Book Review: Domestic Bliss and Other Disasters

“I’ve had a bit of a session with Laura. She’s a young mother. Her baby, Harry, is only four months old and she’s struggling with it a bit. I didn’t like to tell her that I’m an older mother with children in their twenties and I’m struggling with it a bit too. So we discussed her struggles as if I didn’t have any.”

Domestic Bliss and Other Disasters, by Jane Ions, is the most honest depiction of being a parent of grown up children that I have read. It is also hilarious. I don’t mean just mildly humorous, this is laugh out loud funny on numerous occasions. Structured as a sort of diary, the story covers eight months in the life of a woman approaching fifty who questions what she has become since giving up her job as an English teacher.

The narrator, Sally Forth (and yes, she does decry her own name), is married to Bill, a politician. They have two children: Laura, who is married to Ben; and Dan, recently graduated but looking for personal fulfilment rather than a job that pays well. When the book opens, Sally’s long time friend, Jen, has just announced that she is moving north to help look after her grandchildren. Sally is appalled at this willing ‘banishment into servitude’.

“Jen knows me well, and understood that my reasons for wanting her to stay put were purely selfish. A friendship built up over more than twenty years is not easily replaced, however dysfunctional it might have turned out to be.”

The author captures the depressing competitiveness of parenting perfectly, but also the clash between comfort and jealousy when peers face either crises or perceived success.

Laura blames her mother for not warning her how entirely having a baby would change her life (as if she would have listened anyway). When she seeks reassurance that her prenatal freedom and independence will return eventually, Sally doesn’t like to point out that children do not disappear – concerns simply change. Laura expects Sally to be there for her, and to help with Harry occasionally, yet she criticises her mother for putting up with the scenarios Dan drops on her without a thought for how Sally might feel.

Dan’s role in this tale is brilliant, capturing the sanguinity with which he introduces friends to the household, fully expecting anyone he comes home with to be made welcome. He sees no big deal in offering hospitality in his parents’ house where he is put up and fed rent free. When he decides to build an ugly extension made from recycled materials, he looks on Sally’s concerns as stifling his rights and creativity.

Sally does her best to make all comers feel welcome, so much so that some seem in no hurry to leave. As Dan’s extension grows, neighbours threaten to complain to the council. All of this plays out over the Christmas period and into a leadership election that Bill is contending. Sally is struggling to find some direction in her life, all the while firefighting situations her children spring.

The writing is pitched to be light hearted while touching on truths that are rarely acknowledged. Expectations in family dynamics are mined for their irony. The underlying toxicity of many friendships is balanced against the need for reassurance many mothers seekĀ  – that they have not somehow failed their offspring. Sally’s needs are recognised only by Jen, whose daughter is appalled when her mother does not find the role of doting granny enough, and Jen sets out to find herself a man.

If my children read this, I wonder would they may take my empathy with Sally personally and feel affronted – parents being expected to behave as wanted. When quizzed by Laura about certain subjects, Sally understood that honestly is not always the loving response.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and recommend it wholeheartedly to women whose children have grown and who may now find their continuing efforts underappreciated – or to those who wish to understand better how a mother of grown children feels. There is much to laugh about in the absurd situations Sally puts up with, through love and a kind heart.

I don’t suppose any mother of adults will manage to change how they are regarded – homemakers in nests that never quite empty. I’m already hoping there will be another instalment in this saga to enjoy soon.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bluemoose.