Review of Sorrow and Bliss, Meg Mason

BPS Bookclub, June 2022

So as you know, I thought this book would offer some warmth and light relief for the end of the bookclub season. How wrong I was. Buyer beware … especially when the writer can call in a few marketing  favours from her contemporaries to boost her front cover. Would we have picked up a ‘light’ novel  knowing that it was about mental illness? Perhaps not. So its popularity has maybe shown that a clever approach will bring more readers in, and maybe we will open our minds as a result!

Having said that, I think we all agreed that there was plenty to chew over in this book. Ratings were almost all in the solid 3 – 3.5 range, with a few notable “loved it” exceptions.  Meg Mason seems to have struck a relatable chord in dealing with mental illness, and the abstract  “-“ nature of her diagnosis probably helps this, rather than focusing on a reductive specific condition.

The “some good some bad” response is reflective of the entire novel, and this is part of its beauty really : we are constantly being thrown with ups and downs, just like Martha. Patrick was a saint, but also frustratingly passive. Ingrid was the constantly pregnant earth mother, but claimed to hate motherhood.  Martha states vehemently that she does not want children, but admits at the end that being a mother was all she wanted. Was Martha charismatic and brilliant ( as the family hint) or just a bit mean and self- centred?

There was some very clever humour, perhaps more dry wit than laugh out loud. Mason is a talented writer and some of the little vignettes of character and place were very funny and beautifully written.

Cynics amongst us will point out that wealth and privilege cocoon Martha  – she seems to flow through life without really needing to hold down a job, living rent free in Paris and well supported by Patrick in the Executive Home. In detailed discussion, some of the minor characters earn  more respect : fussy Winsome is actually the bedrock of the family to the detriment of her own career; and Martha’s father is a constant protector throughout her life. We are obscured in this viewpoint whilst reading, by seeing everything through Martha’s eyes.

The part that seemed to irritate most was the ending, a far too convenient wrapping up of story lines : the journal episode – allegedly knocked out in short order by Martha, and then accidentally stumbled upon by Patrick.  The mother - who miraculously stopped drinking “because nobody had ever asked her before” and became the confidante of the daughter who hated her up to that point.

We can hope that Martha is on the road to redemption and happiness, but our sceptical realities are doubting her.  We wanted a little more realistic transition, to be able to believe her. We also wanted to know more from Patrick’s viewpoint! He has his own issues and complexities but these were buried in his need to look after Martha. All in all a more complex story than first perceived, which I guess is often the reality of mental illness.

October 17, 2022 by Books Scissors

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