It’s been over a month since I finished reading Elizabeth Jolley’s The Sugar Mother, and I’m still not sure what I think about it.
The story itself is unsettling. Edwin is a past-middle-aged university professor, his wife Cecilia a renowned midwife. When she gets a job in Canada and the UK for a year, Edwin remains at their home in Australia, teaching his classes and being overseen by their mutual friend. While Cecilia is away, Edwin’s next-door neighbours, a mother and daughter, insinuate themselves first into his house, and then into his life, finally convincing him to have a baby with the daughter.
I felt incredibly bad for Cecilia – it was clear, even though the story was told from Edwin’s point of view, that the couple had decided not to have children mutually, and I felt that his agreement to father a child with the young woman was flaunting that decision in her face. But by the end of the novel I also felt bad for Edwin, as doubts start to creep up on him as to whether or not he is in fact the father of the child.
I found the character of Edwin fascinating – his constant referrals to quotes and lectures, his three diaries – the external, the internal and the intangible – and his relationships with the women around him. For he is surrounded by women throughout the novel. First there’s Cecilia, and her friend Vorwickl, then his neighbours who move in, then the friend who’s keeping an eye on him, then the friends who Cecilia has consigned to throw him dinner parties every month. Granted two of them are men, but their almost charming loyalty to their former regiments in the British army (the friends are all British expats) still leaves the un-nationalistic Edwin on the edge.
I’ve read often that Jolley’s work explores loneliness, but reading The Sugar Mother I didn’t get that sense – I was far too far into Edwin’s mind. But writing this review now it becomes painfully obvious that despite the extenuating circumstances of his rather horrid neighbours, Edwin is in fact struggling to deal with Cecilia’s long absence – hardly unusual after 30 long, if open, years of marriage.
Edwin was manipulated rather masterfully by his neighbours, and I did feel bad for him, doddery old fool that he ended up looking. But I still can’t forgive what he did to Cecilia.
I loved some of the descriptions – the pine plantation is so vivid, as are Edwin’s rosebushes. The scene where Lila gets lost in the pines still sticks in my mind, and all I can see is the darkness, smell the pine, feel the wintry cold. Jolley is often seen as a quintessentially Australian writer, and the pines and the cold certainly gel with my Australia, but at the same time this tiny half-block of suburbia could be anywhere in the world, and I love that about the novel too.