Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 21, 2013

Sunnyside (2005), by Joanna Murray-Smith

SunnysideI bought Sunnyside by Joanna Murray-Smith ages ago, when she gave an author talk at my local library, and now I’m feeling rather a fool for having left it so long to read it.  It reminds me that there are some real treasures on my groaning TBR shelf – about 600 books at last count – but I keep adding to it for fear that if I don’t buy a book when I see it, it may vanish off the booksellers shelves because they are so merciless about ditching literary fiction, no matter how good it is.

If you saw my Sensational Snippet from Sunnyside, you will know that the novel is a comedy of manners satirising The Good Life.  Murray-Smith is a well-known playwright here in Melbourne, and she has chosen what is obviously Mt Eliza on the Mornington Peninsula as the setting for a privileged suburb called Sunnyside, with less stylish Frankston masquerading as nearby Deptford.  The main industry in Sunnyside is real estate, and the annual community event is the Real Estate Agents’ Race, aping the inner-city waiters’ race but with estate agents running the course carrying Open For Inspection boards.

The novel begins with the dinner-party revelation that Molly, wife of David and mother of Justin, has been enjoying herself with the man who cleans their pool.  This triggers an existential crisis among their set, some wondering if they too are missing out on sexual adventure and self-fulfilment, and others analysing the purpose and direction of their own marriages.  New temptations arise: a sexy old school friend arrives in Sunnyside, and a university lecturer gets perilously close to a student.   Children on the cusp of adolescence have their own existential crises too: school, of course, but also dismay about parental behaviour, and anxiety about contemporary issues and their own powerlessness in the face of adult indifference.

Indeed, the only flaw in characterisation in this otherwise perfectly constructed novel with its devastating conclusion was Grace, the daughter of Harry and Alice.  Alice is an author who’s lost her mojo in the inertia of the suburbs, and the speeches that eleven-year old Grace delivers in the public-speaking competition seem oddly out-of-place in the sparkling dialogue that flows through this novel.

Murray-Smith offers intriguing food-for-thought in Sunnyside, often with penetrating insights delivered through her characters’ meditations on life, love and lust. She dissects the ambivalence of women constrained by the relentless itinerary of the female body, (p.341); the theatrical bust-up that [makes] people think again (p. 359); and marriage as a calendar:

Alice herself had wondered, what would I be? What would she be without Harry and the children, without the house to fix her to the earth.  A family gave you instant name, purpose, a future composed of graduations and twenty-firsts, of themed anniversaries and surprise birthdays, of family Christmases with their hothouse arguments and festive nibbles. What marriage gave you was a calendar.  And now … and now … Molly had committed this folly, nothing all that amazing really, but in this small community, an act of vibrant self-assertion.  If thoughts were words, Alice thought,  one might hear the whispering across the suburban lawns: Do I dare, do I dare, do I dare? (p. 360)

Sunnyside is an entertaining book, but you may have trouble finding it now.  There were copies on eBay when I looked, and you may be lucky and find a second-hand copy at Fishpond. Or hunt it out at a library, it’s worth tracking down.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Joanna Murray-Smith
Title: Sunnyside
Publisher: Viking Penguin, 2005
ISBN: 9780670042975
Source: Personal library, purchased on the day of the author talk from a table-top bookseller whose name I can’t remember.


Fishpond: Sunnyside


  1. I agree part of my reasoning of the century of translation is that I have so many good books I’ve picked up and not got to that will give me chance to fill in gaps ,all the best stu


    • I’m working my way through my M shelf at the moment, they won’t fit on the shelf so I *must* read some of them, and so far they have all been really good *smile*


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