Susan Johnson, Life in seven mistakes (Review)

By coincidence, really, my local reading group finally got around to reading Susan Johnson’s Life in seven mistakes just as her next novel, My hundred lovers, is to be published. Johnson has written several novels now, though I’d only read one, The broken book based on the life of Charmian Clift, before this. I loved that book and I liked this one.

Life in seven mistakes is a book targeted squarely at middle-class, middle-aged Australian baby boomers – a bit like, perhaps, Jonathan Franzen‘s The corrections was for Americans. It’s about a family – parents Nance and Bob who have retired to Australia’s answer to Miami, Surfers Paradise, and their three middle-aged children, Elizabeth, Robbo and Nick. They are not a particularly well-functioning family (says she, in an understatement). Johnson sets out to analyse how such families come to be … and how, or if, they can be rectified.

There’s not, as is common in books like this, a strong plot.  The main story is set over a few days encompassing Christmas. Robbo and Elizabeth, with their families, have come up to Surfers Paradise from their respective big southern cities to celebrate Christmas and their parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Nick is absent, being in prison for a minor drug related offence, but his life has been off the rails for some time. The atmosphere is charged with long-unspoken tensions – and a crisis, of course, occurs – but I won’t spoil that main plot point.

Like The corrections, this book chronicles the family’s past while also telling a story about the present gathering. Johnson does this by using alternating the chapters to tell two chronological stories. The present one starts a couple of days before Christmas with the family already gathered, while the past story starts at the time Nancy meets Bobby, and progresses until it pretty much meets the present. This structure works well. It is easy to follow and enhances our understanding of the characters without interrupting the flow of what’s happening now. The chapters have pointed titles like “On top of the mountain” in which Elizabeth sees Australia’s Great Dividing Range in symbolic terms:

As she drives, Elizabeth fancifully pictures the mountain range as forming the backdrop to their lives, and for one fantastical moment she imagines time strung end-to-end along it, her father in his working boots, aged twenty-five, at one end of the mountains, and his son Nick, aged forty-five, at the other. She sees her father at the very top of the mountain, moving trees with his bare hands, and her brother at its very base. Did her father want to remain forever elevated, was that it?

Johnson has a keen eye for family dynamics and most readers (at least from the target group I described) would have moments of recognition here even if, hopefully, the whole is not their experience. It is this, together with Johnson’s sharply observed language, that makes this book somewhat of a page turner. You can’t help wanting to know how this motley crew came to be and what they are going to do next. Will Elizabeth, the successful ceramicist about to have her first one-woman show in New York, grow up and finally stop feeling “infantilised” around her family? Will Nancy relax her drive for perfection and let her family in? Will Bob engage with his family rather than stick to his position as “star of the story”?

I must say I loved the language. Almost every page contains something that makes you stop and think, yes, she’s got it. But – there is a but – somehow the book didn’t work for me quite as well as The broken book did. I’m not quite sure why because, really, it’s the sort of book that is normally right up my alley – and by this I mean the subject matter, the setting (much of which was very familiar to me) and the language.  And yet, it didn’t totally sing for me. One reason may be that the novel is billed as “funny” and “ironic”. Whilst there is humour here, I didn’t find it a funny novel, and I didn’t really see it as ironic. It read more like a serious, straight drama to me. This can’t be my main concern though, because a novel shouldn’t be judged by how it is described by others.

My bigger issue is probably more to do with the “voice”. The novel is told third person – mainly third person, limited.  And this limited point of view is predominantly Elizabeth’s. It’s her pain, her inner conflict, that we are mostly privy to. But the point of view does shift at times. It has to, for example, in the chapters about Bob and Nancy’s marriage because Elizabeth can’t know their story. And so, there are subtle shifts between Elizabeth’s, Bob’s, Nancy’s and sometimes an omniscient viewpoint. This, I think, spreads our engagement a little thin. The book feels like it’s meant to be Elizabeth’s, but it isn’t totally, and so when the resolution comes it feels a little, well, limited.

It was nonetheless a good read … and I would certainly read more Johnson. Can’t say  better than that!

Lisa at ANZLitLovers loved it. Resident Judge enjoyed it too, and like me, saw some similarity to The corrections.

Susan Johnson
Life in seven mistakes
Sydney: Bantam, 2008
ISBN: 9781741669190

17 thoughts on “Susan Johnson, Life in seven mistakes (Review)

  1. I didn’t find it funny either. Rather it is a well-written and harrowing depiction of family emotional abuse and control. I reacted strongly against the way it is presented as a black family comedy by reviewers and the author herself, as described in my review at
    I was struck by your final point, and can see that structure and voice do spread our engagement a little thin, but I don’t see the resolution as limited. Other reviewers have described the ending as ‘teary’, ‘touching’ and ‘a happy conclusion’, but to me it is tragedy comparable to that of Winston Smith, who learns to love Big Brother.

  2. Oh thanks for that comment Bryce. I will pop over and read your review. So glad someone had similar thoughts to mine. Your comment re the resolution sounds a bit like my reaction. There was a good aspect to it but there was something negating in it too wasn’t there? I meant limited in the sense that it didn’t really encompass, in a way, the breadth that the book encompassed BUT I must say I dwelt far too long on what to say there. My earlier conclusion was that “the resolution didn’t fully satisfy”. Perhaps that was better.

    But it was very well written … and at no point did I want to put it down.

  3. I, too, found your comment about voice and engagement an interesting one Sue. And look forward to pondering over the notion.

    I used to teach a short story of Susan Johnson’s written entirely in second person, and loved it. A piece about a teenage girl dragged from the city to the country, who found the whole experience quite alienating. Her decision to refuse to go to church was a pivotal moment. That’s my only experience of Johnson’s work. I will obviously need to explore further.

    • Thanks Magpie … second person stories are intriguing. I’ve only read a few and have loved thinking about the whys of choosing that voice.

      I suspect you’d like Johnson. I certainly say read this one – and of course I’d highly recommend The broken book which Wikipedia tells me is her most lauded one to date. Then again, it might be worth starting with her new novel (but I can’t comment on that one of course!)

    • Oh, I must explain too that I’m not necessarily saying that all shifting POVs have this effect, but in this particular book it seems to me to have had this effect. (If not the shifting POV then something else did!)

  4. I read this a couple of years ago and remember enjoying it very much — although the details of the story haven’t really stayed with me.

  5. I read what were probably Susan Johnson’s first books, Flying Lessons and A Big Life, many many years ago and haven’t read anything since, apart from visiting her blog for some reason last year. The book does sound interesting and I’d be keen to see where she has gone as a writer. Both your and Bryce’s reviews suggest there is a strong undercurrent in this work.

  6. Have you read The Corrections? (I haven’t) If you have, how does Life in Seven Mistakes compare, especially in terms of voice? I’m curious mostly because I wonder if/how the male approach is different from the female approach. I wonder why the book was billed as funny when clearly there are plenty of people who don’t find it funny at all?

    • Yes, I have Stefanie, but many years ago. As I recollect I think it had a more satirical tone, but I don’t remember the voice or the structure. I think Johnson herself described her book as comedy but I don’t think she got the tone quite right for that …at least not for a few of us.

  7. Life in Seven Mistakes is a great title. And a book that is compared to The Corrections sounds interesting to me, as I love Jonathon Franzen’s work. But I’m a little hesitatant as I wasn’t really engaged by The Broken Book.

    • Thanks for commenting Annabel … but, hmm, if you didn’t like The broken book I’m not sure this would be for you because I thought The broken book was better and while I think the subject matter is Franzen like, I don’t think she really quite got his bite. I did enjoy reading this book but I don’t think it’s one I’ll remember long down the track.

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