“I don’t believe that any of us can ever accept the inevitability of our own death. Life is too bloody wonderful.” So wrote Kate Figes, who has died of cancer aged 62, in her final piece of journalism, published only a fortnight ago. After listing some of the medical crises that had made her life rather less than wonderful over the last few months, she concluded that even this terrible year had its “surprising silver lining”, in that “by coming that much closer to dying I have learned a little more about how to live well.” Living well, for Figes, meant continuing to look beyond her own determined struggle to beat the odds.
Born into a family of writers, she found her own writing niche as a smart and accessible synthesiser of complex information, an indefatigable interviewer and an astute observer of people. It was not until her early 30s that she plucked up the courage to write full-time, because “it’s not easy to believe you can when your own mother is one too”.
In 1994, she published the first of seven non-fiction books, Because of Her Sex: The Myth of Equality for Women in Britain. A part-time job as fiction editor for Cosmopolitan led to commissions to write for newspapers, and in 1996 she became books editor for the Mail on Sunday’s You magazine, a position she held until her death.
In her early 30s, too, she married Christoph Wyld, a BBC foreign news editor she had met years earlier as a student on language placement in Russia, and gave birth to their two daughters, Eleanor and Grace. “In retrospect, motherhood is the best thing that ever happened to me,” she wrote, in a second book that made no bones about the conflicting emotions of its early stages.
Maternal ambivalence was such a taboo at the time that she received hate mail when Life After Birth was published in 1998; on its reissue 10 years later, she reflected that, while early motherhood was now widely discussed, the conditions facing women in terms of support both during and after birth had barely changed.
Her two forays into fiction, What About Me? (2004) and What About Me, Too? (2006), were light relief from the heavy lifting of her non-fiction – mouthy comic novels, written in emails, which reprised her recurring preoccupation with mother-daughter relationships.
Her difficult relationship with her own mother came up again in The Big Fat Bitch Book for Girls (2007), the first of a series of books for the imprint Virago. It combined sensible, research-based advice with painful personal reminiscences and mischievous recommendations for “top bitch viewing” (Mae West on Jayne Mansfield: “I heard she never turns anything down except the bedcovers.”)
In Couples (2010) she brought the same formula to long-term relationships, and three years later she moved on to infidelity, with Our Cheating Hearts – Love and Loyalty, Lust and Lies. Her great gift, according to her publisher Lennie Goodings, was her ability to move from the personal to the general, from the specific to the more universal in a way that illuminates and really helps us to understand life.
Typically, a recent outing to the opera produced the observation that the queues for the men’s loos were longer than those for the women’s because of the prevalence of prostate problems in its elderly clientele. Behind such witty apercus lay the “enormous, boisterous laugh” that her friends recall as one of Figes’s defining characteristics, along with her loyalty and her fierce zest for life.
Yet her final book – a memoir, On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions, published last year – painted her as a sad and needy child. The elder of two children of the feminist author Eva Figes (nee Unger) and her husband, John Figes, Kate was five years old when her parents split up, leaving her feeling abandoned and unable to confide in anyone about being badly bullied at her north London primary school.
In her memoir, she wrote that “the isolation and loneliness of that small girl who wandered between a home riven with the acrimony of divorce and terrible exclusion at school still haunts me sometimes”.
In a household dominated by the working routine of a single mother who was also a driven writer, she formed a close bond with her younger brother, Orlando. She went to Camden school for girls, in north London. In a book about teenagers, The Terrible Teens, published in 2002 as her own daughters were hitting adolescence, she recalled smoking too much dope, failing her French A-level “not once but twice” and leaving home at 17 after a row with her mother.
She held it together well enough to win a place to study Arabic and Russian at the Polytechnic of Central London (now the University of Westminster). Her first job in the world of books was as a sales rep for the feminist publisher Pandora, for whom she went on to become a publicist and an editor. She carried its values energetically into her writing life.
Asked in an interview later in life how she relaxed, she listed tennis, walking, cooking, eating, listening to music and going to the theatre and staring out to sea from a beach hut on the south coast that she shared with a friend. On tennis, for which she conceived a mid-life passion, she was particularly eloquent, revealing a side of herself that wasn’t about diligently listening and honourably reporting.
“I know that a ‘good’ girl is supposed to be kind, enabling of others, nice – not expressing all those natural human emotions of anger and selfishness,” she wrote in her memoir. “But in tennis there is a freedom to be me - sweaty and sunburnt, competitive and crafty, exuberantly lost in all the joy of play.”
In 2017, eight months after learning that she had an aggressive form of breast cancer, she and Orlando went to the German embassy to reclaim the German nationality their mother had lost when her Jewish family fled Berlin in 1937. Recalling the day in an article for the Guardian, she wrote, “I wore a cashmere jumper [in memory of her smartly dressed grandmother] and placed my mother’s 1960s necklace on top, so I could take Eva with us, too.”
She is survived by Christoph, Eleanor and Grace, and Orlando.
• Kate Figes, writer, born 6 November 1957; died 7 December 2019