Things I Want My Daughters to Know is one of those books, with the pastel covers and the potentially heart rending plotline. Elizabeth Noble is one of those authors, with a plethora of novels behind her with titles such as The Reading Group and Alphabet Weekend. I know I shouldn’t be dismissive as sometimes an author has little to no control over art work, and publishers know that shoes and pastels sell to women.
The plot is pretty straightforward – Barbara has died of terminal cancer, leaving behind four daughters and a second husband. It becomes almost like a modernised Little Women, with four very different characters vying for attention in different ways, as well as dealing with the absence of a parent.
There’s Jennifer, the oldest and most staid daughter. Her marriage is falling apart because the wanted child has failed to appear.
Then there’s Lisa, the second oldest and the former wild child. Her long term partner wants to get married but she is afraid of the commitment.
After that there’s Amanda, the wandering nomad who is so averse to confronting her issues that she wasn’t even present for her mother’s death.
The youngest child is Hannah, separated from her sister by decades and blood, as her father is her mother’s second husband, Mark. At nearly sixteen, the loss of her mother is perhaps most keenly felt by her as she struggles to cope with the teenage years without her.
The clever thing about the novel is that Barbara is a character of her own, despite being dead before the first chapter. She comes to life through letters she wrote to her family and a journal she kept throughout her illness. It’s full of anecdotes, memories and advice – the titular things she wants her daughters to know. It turns out, though, that there is a difference between the Barbara that her family knew and the one in the journals.
The one in the journals is full of secrets – she makes mistakes and gets things wrong. This is a departure from the saintly mum the girls remember, and the perfect wife of Mark’s memories.
The rest of the story ambles through the ups and downs of basically the first year without Barbara, as all of the women manage their own struggles, with their mum’s advice in mind. Her husband also manages to begin to make a new life by the end of the book, with some advice from her journal.
There was nothing really wrong with this book, I just didn’t really find it engaging. I also tend to be unaffected by so-called tear-jerkers (unless they’re the donkeys on TV, but I blame the anthropomorphic slant on the advert) and so got to the end of the novel dry eyed. The sisters were all consciously ‘different people’ but I felt that it was a bit too conscious. Maybe I’m just being pernickety – after all, it’s a fictional story, of course it’s going to feel like someone made it up.
People who enjoy an easy read, with familiar characters, will enjoy this. Personally I was looking for something more – deeper, more well rounded characters and less predictable plot lines.
Next week – Joyce Carol Oates’ Rape: A Love Story. Looks like a fun read.