from fulfilling her other lifetime dream of becoming a mother. But initial treatment went well, and in March 2003 she triumphed over adversity – her longed-for and 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. And elsewhere around the world her books were being translated into around a dozen languages. Finally she had it all – but just weeks after Sam’s birth, routine scans confirmed that her cancer had not only returned but spread to her liver and bones. Melissa underwent relentless and gruelling cycles of treatment, while carrying on determinedly with extensive research for her latest novel, The Waitress, which included exhausting days working in a café and looking after her baby son.
Sure enough The Waitress was another instant bestseller, and Melissa immediately signed a new two-book deal with Random House. Work on her final book, The Learning Curve, was slow and painful for her but out of the new maturity of her writing was born her most complex and refined work. Her publishers now plan to reissue her first two novels: Persuading Annie will be published in the summer of 2007 and Pride Prejudice and Jasmin Field will appear in 2008.
Melissa faced terminal illness with great courage, preferring laughter to tears. She was as witty and warm in person as in her writing. Her friends have often commented on her exceptional ability to be both incredibly supportive and incredibly good fun. She was extremely happy in her marriage to her husband Andrew Saffron with whom she shared the joy of delighting in their son. She spent her final weeks finishing The Learning Curve, and writing letters and stories for Sam to read when he is older. Her final efforts were all for him – just days before she died she managed to attend his third birthday party. At a party held in her honour after her death, her innumerable friends and family paid tribute to Melissa and contributed to Sam’s memory box, writing letters and contributing souvenirs of their love for Melissa.
In her last newspaper column, published on 2nd March, Melissa 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?”