Monday 1 April 2019

(all) The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village

I was immediately drawn to this book as soon as I saw the cover. It's a great cover. So pretty. It's a great title. I was keen. Then I found out that Joanna Nell is a Sydney GP. I was very keen (I do love a doctor/author). And then happily a good friend gave me a copy for Christmas. Even better, I was about to spend a week by the beach in Thailand. I figured that the single ladies of the Jacaranda Retirement Village would make excellent holiday companions- and they certainly did.

Peggy Smart is 79, she's widowed and now moved into a unit at the Jacaranda Retirement Village with her dog Basil. Peggy had a quiet kind of life and marriage. Married to the faithful Ted, Peggy has raised two children Jenny and David, she is a doting grandmother. She wears a bit too much beige, needs a toilet nearby, bakes a mean slice, and has her eye on Brian, the widower next door. 

Peggy did have her own identity, even if she didn't like it. Overweight, self-doubting. She was a nondescript person, an elasticated waistband of a human being. 
Then along comes Angie Valentine, an old friend that Peggy hasn't really seen in 50 years. Friends at school Angie and Peggy lost touch in their twenties and have lead very, very different lives. Angie has been married four times, she is flamboyant, a risk-taker, and hasn't outgrown all her wild girl days. Angie sets her sights on making Peggy over. Together Angie and Peggy make a kind of Patsy and Eddie of the Retirement Village set. 
"You have to stop thinking like an old person. If you behave like an old biddy, people are going to treat you like one. "
Angie starts doing her best to bring Peggy out of her widowed, beige life. 
"You have to accept that Ted's gone now. But you're still here, and there's a lot of life left to live. Start living it."
This overall theme is set before the book even starts with Dylan Thomas' Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night as the epigraph. This is then echoed a few times within the text. 
In a Welsh accent.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 
It's also a meditation on motherhood at times.
What was strange was that Peggy had so few memories of day-to-day motherhood with David and Jenny. It was as though she'd lived those days under a light anaesthetic. But the years were there, plain to see, in a series of grainy photographs. Peggy, Ted and the children, all smiles. Christmas trees and birthday cakes. Tight-skinned summer days with buckets and spades. Memories strung together like bunting with nothing in between. 
Also marriage and friendship, health, and everything else that's important in our lives. I'm at a time of life where I've been making lots of changes in my life, some of which I've wanted, some of which I haven't.  (All) The Single Ladies (sorry but I think of the song every time I think of the title) is a great reminder to take risks, to make changes. To be brave. 
'A ship is safe in harbour,' he would say, 'but that's not what ships are for.'
Peggy has a fall, and her well meaning children hover wanting to help her, to make sure that's she's safe in her harbour at the retirement village. Although Peggy comes to realise that that may not be exactly what she wants. 
It was a game of geriatric bingo. Take it easy. Elevate your legs. Drink more water. At your age.  
Joanna Nell strikes just the right balance of tone, lighthearted and funny at times, serious when it needs to be. Set in the Northern Beaches of Sydney not too far from Big Little Lies- Note to Self- I must rewatch Season 1 in preparation for Season 2 later this year-
A cloud of white birds erupted from a Norfolk Pine near the beach. A young family sat eating sandwiches on the sand across the road from the café. Everywhere, people moved at a Saturday pace, eating their smashed avocado on toast and smiling in the knowledge that the working week was still far in the future. In some ways, Peggy missed weekends. Retirement afforded the luxury of crowd-less weekdays but there was something about the respite from the nine-to-five that had always made Saturday and Sunday special. 
I'm not so sure about that. I'm ready to make the most of uncrowded weekdays. I already enjoy them now due to rotating rosters. Perhaps decades of shift work takes away the thrill of regular weekends?

I expected to do lots of poolside reading, but Thailand in February is pretty hot and after burning my lily white face on the first day (accidentally in the pool) I took to spending the heat of the day in our air-conditioned villa, and read in comfort. I always expect to read way more than I do on holidays. But there are always too many other distractions - naps, walks on the beach, trips to local markets and the delights of two hour breakfasts, and rather long dinners every day. The Single Ladies of the Jacaranda Retirement Village was the perfect length, they kept me company for my whole stay. 

Jean Whittle is a real life Peggy Smart. Retirement villages, and even  nursing homes are going to have to change the way they do things with the coming flood of Baby Boomers, and just the arrival of the twenty first century. 

Joanna Nell has her second book due out later this year. The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker is due for release in September. I'll be there.

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