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