About the Book
Everyone tells Martha Friel she is clever and beautiful, a brilliant writer who has been loved every day of her adult life by one man, her husband Patrick.
So why is everything broken?
Maybe Martha is just someone who finds it harder to be alive than most people. Or maybe – as she has long believed – there is something wrong with her.
Forced to return to childhood home to live with her dysfunctional, bohemian parents (but without the help of her devoted, foul-mouthed sister Ingrid), Martha has one last chance to find out whether a life is ever too broken to fix – or whether, maybe, by starting over, she will get to write a better ending for herself.
Format: Paperback (347 pages) Publisher: Wieldenfeld & Nicolson
Publication date: 28th April 2022 Genre: Contemporary Fiction
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This was the July pick for the book club run by Waterstones in Reading. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the meeting but I suspect I may have been in the minority in finding myself rather underwhelmed by Sorrow and Bliss despite the many plaudits it has received, including being shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022.
There were elements I did enjoy such as the witty turns of phrase and Martha’s deadpan humour. ‘On holiday one year, I read Money, thirty pages of it until I remembered that I do not understand Martin Amis.’ I also enjoyed the cast of quirky characters. For example, Martha’s lovely father, an aspiring poet described as ‘a male Sylvia Plath’, Martha’s eccentric mother, Celia, ‘a ‘minorly important sculptor’ who makes art out of found objects or Martha’s sister, Ingrid, whose anecdotes are ‘a three-way combination of hyperbole, lies and factual inaccuracy’ but which are often outrageously funny albeit peppered with swear words. I also loved Martha’s friend Peregrine who treats her to lavish lunches.
So if I enjoyed all these things, why didn’t the book work for me? Mainly it was Martha herself. I tried, I really tried to like her or at least empathise with her mental turmoil but I never fully succeeded. Although she’s often funny, she makes consistently bad choices and comes across as needy, peevish and even cruel at times, alienating those close to her. I felt sorry for her husband Patrick the whole way through and found it hard to forgive the way she treats him. He demonstrates the patience of a saint, putting up with her erratic behaviour for longer than seems humanly possible. And what does he get in return? Accusations of passivity, dishonesty and betrayal.
However probably my biggest frustration with the book is that Martha is diagnosed with a mental condition that is never identified, just indicated by a series of dashes. The first time I came across it, I was just confused; then I became frustrated. Are we supposed to guess what it is or conclude the specifics don’t matter? What’s more this unnamed condition seems to be ‘cured’ in short order by a single medication. In the afterword, the author writes ‘The medical symptoms described in the novel are not consistent with a genuine mental illness. The portrayal of treatment, medication and doctors’ advice is wholly fictional’. Cop out or attempt not to get bogged down in trying to portray a specific mental condition?
There were moments in Sorrow and Bliss where I laughed out loud and I have to admit that, in Martha, the author has created a distinctive and memorable character, but there was just something missing for me. Perhaps if I’d been able to go to that book club meeting I might have discovered what it was and been able to look at the book in a new light.
In three words: Witty, dark, poignant
About the Author
Meg Mason began her journalism career at the Financial Times and The Times. Her work has since appeared in Vogue, Grazia, the Sunday Times, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sunday Telegraph. She has written humour for the New Yorker, been a monthly columnist for GQ, a regular contributor to Vogue and Marie Claire, and a contributing editor at Elle. She lives in Sydney with her husband and two daughters. (Photo: Goodreads author page)
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