Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 27, 2008

The Good Parents (2008), by Joan London

good-parentsJoan London is the celebrated author of Gilgamesh – which was short-listed for the Miles Franklin and won the 2002 The Age Book of the Year fiction prize – but despite high praise from the critics, The Good Parents seems to have sunk without a trace, not even longlisted in the major prizes and not given much prominence in my favourite bookshops.  It hasn’t shown up in anyone’s Top Ten, or BBRLMs as far as I can remember.  Odd, because it’s a very interesting book and I bet it would make a very good choice for a book group discussion.

It must be synchronicity that –  at this time of the year when (in daylight hours) I am finally starting War and Peace (the new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) – Tolstoy’s great work should be the framework for this other novel that I have as a bedside book.  The references are explicit.  Jacob de Jong, father of the missing girl, had, as an adolescent on swot-vac, abandoned his studies for the Leaving Certificate to read War and Peace instead.  Thereafter Jacob feels influenced by what he calls the ‘Tolstoy Effect’: a distrust of himself, a suspicion that whenever there was something that he should do, something vital, he should occupy himself doing something else. (p78)

And so he does, even in middle age.  When he and his wife Toni arrive in Melbourne from Warton (a small country town in WA) to visit their daughter, only to find her missing, – they avoid dealing with it.  They move in with Celine, Maya’s flatmate; they go out into Carlton to see the sights, Toni goes off into a Buddhist retreat for a bit, and Jacob contemplates a dalliance with Celine.  It’s not a hard-hearted, uncaring response, but rather a way of coping, as if it will take their minds off their anxiety about what has happened to Maya.

The story is full of missing people.  Arlene, Jacob’s mother is psychologically absent, too absorbed in her dreams of being a couturier to take much notice of her children.  She certainly doesn’t grieve for Anton, her husband, a sailor who went missing in Durban.  She becomes a missing person herself when she subsequently attracts the attention of a creepy neighbour and has to ‘disappear’ to Perth to escape him. 

Toni, Maya’s mother, went missing from the life planned for her.  She attracted the attention of Cy Fisher – and on the day of her sister’s wedding – left the reception to go off with him and become part of his disreputable family instead.  She subsequently vanishes entirely when she eventually abandons Cy and disappears into the remote southwest of WA with Jacob.  Maya repeats her mother’s behaviour when she too disappears from an important family occasion (the reunion with her parents).  She feels similar compulsions to her mother: she feels she just ‘has to’ leave Warton, and she feels strangely attracted to a life and a type of man not planned for her.  

Maya’s employer, Maynard Flynn, is another missing person: he is psychologically absent because of his dying wife, Dora.  For reasons not made entirely clear, Flynn leaves Melbourne in great haste after Dora’s death, taking Maya with him.  He’s twice her age, and not very attractive, but she’s a loner with no friends anywhere, and she just disappears….

This ‘running-away-with-a-stranger’ theme recurs when Chris – next-door neighbour to the de Jongs in Warton, and responsible for keeping an eye on Magnus while the parents are in Melbourne – vanishes to America to meet up with a chatroom boyfriend.

war-and-peaceBut back to War and Peace….

There are other resonances besides ‘the Tolstoy Effect’.  Like Pierre, the (nearest there is to a central character in War and Peace),  Jacob also has a war to deal with.  Though he escapes the draft, he wonders if he should have joined up anyway.  Like Pierre he is a clumsy, illegitimate young man with no money, wanting glory.

Why do I struggle? He thought, with Pierre. Why am I troubled in this narrow, cramped routine, when life, all life, with all its joys lies open before me? …..I want glory! I want to be beloved by people I don’t know! (p71)

He references his rather patronising relationship with Carlos, his next-door neighbour, to War and Peace as well. He takes the trouble to hunt down the line that encapsulates his feeling when he, the teacher, turns Carlos the ex-junkie mechanic into a film buff: They say men are better friends when they are utterly different (p152).  While he is attracted to the simple, honest life that Carlos leads, Jacob does so with an undamaged sense of his intellectual and social superiority.

Like Pierre, Jacob is essentially kindhearted, but is socially awkward owing to his goodhearted, open nature.  Like Pierre marrying Hélène, he enters into the relationship with Toni against his own better judgement.  His Tolstoyan quest is to be a better man, a ‘noble slob’ and to live a moral life in an ethically imperfect world, but his quest is doomed.  Whereas his sister Kitty is a gifted teacher, his work in a country high school is mundane, and his efforts to write something of note are trite.  Like Pierre, he doesn’t achieve anything much in life.

Jacob/Pierre is contrasted with the elegant, intelligent and successful Cy, sexy seducer of Toni, and modelled on Prince Andrei Bolkonsky.  Ambitious and amoral Cy emits undefined threats of violence, but he mellows in middle age.  It is to him and his shady contacts that Toni turns for help in the search for Maya. 

The Good Parents ends with Jacob remembering the last lines of Paradise Lost. Adam and Eve have lost their innocence and are cast out of the Garden of Even…

They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow/Through Eden took their solitary way’

and he muses: You can never keep the serpent out. (p346)  The serpent, for Jacob, is the evil that befell his daughter despite the simple paradise of Warton; it is Cy, resurfacing into his life; and it is also his own temptation to stray. 

This is a very clever book indeed and very satisfying.  I expect to find more resonances with War and Peace as I read on!

Author: Joan London
Title: The Good Parents
Publisher: Vintage
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Readings $32.95


  1. Well, well, – on the very day I blog this book with the judgement that it seemed to have ‘sunk without a trace’ and missed out on any literary award – I am alerted by Narelle (ANZLL) to the results of the ABC Radio National Bookshow’s poll – which includes The Good Parents among the top reads for 2008. It seems that the Bookshow’s audience is more discerning than some of our award judges!


  2. Interesting review Lisa – I like particularly how it is informed by your current reading of War and peace (a book I have started twice and given up both times, not through lack of enjoyment so much as life getting in the way. I may get to it yet). Anyhow, I too enjoyed The good parents, though perhaps not quite as much as Gilgamesh. I thought she drew the characters really well, and liked the way she paralleled various stories, such as the runaway daughter, as you have covered in your review. Another interesting parallel is that between Jacob and Cy – both lovers of Toni, and both essentially brought up in single mother families but both taking pretty diametrically opposed paths in life. And then Jacob, Toni and Maya all have younger siblings who provide a point of contrast for their older sibling.

    It’s a generous and forgiving book too in that the characters are flawed in a pretty real way, and yet the author does not judge. I like that, the way she lays it out for us to see and consider. I’m glad it’s getting some recognition.


  3. Yes, I think that London’s strength is her characterisation: she is good at crafting a story around eccentricity and difference. I like the way her characters surrender to impulse, are drafted by compulsions and muddle through life just as most of us do.


  4. […] London’s The Good Parents shows the wicked influence of the bright lights of Melbourne.  Maya (the missing daughter) is that […]


  5. […] The Good Parents, by Joan London […]


  6. […] for 2009.  He’s up against some stiff competition (People of the Book, The Pages, Wanting, The Good Parents) but it’s a terrific book, so who knows? (I’m glad I don’t have to choose […]


  7. […] think.  (I’m still bemused by the omission of Joan London’s The Good Parents (see my review) from the MF listings a year or so ago, and then there is Kate Grenville’s perennial omission […]


  8. Wonderful review Lisa – you have picked up on all the subtleties I felt when reading it but couldn’t quite articulate when I was trying to write about why I enjoyed it so much. The Tolstoy references are fantastic – like you, I wish more people knew about Joan London & I’m really hoping she has another novel for us soon! I’m going to look up her short stories in the meantime 0:)


    • Thanks, Tracey, I wish I knew someone at her publishers so that I could contact them to find out about a forthcoming book…


  9. […] For another, much more intellectual, take on this novel, please see Lisa of ANZLitLover’s review. […]


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