Life, Death, and Vanilla Slices, a review by Joanna

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Life, Death and Vanilla Slices

Jenny Eclair


Published 2012

352 pages


Don’t judge a book by its cover/title: this looks like fluffy chook-lit, but it’s actually a serious, sad story about an elderly woman and her middle-aged daughter coming to terms with past secrets. I found it in a box of books that my mother bought before she died, but clearly didn’t get around to reading. This one stood out because we used to know the author, who worked for my parents when I was a teenager, before she became a famous comedienne. I read one of her non-fiction books a couple of years ago, but this is the first of her novels that I’ve read.

On paper, Anne Armitage has the ideal life – a long marriage to a successful surgeon, two healthy sons, a beautiful house in a nice part of London and a satisfying if undemanding career as a teacher in a private school – so why is she so unhappy? Well, her sons are brats, she has nothing in common with her husband, she’s unhappy with her body and keeping up with the neighbours is exhausting. When she receives word that her widowed mother Jean has been hospitalised after a hit & run, she races back to her hometown, and the difficult mother-daughter relationship she left behind. Meanwhile Jean, locked into her broken body, looks back on her life reflecting on what went wrong.
As mentioned, this is not a light read, but there is a lot of bleak humour, although not the laugh out loud kind. I was actually expecting it to be funnier, but instead this is a well written family drama about two mostly unlikeable women who become progressively more sympathetic as we learn what they’ve gone through. I could totally relate to little Anne – studious and shy, and a disappointment to her parent for being clever rather than pretty. Jean’s gradual realisation of her mistakes is heartbreaking.
I have a virtualshelf called “why cats are better than children” and this one definitely belongs there. Anne’s offspring are truly awful – but probably not atypical – and her bewilderment at what she could’ve done to make them that way is pitiful. This truly is a warning that the traditional “Happy Ever After” can turn out to be anything but! Overall I liked this in spite of the present tense narration, although I was slightly disappointed by the ending, as I would’ve liked more resolution of various plot threads – and a happier outcome although the one we get is more true to life. I’ll definitely be on the look out for more of Ms Eclair’s fiction.

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