The good: Enjoyed the part of the novel that was set in the 1960s/70s
The not-so-good: I’m still not sure Frank deserved all that effort…
Why I chose it: Have enjoyed Lisa Ireland’s previous novels. Thanks to Penguin for the copy.
Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin)
Rating: 8 out of 10
I really enjoy stories with dual timelines, and The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan shines in that respect by putting Shirley at the forefront at both narratives. This is a story of a woman who hasn’t had it easy and isn’t about to give up, even as she ages.
In the present, Shirley is almost 80 years old and lives with her daughter in Sydney. Her husband Frank has dementia and is in a nursing home. Shirley is not happy about being removed from her home town of Geelong and plots over some time an escape plan for her and Frank. She’s going to break Frank out of the home and return to their home. It’s a road trip with a difference as Shirley navigates subterfuge, technology barriers and the police with her willing (but not comprehending accomplice). Luckily, she has a whole secret team on her side, willing them to escape from the confines of their elderly life. The second narrative is the story of Frank and Shirley’s relationship and how they got to this point. That road is just as bumpy as some of the tracks they travel on!
The story of the couple in the 1960s and 1970s is very well rendered, capturing the details of the time period as well as the prevailing thoughts and trends. This means Frank has very traditional beliefs in things like contraception, mothers working and women’s rights and responsibilities. Unfortunately for me, I just can’t view him through anything but a modern lens. To me, he’s a restrictive dinosaur – such as contraception being a woman’s problem and passing judgment on the time Shirley spends with her best friend Rita. I spent quite a lot of the book wondering why Shirley wanted to break Frank out – was he really worth all that effort and trouble? They seemed to be good friends, but never really in love. I felt Frank (and Shirley’s slightly irrational desire to protect him) didn’t really deserve it. Sure, he’s a good bloke but he prevented Shirley from living and loving the way she wanted. I didn’t really share Shirley’s idea that she owed him (is it really an equal relationship if there is a power imbalance?) but again, I’m looking at this from light years away in women’s independence. The good counter balance to this is Rita, who is an independent woman strongly involved in women’s lib and giving women rights. She’s a powerful character with a lot of passion and patience.
The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan is an easy, pleasant read. The timeline changes just as you want to catch up with either elder and younger Shirley and the ‘escape’ plot is a lot of fun. (I loved how Shirley and Frank were aided and abetted by a group that generally older people don’t know about!) There is a lot of emotion in this book and it is all handled sensitively and realistically. If you’re looking for a character that breaks the mould for women’s fiction, you will find it in Shirley Sullivan.