Book Reviews

Review: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

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“Everything is broken and messed up and completely fine. That is what life is. It’s only the ratios that change. Usually on their own. As soon as you think that’s it, it’s going to be like this forever, they change again.” 

My Interest

Most months I enjoy participating in a book meme called 6 Degrees of Separation hosted by the blogger Books Are My Favourite and Best. There is a starting book and then you build a “chain” of books that are somehow related. It’s fun! June’s starting book is Sorrow and Bliss so I thought I’d read it. (You do not have to have read the starting book to participate). So stop by this Saturday to check out my 6 Degrees post, too, please! An added interest is that this book was shortlisted for the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction. I track my reading of prize winners on Goodreads.

“There isn’t a name for the emotion that registered on his face then. It was all of them.”

The Story

Martha’s father was a young sensation. His first poem was published in the New Yorker and he soon received a huge advance for a book of poetry–a rare accomplishment. Martha’s mother was makes “art” out of garbage. Somehow, though her parents are still married, the book of poetry has never happened, nor has the garbage art been celebrated. Meanwhile, Martha and her sister have grown up in a very odd home. Their aunt, who has her life so together that she lives in Belgravia and sends her kids to posh boarding schools in Scotland, shores up the family’s miniscule finances. Along the way, Martha develops “problems.” Problems her mother tends to dismiss. Her mother also tends to be dismissive about her successful sister and…well, anything that isn’t alcohol.

Now before  you think this is a super-depressing Oprah’s Book Club book, think again. There are layers to this story. One Christmas, one of the Belgravia kids brings home a classmate whose father forgot to buy his ticket “home” to Singapore for Christmas. The boy’s mother is dead and his Dad might as well be for all the care he gives him. The boy, Patrick, is beyond happy to be included in a family Christmas and begins a long association with the family.

As the years go on Martha’s problems, like her mother’s drinking, escalate to where no one wants to deal with her –finally even [No Spoilers] gives up. Desperate for someone to talk to one day, Martha settles for talking to her mother. Eventually she asks her mother to stop drinking. This leads to change for the mother and for Martha, but change is not always a cure or a solution. There is still something deeply buried that must come out.

In and around all of this, Martha’s sister is having her four children born in 9 years. She, too, is overwhelmed, but expected to be.  Her marriage is stable and she gives a lot of time to Martha. But does this time together help?

“…things do happen. Terrible things. The only thing any of us get to do is decide whether they happen to us or if, at least in part, they happen for us.”

My Thoughts

Mental illness is the elephant in the room here. We are not told what the diagnosis is (and the author goes to great pains in the before/after sections of the book to stress its symptoms are NOT those of any real mental illness). The mother’s drinking, Martha’s “problems,” Dad’s failure to live up to his huge initial potential are all part of the dysfunction here. But so too is Patrick’s lack of a family life and so too if the sister and the Belgravia aunt and…..families are messy, aren’t they?

I liked the fact that Martha’s problems did not see her put into some stereotypical “horror” unit in a hospital. Instead, her life goes on. Her mother’s life, in spite of the drinking, goes on. This is what happens with mental illness most times–at least in the U.S. This story is set in the U.K. [the country, not the University], but it sounds like it is much the same. I also liked the way change finally happened (No Spoilers). No miraculous “cures” or magical epiphanies. This was a very real world story.

Lastly, I liked the touches of humor in here. The décor being character building” was a special favorite of mine  from among the funny lines. My mother was beginning to describe herself as a conscientious objector where domestic matters were concerned,” was both sad-funny and funny-sad and so relatable.

“Even the women who get those things lose them again. Husbands die and children grow up and marry someone you hate and use the law degree you bought them to start an Etsy business. Everything goes away eventually, and women are always the last ones standing so we just make up something else to want.”

My Verdict

4.0

Sorrow and Bliss: A  Novel by Meg Mason

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6 thoughts on “Review: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

  1. I just saw the starter book for this month, so when it appeared in your review, I had to read. This does sound different in its approach in terms of as you say, no stereotypical institutionalization, but interesting as to how it is addressed or not within the family.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was our book club choice in May and it’s fair to say that it divided opinion quite markedly. Some people loved it, others thought it was disappointing and got frustrated by the way the author evaded disclosing the nature of the condition.

    I fell into the “didn’t love it/didn’t hate it” camp.

    By the way, the book hasn’t won the award – it;s on the shortlist but the winner isn’t announced until later this month

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I had hoped to read this one this month, but didn’t get to it. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it though, it sounds too sad for me. Very thoughtful review, Lisa.

    Liked by 1 person

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