BOOK REVIEW: The Woman Who Stole My Life by Marian Keyes
Penguin – Michael Joseph
November 2014, $29.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
Stella Sweeney is back in Dublin. After living the dream in New York for a year – touring her self-help book, appearing on talk shows all over the USA and living it up in her 10-room duplex on the Upper West Side – she’s back to normality with a bang. And she’s got writer’s block.
Stella wants a clean break as she didn’t exactly leave New York on a high. Why is she back in Ireland so soon? Who is it who keeps calling? Stella wants to get back to being the woman she used to be. But can she? And should she?
When Marian Keyes first broke into the literary scene, I was in the middle of my “so grown up I get to read all the horror” phase. I was reading Graham Masterton novels based on Lovecraftian tales and other books about the things that go bump in the night; the gorier the better!
By the time I emerged from this phase and started reading more widely, Marian Keyes was well established, and when I started working in bookshops she had her own section on the shelf. But somehow, though people kept telling me I should give her a try, I never got around to it until now. I don’t like chic-lit where everything is happy, and the conflict is the same from book to book. I want a read to keep me guessing, to keep me interested, to surprise me.
Somehow I had gotten it into my head that Keyes’ books were the light and fluffy, clichéd sort – rather than the complex, interesting, fun sort that I found in The Woman Who Stole My Life.
Stella Sweeney has returned from New York and is attempting to write her second book, but life keeps getting in the way. Not that she’s been struck by any great inspiration, not that she’s able to think of the words, let alone get them down on the page:
But I won’t be all washed up for long. No indeed. Because I’m working. You only have to look at me here at my desk! Yes, I’m working.
… Except I’m not. Looking like you’re working isn’t quite the same thing as actually working. I haven’t typed a single word. I can think of nothing to say.
Tomorrow will be different, I tell myself. Tomorrow will have to be different. There will be lots of writing and lots of productivity, and no Jaffa Cakes. I will not be a woman who lies on her bed, her chest covered with spongy crumbs.
I was wise once, I remind myself, my hands hovering over my keyboard, I can be wise again. With vigour, I type the word ‘Arse’.
Stella’s ex husband, Ryan, has decided to give away everything he owns; his house, his car, his clothes. He’s calling it Project Karma, and he expects the stunt to generate good karma, and, you know, fame. He feels like Stella’s fame should have been his, because he’s the “real” artist in the family, and he’s not willing to listen to reason:
‘No, Stella.’ He’s all but shouting. ‘It should have been me. I’m the one who’s meant to be famous. Not you – me! You’re the woman who stole my life!’
Each alternate chapter is set a few years in the past, around the time that Stella, wife and mother, woke up feeling out of sorts and got progressively worse throughout the day, eventually winding up in the hospital, paralysed and unable to so much as breathe on her own:
Ryan angled my pillow so that I could look at him. ‘So, how are you feeling?’
I stared at him. Paralysed, that’s how I’m feeling. And unable to speak, that’s how I’m feeling.
Then things went skew-ways. Dad got wind that I’d asked to be read to and he arrived, all excited, with a library book in a plastic bag. ‘A first novel-‘ he waved it at me – American chap. Tom Wolfe called him the most formidable novelist of the twenty-first century. Joan put it by specially for you.’
He pulled up a chair and began to read and it was very, very awful.
In the second half of the book, we follow the Stella to New York and on book tours, and finally get to find out what chased her home to Dublin.
The writing is colloquial, easy to read, and the way the story is told out of order keeps the reader coming back for more to find out how all the pieces fit together.
For how much I enjoyed the book and couldn’t put it down, I didn’t love Stella.
She didn’t have a whole lot of personality or drive, she let others treat her terribly, and she was incredibly stubborn and afraid to be open about things, lest she get hurt.
Stella was at her best when around her partner. He brought out her sense of humour and drive, and although she bothered me with her constant jumping to conclusions and thinking the worst of people, I still found myself rooting for her to get her happy ending.
All in all this was a feel good read, but with some serious challenges for the protagonist, and with scenes that will have writers laughing and cringing in turn while imagining themselves in Stella’s shoes.
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