[This review contains spoilers!!]
The thing that happened to me when I read this book was that I found myself constantly asking ‘why?’…
And not in a life-altering/affirming way.
It was in a ‘why should the main character, Marie, feel that way and why should she care about that?’
We read this as a book club book and three of us didn’t finish it. I was nearly the fourth. I think one of the main reasons many of us struggled with it was that we found it very hard to read about people with such material fortune being in such a stupid mess – yes money isn’t everything, but at times you just wanted them to stop their whinging
Our heroine, Marie – who is a woman in her late fifties- was another issue for me, and at times she came across as merely pathetic, and her children were pretty ghastly people. The story takes time to talk, not just from the perspective of Marie (in the third person), but also her three children who are all in their 30s – frankly it was enough to try to deal with Marie’s issues, but, on the plus-side we did get a more rounded perspective, hearing from her children too.
As a reader, I understood life had dealt Marie some rough blows, I empathised with her and her life turning out how it had – marrying at a young age due to pregnancy and then enduring a miscarriage later in life, as well as dealing with an adulterous husband living the life of riley as an advertising hot shot, while she was the wife who must entertain their friends and colleagues and plaster on the good wifely smile. I get why this lifestyle encouraged her to spend a large portion of her adult life drunk. And many of us might have done the same if we were as miserable as her.
However, with this book, to me it merely just boils down to one factor – CHOICE! My underlying feeling was always ‘there is another option – there always is’. And she had three healthy children – a great blessing, a beautiful home etc. I think for MY choice I would just have much rather read about someone who was more of a heroine. I mean at times, I just wanted to shake her.
And not because she got tattoos. Again, I understood this part of it – it was her rebellion, her getting the chance to be free and do as she pleased after having felt trapped and in no control of her life for decades. Perhaps it is about my being in the wrong generation. Perhaps it is about misunderstanding our heroine. I felt like saying to her ‘why did you stick around in that marriage?’. My own mother is of the same generation, and she didn’t stick around in her first marriage either. So maybe for Marie it was about her Catholicism. Ironically though, on her death bed she wants to banish this deeply embedded religion from her life.
Or maybe I just didn’t enjoy the book because the plot seemed so dragged out, and some of it so ethereal. At times I was left thinking – so when is this friendship really going to kick in, like the blurb on the cover says it does? This was in regards Marie and the relationship with her tattooist, Rhys. I noticed they had a rapport but it took until the last hundred or so pages, for me to realize that oh, they are like bezzies now. OK, missed that.
Something else I disliked about Marie’s character was how she was obsessed with what everyone thought of her, desperately trying both get their attention and at the same time shun it away. Shouldn’t she have been happy in herself? I guess that was the problem. I wanted to feel like she was on a journey to rectify that, but instead it just seemed as though she drifted. Drifted into tattooing (symbolising her now, and her future), but clung to the gardening (symbolising her comfort and her past), and throughout all this was still obsessed with what here children thought about her whilst at the same time judging them.
Characters in general, not just because of their circumstance and build, but also because of the way they author wrote about them, were very hard to find empathy for. I found the author occasionally wrote weird things about what the characters were thinking that I just didn’t comprehend: sometimes it felt like it was just a mute character note.
And whilst I understand that the characters were supposed to be flawed, it was almost asthough they were flawed to the point you couldn’t believe in them. It seemed to me like they were a bunch of intelligent, well-educated adults – hypocritical, prejudice and of course, ultimately wallowing in their own doom and gloom. I think the point is, if I was acquainted with people like that I would have no time for them so trying to give my time to a book about four of them just didn’t work well.
So suffice to say, here is a book I didn’t enjoy because of its substantial length and the narration from the perspective of a set of characters I essentially loathed.
Until I got about one hundred pages from the end.
Then something changed. When Marie was diagnosed with cancer I am unsure whether this evoked some sympathy within me or whether the tone of the book just took a turn towards something more real, something more heroic. Suddenly Marie was dealing with something really devastating and something that she truly couldn’t control. Oh the irony.
And of course, we saw some human qualities in Blanche, her daughter too – with her pro-life choice. In fact, I even felt real sisterhood with Blanche over the death of the family cat. Whilst Mopoke dying was probably semi-amusing to some, I have to say, this is the one thing in the book that actually moved me – it kind of broke my heart a little. I felt incensed at the men for being so useless. And of course the death of the cat was incredibly symbolic – particularly with them all of them arguing over what to do with the cat – instead of griping about how much money they’d get when their mother passed away.
I mean seriously – what kind of household is this?? I can’t imagine my siblings and I being so far up our own backsides we argue over burying a cat, at such a time, but I guess it was supposed to be happening as a result of emotions running high and undoubtedly McGregor meant it to be a little black humour. And poor little Nell (Marie’s grandchild) who was once again let down by the failings of her father, uncle and aunty who could not see past their own egos.
The plus side was I loved the descriptions and perceptions of Sydney and Sydney-siders. I only hope if characters out there like these exist that they don’t end up in my circle!!