Life is lonely for 79 year old Missy Carmichael as she rattles around the large, now rather down-at-heel house she and her beloved husband Leo bought during the early years of their marriage and where they brought up their two children, Alistair and Melanie. She has recently become estranged from Melanie, who lives in Cambridge, and Alistair and his Australian wife now live in Sydney with Arthur, Missy’s ‘golden grandson’, whom she desperately misses. She wishes that Alistair would reply more often to her frequent emails; she does try to make them interesting and upbeat but the fact is she’s become depressed and socially-isolated. She drinks rather too much sherry and wine and now spends far too much time reading the obituaries pages of the newspapers, about which she reflects …
‘At my age, reading obituaries is a generational hazard, contemporaries dropping off one by one; each announcement an empty chamber in my own little revolver.’
She wants things to change, to stop feeling so sad, bitter and lonely. However, not only does she not know how to achieve this, but part of her thinks that a secret from her past means that she doesn’t deserve to be happy. She is a frequent visitor to the local park, a bitter-sweet experience now because it holds so many memories of Leo, who was a firm believer in the benefits of a daily ‘constitutional’.
Then one day she notices a small boy, called Otis, who reminds her of her grandson. His mother – Irish, foul-mouthed and with dyed red hair, someone Missy loathed on sight – is reading a notice attached to the railings and is trying to interest her son in what it promises. Keen to keep close to the child, Missy moves nearer to read the notice; it explains that the following week the park-keepers need to move fish from one pond to another and, in order to do so must first of all stun them. When the day arrives it’s so cold that she almost doesn’t go but forces herself to because, not only will it be something interesting to include in her next email to Alistair, but maybe she’ll get to see Otis again. It’s a decision which will change her life because her visit to the park leads to her meeting the ‘patrician’ interior-designer Sylvie who is walking her two dogs and who, it turns out, is friends with Angela, Otis’s mother. The two women reach out to Missy; she gradually allows them in to her life and by doing so, reluctantly acquires a foster-dog, Bobby, when Angela begs her to look after it for a friend. She soon overcomes her dislike of dogs – smelly, stupid creatures – and starts to enjoy the non-judgmental companionship Bobby offers and, with the need to walk the dog on a daily basis, finds herself drawn into the sociable world of dog owners, a world which further opens up her horizons.
Missy is the narrator of this memorable debut novel and, as the story gradually unfolds, her reflections on past events in her life offer us insights into the experiences and influences which have made her the prickly, emotionally cut-off, lonely, depressed and regretful person we are first introduced to. We get to know her as a child, enabling us to understand the continuing influences of her parents and grandparents; as a clever but self-doubting student at Cambridge in the 1950s; as the girlfriend, and later the wife, of Leo; as a mother who often struggled with mothering, particularly of her daughter; as someone who ‘sacrificed’ her academic brilliance for a life of domesticity; as someone who for decades had carried a secret which had, and still does, cause her shame, guilt and regret. There were times when her reflections felt almost unbearably painful to read but, as she began to allow her new friends, both human and canine, into her life and, in turn, came to accept that they equally valued their relationships with her, it felt very moving to see her discover that it really is never too late to make friends, to learn new skills, to make changes in our lives, to build bridges and to make reparation.
All the other characters felt very well-developed and three-dimensional, with each having a key role to play as the story unfolded. Missy had long harboured the belief that she was neither loveable nor worthy of being loved and so ‘deserved’ the life she was living – until her new friends began to change her mind. A recurring message in the story was the importance of having a group of supportive, loving friends, something Missy, with her classical education, described as an ‘oikos’, an ancient Greek word to describe a tight network that closely resembles a family. She used another classical reference when reflecting on the wonders of relationships:
‘Sylvie had a wonderful capacity for “philautia”, that boldest of Greek loves, the love of the self – a much finer quality than narcissism, which it’s often mistaken for. The way I saw it, with narcissism, you were just gazing at your reflection in a lake, with philautia, you were frolicking in the lake and inviting people to join you. People who truly liked themselves seemed to have a greater capacity for friendship, for letting people in. Perhaps that’s why I, in the past, was always rather solitary. But I liked to think I was starting to dip a toe in the waters.’
I must admit that one of the unexpected delights of the story for me was that it is ‘peppered’ with such classical references, Latin verbs, reflections on the etymology of words and their ongoing influences in our language.
Although there are many feel-good moments in this story, as well as some lovely moments of humour, one of the things I appreciated most was that the author didn’t shy away from exploring not only the darker, much more complex aspects of Missy’s personality, but also the various physical, mental and emotional challenges of aging. As a result, the story acquired a much greater and more satisfying depth than I had been expecting. There are also a couple of mysteries at the heart of the story and although at quite an early stage I accurately predicted what one of them was, the final revelation did come as a surprise. However, it was a ‘surprise’ which, reflecting back on the story, felt absolutely credible and added an extra layer of psychological integrity to author’s impressive observational and storytelling skills.
Had I not received an ARC of Beth Morrey’s debut novel but had just noticed it in a bookshop, I suspect that I know that I have been put off by the cover and the publisher’s synopsis because both suggest to me a rather lightweight, possibly overly sentimental story. In fact it is neither, rather it is a beautifully written, poignant and thought-provoking ‘coming of old age’ novel. In addition to being a satisfying personal read, I think it would make a good choice for book groups.
With thanks to Readers First and the publisher for my review copy.
Personal read: ****
Group read: ****
Reviewed by Linda Hepworth
Published 04/03/2021 by HarperCollins,
paperback, ISBN 978-0008334062