"Remember Charlie the Chicken and Freddie the Frog?" Cristobel Meurling-Perera asks, and Lauren, 12, giggles and hides her face. "They were cloth books," explains Meurling-Perera. "We read a lot to the girls when they were little." Meurling-Perera, her husband Laxman Perera, and their daughters Lyanne, 18, and Lauren sit close together on the couch of their comfortable Al Manasir flat, a takeaway vegetarian pizza on the table before them. It's a school night for the busy, working family, but they have made time to talk about something they all care about: books.
Though born and raised in Sri Lanka, the couple has lived in Abu Dhabi since 1982. "We got rooted here," says Meurling-Perera, an administrator for an oil company. "This is where the girls were born." But she shakes her head, remembering the challenge of finding books 25 years ago. "There was no Magrudy's in the city then." The family would pick up books on regular visits to Canada and the UK, and at book fairs when the Book Worm, a children's book store now located in Khalidiya Mall, would visit Lyanne's and Lauren's schools. "We'd stock up then."
Meurling-Perera's model for the reading habit came from older brothers and sisters back home. "They read a lot. I was encouraged by this." While she was drawn to novels as a younger woman, she has recently moved into biography. "I'm more interested in real-life stories now," she explains, admitting that she also reads on the internet. "I like reading about well-known people like Hillary Clinton. I find her story inspiring. I'm looking forward to reading her autobiography." The last book Meurling-Perera read was a classic from her girlhood: Jane Eyre. "Now I really understand that book," she says.
Lauren, obviously bored by the adult conversation, has quietly returned to the book that was on her lap: Twilight, the teen novel by Stephenie Meyer. "Lauren reads the same book over and over," teases her father. "I don't like Harry Potter. I never liked it!" says Lauren, by way of defence, before softening. "When I read, I remember everything. When Bella first sees the vampire, I can just imagine it!"
When do you read? I ask. Lauren's family and a school friend who is visiting listen to see how she answers. "At night," she says. "On the top bunk with the top light on." "She's a night owl," sighs her mother. "She also reads on the long drive to golf lessons every week." "And you read on the school bus both ways," adds her friend, Georgia. "You read all the time!" Lauren also reads all manner of things, including Archie comics, which she adores. But we keep circling back to Twilight. I ask her what she likes so much about that novel. "The guy," her mother chimes in. "She likes the guy," agrees Lyanne. "I also like Meg Cabot novels, like The Princess Diaries," says Lauren, clearly wanting to change the subject. And to get back to her reading, or rather, rereading.
Lyanne, six years older and preparing for university in Australia next year to study journalism, is at a different stage in life. "Right now I'm focused on exams and reading for school," she says. She has enjoyed this year's reading list, though: Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Arthur Miller's play A View From the Bridge, poems by Wordsworth and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. She is grateful to her Shakespeare teacher, Peter Lugg, the principal of Cambridge High School, which the sisters attend. "If Mr Lugg sees you in the hall, he'll quiz you on lines from the play. He's terrific."
If there were no exams and mandatory reading, Lyanne says she would be buried in a crime or horror book, such as Christopher Pike's young adult novels, The Last Vampire or Remember Me. "I like the suspense. I like thinking the bad guy is someone and then finding out that it's someone else." Laxman Perera has been listening to the women in his life, nodding, laughing, agreeing. "My father was a great reader," says the duty manager at Abu Dhabi airport. "Reading is a deep pleasure for me. We learn so much from what we read." For many years, Perera was fond of popular fiction, novels by such writers as Harold Robbins, Dan Brown, Frederick Forsyth and Wilbur Smith.
But recently he has changed his habits, reading more non-fiction: a book on Watergate and assorted titles on golf and cricket. He is about to begin a book on the history of his country: J Vijayatunga's Grass for My Feet, which he bought the last time he was in Sri Lanka. He likes buying books in airports and browsing book stores reading jacket blurbs. But mostly he places faith in what respected critics think. "I mainly go for books that have received good reviews," he says.
Two books that continue to win his raves are The Godfather - "Each time I read it, I find something I missed earlier" - and on a different plane altogether: Tintin. "I have the whole collection," says Perera, beaming. It would seem revisiting dearly loved books runs in the family. The Perera family's picks Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë Living History by Hillary Rodham Clinton Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot The Last Vampire and Remember Me by Christopher Pike Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare Short Game Bible by Dave Pelz Grass for My Feet by J Vijayatunga The Godfather by Mario Puzo Tintin (all the books) by Georges Remi (Hergé)