What to say? What to say?
Confession 1: Although I love Marian Keyes so much I’d drink her bath water, I don’t like The Woman Who Stole My Life.
I adore Keyes so much that it genuinely saddens me to write that; and it gets worse.
Confession 2: Apart from The Mystery of Mercy Close, I’ve struggled with her last three novels.
These are words that I never thought I’d say about the author of Watermelon; one of my favourite books of all time. I discovered Keyes about twenty years ago when my best friend’s mum gave me an advance copy of Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married and I have adored her ever since. Usually classed as a chicklit author, Keyes has always seemed a cut above the rest; with fuller characters, smarter dialogue and much funnier jokes. Usually when the blurb says a novel is ‘laugh-out-loud funny!’ you can expect a couple of smirks at best, but I remember laughing till I cried at Watermelon.
Funnily enough, I’d always heard that it was Los Angeles that was full of nutters, not New York.
The Woman who Stole my Life focuses on Stella Sweeney, an Irish mother of two, working with her sister in a beautician business and married to successful interior designer-cum-frustrated artist Ryan. Her hum-drum life is knocked wildly off-course when she succumbs to the rare Guillian-Barre Syndrome which renders her paralysed except for her eyes. Her illness, and eventual recovery, lasts eleven months and the novel examines the repercussions of this experience on Stella, her family and her friends.
The relatively straight-forward story is made more interesting by a twin track structure which shows us Stella now, living back in Ireland with her son after something has gone horribly wrong, and extracts from her own book which details her illness and hospital experience.
So, the story is good, the structure tantalises and yet… I just didn’t like it. The problem is there’s not a single likeable character in the book.
She’s the centre of the novel, but Stella has no discernible personality. I desperately wanted to like her, but her most definitive character feature is her complete inability to stand up for herself, ever. Instead of identifying with the hero, or rooting for her, I found myself shouting; “Get a bloody spine woman!” many, many times.
Everyone else in the novel is selfish, self-centred and almost completely devoid of empathy. Excepting love-interest Mannix who is very caring and cordially disliked by everyone, and Stella’s sister Karen who distinguishes herself by being the most spectacular bitch. I suspect she’s meant to come across as the straight-talking, no-nonsense type that Keyes drew so beautifully in the Walsh family novels; but instead she just seems mean. The silver medal goes to Ryan who is completely vile. By the end of this book I actually started to wonder if Keyes was writing a particularly spiteful world, or if I just know an unusually high number of nice people.
The other thing that I struggled with is the idea that Stella becomes a writer. Her self-help book, One Blink at a Time starts off a self-published pamphlet of ‘sayings’ that Stella blinked out when she was sick. The novel hinges on the idea that Stella can, with no background in writing at all, get a publishing deal, write almost an entire book about her experience and write lots of supporting articles to publicise it while maintaining a range of social media channels to promote herself. I write for a living and I’m not sure where I’d start with all that.
It’s not all bad. The usual Keye’s hallmarks are there; beautiful insights, pop culture references and a wonderful ear for dialogue, but ultimately if you’re looking for a funny, clever, bittersweet novel read Watermelon instead. In fact just read Watermelon anyway, it’s ace.