The Wilder Aisles 

Janice Wilder has been a legend of Sydney bookselling for over 40 years.

March 2019

Gleebooks Bookshop - Tuesday, February 26, 2019
Last year, one of my favourite books was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, so when I saw ‘perfect for fans of Eleanor Oliphant’ on the cover of The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr I knew it was a must-read. While there are some similarities, there also differences. Both Elvira and Eleanor are  loners, although Elvira lives with her mother, and some time father, she spends a great deal of her time in her room—often in bed under her doona. She is what you could call a ‘biscuit expert’—she knows everything there is to know about biscuits—who they were made by, when they first appeared—and many other biscuit facts that she loves to share with whoever will listen—which is partly why she doesn’t function too well in the world outside her home. Her mother considers Elvira to be ‘socially-challenged’ so she keeps her at home to avoid incidents—I guess she could seem over-protective—but it’s mainly for her own sake, as she wishes to avoid the embarrassment Elvira’s encounters with strangers causes her. Elvira has no edit button in her dealings with the people she meets—she says exactly what she is thinking, regardless of the consequences. But when her mother has a stroke and enters a nursing home, the 27-year old Elvira, who has never lived on her own is suddenly left to fend for herself. From then on Elvira’s life begins to change. She makes a spreadsheet with her seven rules which  she intends to be her guide to independent living—soon learning that rules are not written in stone and can change according to circumstances. It is a hard lesson for her, as she is incapable dissimulation. With the help of Sylvia, her next door neighbour, her visits to the nursing home to see her mother, and her job at the animal sanctuary, Elvira starts to feel her way through her new life. Only to be suddenly faced  with a mystery about her father—who she thought had been in the secret service, travelling the world—but new information comes to light, leaving her confused and distressed. How Elvira solves this mystery with the help of a stranger who appears at her door, makes for very thought-provoking reading. While this is a sad book in some ways, there are also many uplifting moments—especially as Elvira gradually finds herself living a life she never knew was possible.

Sometime ago I wrote about a book called Drinking the Rain by Alix Kates Shulman. It is one of my favourite books and I have read it at least twice, maybe three times. It tells of the time Shulman spent on an island off the coast of Maine. Living on her own with no electricity or other benefits of modern life, she finds a new independence and a growing sense of oneness with the natural world. Foraging for & planting what she eats—including sea weed and mussels, she learns how to be self-sufficient and minimise waste—building a new life for herself that is richer in so many ways. However, what I really want to talk about is a book I chanced on by accident. It is a novel by Shulman that I had never heard of. 

The book is called Ménage, and it is great fun— even though perhaps it’s not be meant to be. Heather and Mack McKay are living the good life. He is a very successful developer and she is a writer. Currently she can only manage a weekly column for a environmental magazine after the birth of their children. However, they both feel something is missing from their lives—a vague sense that the despite the high salary, the big house, the BMW in the garage and all the other outward signs of success, they are really not living fulfilled lives. When Mack, who still works in the city, (commuting from the burbs), meets by chance exiled writer Zoltan Barbu he is much taken by Zoltan’s looks—his long hair, his goatee and his habit of wearing a long cloak. He is also mesmerised by Zoltan’s piercing gaze. Mack, who has been looking for a cultural trophy to display, invites him to come and live with he and Heather— thus creating the eponymous ‘ménage’. Heather is as thrilled as Mack, looking forward to long literary chats, discussing authors and their works, and maybe even getting some help with her own writing. At first all goes well—Zoltan is everything they wanted him to be, even though the drinking and talking until all hours becomes difficult for Mack, who is still commuting to the city. Left alone with Zoltan, Heather, who has always suspected Mack of cheating on her, and has often wished she could maybe have herself a piece of that cake—is tempted by this  gorgeous, exotic man, right there in her own house. Her attempt at seduction is sad and comic. 

Of course it all ends in disaster, but Heather and Mack, being the kind of people they are, take it in their stride. Mack writes it off as a bad investment (of which he has had quite a few), and Heather gets down to writing the short stories she left off writing when the children came along—typing furiously with a photo of Zoltan hanging in front of her. What of Zoltan? Last seen in Paris! This was one of those books I didn’t know how much I liked and how funny I found it until it was all over. At one stage I almost gave up, the characters were so unlikeable, but I didn’t—and I came to understand and really like them. There is even a quote from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon about property, of course said to Mack by Zoltan. Well worth a read, very entertaining and a complete contrast to the Drinking the Rain—but then again maybe not. Loved it. Janice Wilder

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