Reviewed by Laura Marriott
Meet Stella Sweeney, a Dublin wife, mother and beautician in her early forties. Stella’s chaotic but seemingly content life is abruptly interrupted before spiralling in directions she could have never imagined, before landing Stella back where she started but as a very different person.
This is Marian Keyes 12th novel. For nearly twenty years she has been writing massively successful commercial fiction that instantly tops bestsellers list on their release. This has resulted in over 26 million book sales worldwide and a buzz of interest with each new novel. For Keyes’ most recent creation she has created Stella, an unashamed optimist without an ounce of self-pity, who when pushed by life comes out fighting. Stella’s narrative voice is clear, friendly and easy to relate to. As she navigates through this tumultuous period in her life she avoids getting lost in introspection or pity, but instead brings a positivism and relentless desire to keep going to the novel.
Despite this Stella’s life is increasingly disatisfactory. Her workaholic husband has less and less time for her or the family, leaving Stella to deal with two teenage children as they start to navigate the murky waters of relationships and sexuality. Although she enjoys her job and looks after her children Stella’s life is distinctly lacking in passion. This is something that she doesn’t find until she meets a charismatic, complex doctor when she is suddenly struck down with a rare paralysing illness. This new relationship will take Stella and her family on a journey they could never have imagined before landing them back in Dublin, somewhat bruised by life and unsure of the future.
Set in the fictional suburb of Ferrytown the novel is populated by Stella’s aspirational working class Irish family, her new middle class friends, New York literary socialites and hangers on, and Stella’s husband and love interest – not the same man.
A recurrent theme throughout the novel is karma. The Woman Who Stole My Life begins with Stella trying to do a good turn when she lets a car back out of a tight corner, only to inadvertently cause a three car accident leaving her car a write off and bitterly questioning the existence of karma. But karma keeps coming back. Keyes continually questions whether good things balance out the bad or whether the universe will provide, as in the end people get what they deserve.
The novel’s resolution is particularly realistic and may not sit well with fans of Keyes hoping for a simple replication of her earlier novels. One aspect for joy is the fact that as Ms Keyes ages so do her protagonists. For those tired of reading about University life and the fear of turning thirty this is the perfect antidote. In an interview with Independent.IE, Keyes says
I think there is nothing that has given a voice to the vulnerability of women in their late 30s and their 40s. We’re more experienced and in many ways we’re wiser, but we’re still vulnerable to pain. In some ways, life gets easier, you’re better at saying no and you know your limitations, but you’ve feelings; you still love and you still lose.
The novels skips between the past and the present; where we see Stella back in Dublin, separated from her husband, single and close to penniless. Her daughter Betsy is living in New York and her unconventional teenage son is obsessed with yoga and meditation. Husband Ryan is a frustrated artist and his wife’s sudden creative ascent leaves him baffled and bewildered at the world around him. Old characters have to take a new look at themselves and find they do not entirely recognise themselves or their situations.
It takes time for the novel to catch up with Stella as the events of the past year unfold. How did this happen? What happened in New York that led to this point?
Its tongue in cheek look at the publishing industry humorously compares the treatment of writers in the US compared to Ireland. The struggle of a frustrated writer failing to write their next bestseller chimes with truth that could only have been written so clearly by one who has been through it.
Is it possible for everything to go back to how it used to be for Stella, or will her life change irrevocably?
One thing that the novel does exceptionally well, with a real truth and humanity, is its depiction and discussion of illness; what it feels like to be the one suffering and the reaction of loved ones. The writing remains balanced and touched with humour when tackling the darker side to life and illness. The complicated and dependent relationship between doctor and patient is shown and the frustration, pain, boredom and feelings of uselessness of those around is delicately done.
Stella’s rare illness, Guillain-Barré syndrome, leaves her completely paralysed except for the ability to blink. If her family were ill-equipped to deal with her hospitalisation, they were even more ill-equipped to deal with her recovery, with her son at one point stating what everyone else was feeling ‘This was your fault, you shouldn’t have gotten ill’. Further, her illness and chance meeting with a charismatic and interesting doctor sets in motion a chain of events that no one could have imagined.
The second half of the novel focuses in more on her adventures in New York and eventual downward return back to Dublin. The rest of the world starts to see Stella as a writer possessed with great wisdom, and sage after her miraculous recovery; however behind the image she is still the same woman and mother, more at home in a beauticians salon than the literary circuit.
The children’s characters could have done with more development and the husband could have done with more filling out; he was not the most likeable of characters. Stella’s family showed great comic potential and also the ability to tug at the heart strings. It would be nice to see more of these characters in future novels.
Although not quite as sharp as Keyes’s earlier literary offerings, The Woman Who Stole My Life remains charming, brimming with Irish with and humour. However darker undertones come closer to the surface and a slightly rushed ending prevent this from being one of her greatest. For a novel that will have you laughing from the beginning, this is the book to go for.
Laura Marriott is a historian, theatre critic, writer and poet.
Marian Keyes, The Woman Who Stole My Life (Michael Joseph, London, 2014) 978-0718155339, hardback, 544 pp.