Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 26, 2019

Modern Interiors (1991), by Andrea Goldsmith

Andrea Goldsmith is one of my favourite authors.  I loved Reunion, and I loved The Memory Trap even more.  This year she has a new book called Invented Lives (Scribe, April) so I wanted to read one of her books beforehand that I’ve had on my shelves since (dare I admit it?) 2008.  I’d read The Prosperous Thief when it was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2003, and so when I found Modern Interiors (1991) in a second-hand bookshop, I knew it was a steal for $5.00.  It turned out to be the perfect antidote to two books I’d borrowed and expected to like, which today went back to the library unread.  This is when ‘standby’ books come into their own, when I’ve had a disappointment and I want to be sure that the next book is going to be good reading.

Modern Interiors has the tagline behind its rich façade the modern interior may not be all it pretends, but this book is a frank exploration into family obligations.  What do we owe them, and what do they owe us? How do we deal with the pressure to hold families together even when they don’t deliver even the most rudimentary satisfactions and you don’t share values that are fundamental to identity and integrity?  I thought about this just yesterday when the ABC reported on a survey about the psychological damage done by the Same-Sex Marriage survey, because I have a friend still traumatised by learning that his family didn’t care, and voted No.

(BTW Modern Interiors features characters who just happen to be gay, as part of the everyday community.)

Families can be thoughtless and cruel, and they can be exploitative.  In Modern Interiors, there are two women, one old and one young, who have problematic families.  Amy Vaughan is young, and has cast off her mother and sister because they are toxic human beings; Philippa Finemore is old and rich, and she struggles with the fact that two of her three children are awful people who just want to use her.

But while Amy feels she is better off without her family, she still needs the kind of support that families are supposed to provide.  She has endured years of soul-destroying confidence-sapping misery which still blights her young life because she is afraid of relationships of any kind.  She needs a mentor, and sometimes, she needs mothering.  Philippa, OTOH, appears to have everything: money, confidence, comfort and style—and a nice man who’s comes into her life since widowhood.  One of her children, the one she likes because he is accepting of her recent choices, is far away in London and though she misses him, she’s happy that he’s fulfilling his dreams. But her other children are openly hostile to her new independence—and deeply resentful that she is spending what they regard as their money on a charitable foundation and a new home at an inconvenient distance when baby-sitting is required.  They are horribly rude to the new man Leo because he’s Jewish, and while one of these children, Gray, is a sententious bore, the other, Melanie, is married to a man who is (to put it #NoSpoilers mildly) a disappointment.  Philippa envies today’s young women with their swag of choices, and she regrets her daughter’s failure to take advantage of those choices—especially since she seems to have struck a Sisyphean bargain with her fifteen-year marriage to the avaricious Selwyn.

Ever since Selwyn Pryor had entered Melanie’s life Philippa had worried about her daughter; now Melanie was thirty-six and still Philippa was worrying.  Not that Melanie asked for her concern, on the contrary, she made a point of appearing satisfied; she was always surrounded by people, held successful dinner parties, was a regular guest at the parties of others, raised money for worthy causes, was demonstratively adoring of her husband.  Yet she seemed to be wasting away; her large frame was pinched and her once expressive face was locked into a few essential masks, her voice was sharp and her smile increasingly rare, and still she insisted she was happy.  Although wasn’t this the bargain struck by all wives?  That, like Sisyphus, they would push their burden through the years, their brows creased with hope, their hearts bursting with anticipation, their minds forever closed to the futility of the task? Isn’t this what Philippa herself had done? (p.20)

Philippa’s burden is not yet complete.  Her children have added ‘widow’ to her roles as ‘mother’ and ‘grandmother’ but it was as if she were invisible to them; Philippa Finemore, widow, mother, grandmother and a person who had finished with being an extension to other people’s lives. 

For several minutes, Philippa had been staring at the windows at the end of the lounge room, glancing across her new life as if it didn’t exist.  Family is like that, she though, it insinuates itself where it doesn’t belong and blocks out everything else. (p.20)

If Philippa at times seems too-good-to-be-true to have such relentlessly horrible offspring, the portrait of Amy as a damaged soul is one of the most poignant in literature.  I have taught children like Amy, kids whose parents favour other siblings and compare them unfavourably at every opportunity.  Amy’s mother is a feckless soul who after a long period of abandonment has now decided that she can waltz back into Amy’s life and be the fantasy mother she imagines herself to be.  Amy fends off the incessant phone calls until one day her mother tracks her down in person, and then she becomes a toxic presence hard to ignore.

Andrea Goldsmith’s novels are driven by characters wrestling with an idea, and so sometimes the conclusion isn’t one that the reader wants to see.  Do either or both of these characters cave in to the demands of family they’d be better off without?  You’ll have to read the novel!

And you can do that, despite the novel coming from the backlist, because I’ve discovered that all of Andrea Goldsmith’s early novels, including two I haven’t got, are available as eBooks. So you can buy Modern Interiors for your Kindle for a mere $9.08AUD, or also apparently at iBookish and iBooks. (I haven’t checked because I don’t play in the iSandpit.)

The cover illustration is by Mitch Vane and the cover design by Ann Wojezuk.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Andrea Goldsmith
Title: Modern Interiors
Publisher: Penguin Australia, 1991
ISBN: 9780140147261
Source: Personal library, purchased second-hand for $5.00AUD



  1. Great review Lisa. I remember enjoying this book immensely when it came out – and I remember the great cover with the Regency Stripe interior decoration. And, I think the title itself is great.

    I enjoyed reading Reunion – who wouldn’t, really, from our demographic – but I didn’t find it particularly memorable.


  2. What a wonderful review – now I want to read this too!


    • Thanks, Carol!
      The more I think about this book the more interesting it is. The mere act of choosing whether to be. or not to be, part of a family is radical, even now…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoyed this review. Families. I have a Trump supporting brother who wants the Mexican wall and it’s all I can do to be civil to him at times. He just doesn’t “get it” in my view so we don’t talk politics at all. I’d like to send Trump somewhere into space. It’s good to know there are books about family dynamics that can change without warning depending on circumstances. Lol Nice to know I’m not alone.


    • Oh absolutely. That’s why Christmas is such a fraught time in many families, because there’s this seemingly obligatory reunion of people who don’t like each other and would rather never have to connect at all. Mothers Day and Father Day are the same: when the conflict is beyond mere dislike but is a relationship that has had a really harmful effect on the offspring, there they are, under pressure seemingly from the entire world, to join in and express sentiments of love for someone who has ruined their life. The apparently harmless question, ‘what are you doing for #InsertTraditionalFamilyCelebration’ can add to the stress and relived trauma because so often these family issues are kept private.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love her books too.



    • Waiting impatiently like me for the next one!


  5. Such a pleasure to have this novel brought back to me. It’s not that you, the author, forget novels, but just like memory selects for real-life events, so, too, for the events and characters of the novels you’ve written. MI was published in 1991. In the years since, whenever I have thought about MI, I’ve thought about Philippa Finemore: she filled my memory, not Amy. It’s a joy to have Amy back – the impossible son and daughter too, but Amy most of all. Thank you, I really have appreciated this.


    • Hello Andrea, how lovely to hear from you:)
      I’m not surprised that Philippa remains so strongly in memory, she’s such a wonderful character, you must have had great fun creating her. But it is Amy who sings to my soul, needy without knowing it, and so brave:)


  6. I’ve loved all of her novels, but this one seems to have slipped through, so it’s on my TBR list. It sounds very good indeed as well as heartbreaking for someone who has similar family troubles… She is such a deep-thinking writer – right up my alley ever since I found my first book of hers – also in a second-hand bookshop – ‘Facing the Music’.


    • I love books that link domestic issues to a bigger picture, and that’s what Andrea does:)


  7. […] Modern Interiors, by Andrea Goldsmith […]


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