Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 8, 2019

The Weekend, by Charlotte Wood

The Weekend is a welcome return to form for Charlotte Wood. The unforgiving, hard-edged, bleak anger of The Natural Way of Things is replaced by the subtle explorations of human frailty that I so admired in her previous novels: The Submerged Cathedral, (2004); The Children (2007) and Animal People (2011).  However, in The Weekend, Wood’s focus is not on the claims of family but on the enduring bonds of female friendship, (a theme also explored in exquisite and painful clarity by Margaret Merrilees in Big Rough Stones).

Now in their seventies but all high-achieving women in their former careers, Jude, Wendy and Adele make their separate ways to the (fictional) coastal town of Bittoes, to clear out Sylvie’s house for sale.  They are grieving for Sylvie, who until her recent death, had made them an inseparable foursome of longstanding.  But now despite the three women knowing each other better than their own siblings, Sylvie’s death had opened up strange caverns of distance between them.

Each one has reason to resent Sylvie’s lover Gail, who has debunked to Dublin—the Paddington house cleared out, one go, wiped out like a sick bowl—leaving them with the job of cleaning the beach house, and with the impending loss of a place dear in all their hearts.  All of them would be alone, were it not for each other: Jude’s married lover Daniel is as usual spending Christmas with his family; Wendy’s much-loved husband Lance died some years ago; and Adele knows that she has worn out her welcome with her latest lover Liz.

Daughters, BTW, do not come out well in this novel: Liz’s daughter is the bully who forces Adele’s departure; Daniel’s daughter is savagely cruel to Jude; and Wendy’s daughter Claire with her ice-cold perfect manners would shock me too if The Offspring behaved in the same way:

Where did a person learn that smooth, corporate-management way of speaking to her own mother?  Whenever Wendy spoke to Claire on the phone it was like ringing a complaints hotline; the assertiveness training did all the work. Unfortunately I’m unable to offer.  What I propose is.  If Wendy had to write down an emergency contact on a form she put Claire, but sitting here now she thought how mistaken this was, because Claire might not actually come if her mother were, say, found in bloody, fleshy shreds on the road.  She would make some calls and go back to work.  She would send flowers to the funeral.  (p.16)

Jude the martyr, Jude the boss reminded me so much of one of the very few people that I really dislike that I had trouble understanding why the others wanted her in their lives.  A once-famous restaurateur, and insufferable snob, Jude’s default is to sneer contemptuously at other people’s inadequate standards in food, clothing, cars, and home décor.  Adele has the temerity to remonstrate with her about her criticism of Wendy’s driving, and gets only disdain in response:

‘You didn’t need to be so brutal,’ said Adele.

But Jude only sniffed.  ‘It’s time she was told, she might be more careful,’ and returned her gaze to the ocean, vast and blue.

Adele watched Jude standing there, tall and straight-backed, a chic older woman at the beach.  She wore an oversized, very fine straw hat and big black sunglasses, the hems of her black linen pants loosely rolled, and a white muslin short trailing flatteringly past her slim hips.  Even her feet no longer looked sad, but elegant in her black Birkenstocks.  The frailty Adele had seen in the car was gone; Jude was back in command.

Be careful, Adele wanted to say.  It was dangerous business, truth telling. (p.125)

Indeed it is, as we see in the stormy conclusion.

Wendy brings Jude’s contempt down on herself from the moment she sets out in her dented red Honda with Finn, an ageing dog with the kind of unhygienic habits that are hard to love.  As I used to say about my dear old Chifley, I hope someone will love me when I’m old and useless the way we went on loving him.  Finn is too old and frail to be left behind in kennels, but Jude is intransigent.  He has to stay outside.  Of course I was always going to dislike Jude…

Wendy, a public intellectual with an international profile, thinks that everybody hated old people now…

…it was acceptable, encouraged even, because of your paid-off mortgage and your free education and your ruination of the planet. And Wendy agreed.  She loathed nostalgia, the past bored her.  More than anything, she despised self-pity.  And they had been lucky, and wasteful.  They had failed to protect the future.  But, on the other hand, she and Lance had had nothing when they were young.  Nothing! The Claires of the world seemed to forget that, with all their trips to Europe, their coffee machines and air conditioners and three bathrooms in every house.  And anyway, lots of people, lots of women—Wendy felt a satisfying feminist righteousness rising—didn’t have paid-off mortgages, had no super.  Look at Adele, living on air. (p.17)

I think we are all becoming more aware of homelessness among older women as a growing matter of urgency, and my reading of Meg Mundell’s We Are Here, Home, Place and Belonging was a vivid reminder that it can happen to anyone.  In this novel, Wood demonstrates with appalling clarity how Adele, with a stellar career in theatre now behind her, has no money, no home and not even a car as a possible refuge:

[Adele] stared out of the window and she felt the familiar fear crawling towards her through the long grey corridors of the train.  She had seen them on two or three television reports now.  It was an issue, a growing epidemic, the homelessness of older women.  She watched these foolish, acquiescent women, exposing themselves on national television.  Offering their small, ashamed smiles to reporters as they tried to explain—unsatisfactorily, hopelessly—how things had come to this.  […] Women who had once been safe, and loved, but who had not been careful with money, who had not paid attention. Who hoped things would get better somehow. First they stayed with friends, with their children, but then things happened, things got worse. And now they lived in their cars, cast unwanted into the ugly suburbs. (p.56)

Wood also shows — almost as an afterthought that some readers might miss — how homelessness can also happen in less predictable ways.  (And these are all middle-class women).

Wood skewers the unfairness of life in all kinds of ways.  Sylvie’s house is built on a hill so steep it has an inclinator to hoist people and things upstairs.  Adele, near destitute as she is, thinks of herself as an actress [holding] a permanent ticket in a magnificent global lottery with the fantasy possibility of sudden fame, riches raining down upon you.  She ruminates on the silver and green view below:

If you were very rich, nature would be yours to possess.  It surrounded you, it was wilderness owned by nobody, and yet by being rich you could have dominion over the bays and the shores; even the streets below were yours to claim or dismiss, as you wished.  You could look down in a peaceable, generous way over all the dull, ugly details… the unpaid bills, the leaf blowers, the women who lugged sacks of linen to holidaymakers from house to house, who waddled up driveways in their leggings and baseball caps and t-shirts, carrying buckets, hoisting vacuum hoses over their shoulders. (p.69)

For those of us further along the timeline of our lives than we might prefer, The Weekend can be sobering reading, but it’s often disarmingly funny too.

As Kerryn Goldsworthy says in her review at the SMH, this richly textured novel is about so many things that it’s hard to do justice to all of them.  She’s right—and the best solution to that is to get a copy and read it.  Again and again.

Update 9/12/19 Following on from the discussion below about the homelessness of older women I have (thanks to my dear friend Mairi Neil who is active in so many causes) located HAAG, Housing for the Aged Action Group.  You can add your voice to others who are gravely concerned about this by joining for a mere $5, (pensioners for free) and you can do what I did and donate at the same time.  It is important to join even if like me you enjoy secure housing, because politicians take notice of numbers.  They need to know that lots of people care about this social issue and want something done about it.

Author: Charlotte Wood
Title: The Weekend
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2019, 256 pages
Cover design: I’m not sure… On the verso page Sandy Cull from gogoGinkgko is credited with the internal design, but it doesn’t say who did that pitch-perfect cover.  On the back cover it says that the cover design is by Sandy Cull and Shutterstock. Thanks to Sue from Whispering Gums for picking this up, see comments below.
ISBN: 9781760292010
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin, with thanks to publicist Jane Finemore from Finemore Communications.

Available from Fishpond: The Weekend and bookshops everywhere.

 


Responses

  1. I’ll read this review, when I read the book with my reading group next January. But, I did see your opening sentence and of course I disagree. I thought The natural way of things was an excellent book. But, I am greatly looking forward to this. Everyone I hear from loves it.

    Like

    • *chuckle* You are not alone. Lots of people disagree with my lack of enthusiasm for TNWOT. I just hope lots of people agree with my opinion about this one.

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  2. Hi Lisa, I am with you on both books. No one in my reading group liked The Natural Way of Things. My reading group will read The Weekend during the year. I think they will, like me, relate to the women in the story.

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    • I think it would be a marvellous book for reading groups. There are so many things to talk about…
      One that I didn’t mention in my review was mothers, that is, the (deceased) mothers of the women in the story. The women found themselves thinking in the same critical way as their mothers did, and were appalled by it, and did some stern self-talking to stop themselves doing it again. (Been there, done that myself!)
      I used to think that there was something unique about our generation of feminists and our mothers… that they felt a kind of resentment about the opportunities we had that were denied to them. But now I think that the mothers of women who stepped up during WW1 and WW2 would have felt the same.

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  3. I think the Weekend is just ordinary middle class writing, and I think Wood misunderstands being 70, whereas The Natural Way of Things was buzzing with ideas and energy.

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    • Yes, I agree re The natural way of things, and love how you say it. But I will have to see whether I agree that she misunderstands being 70 – not that I’m there yet, but I’m closer to it than she is.

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    • #WagsFinger Bill, there is *nothing* ordinary about Wood’s writing. If she wrote about something as mundane as traffic lights changing, it would be arresting prose.

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  4. Onto the list, thanks Lisa

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    • Hi Guy, good to hear from you! Has it been released where you are?

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      • No. It’s never predictable with Australian books. Sometimes they will appear for kindle only at a very reasonable price but most often I have to seek out a used or new copy via the web.

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        • You might have better luck with this one because Allen and Unwin have a UK imprint.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree that The Natural Way of Things was buzzing with ideas, but I just didn’t accept them – lol. I will be 70 in two years, and have friends in that age group. Friendship misunderstandings begin before you reach 70. The Weekend is a lighter read, but the characters are real, and so are the situations they encounter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think our friendships go through phases: when we’re young, we expect our friends to have the virtues that matter to us, with loyalty and honesty and ‘being there for us’ being high on the list. Sometimes a friendship ends because friends, being human, can’t always live up to these standards. As you move into mature adulthood, you learn to understand this, and you accept that friends have flaws just like you do. For some of us, leaving things unsaid is the best way of handling this. Then age moves on, and we realise that our friends have always seen through our masks of disapproval, and that they’ve been leaving things unsaid as well.
      The novel shows how anger over minor irritations can stir up long held resentments and that truth telling is indeed a dangerous business.

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  6. This one looks to be well discussed. I too did not like The Natural Way of Things. Women’s relationships are so interesting as they are always contested in some way through what is considered ‘natural’ responses and expectations. Much to discover as more of our lives are represented through fiction and memoir. And hopefully the awful circumstances that women find themselves in may be addressed more seriously. Every day I observe more women of all ages living rough and disinterest from those in power to this awful reality. Charity is not the answer to this disgraceful situation in a country with so much wealth. Shameful.

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    • Good point, Fay, about how female relationships are contested, and it makes me think of something that this novel has in common with TNWOT. With the exception of Jude whose irritations are always deduced, the women are tactful with each other, suppressing their feelings until there is an explosion of anger. Although it causes enormous heartbreak, it has a cleansing effect, as if Wood is saying, again, ‘Look, there is a time and a place for female anger’…
      I leave it to book groups to decide whether anything has been resolved by the end of the novel!

      Like

      • PS I feel helpless about the homelessness of older women. When we were young, we knew which groups to support to get action on women’s issues, but now, the Sisterhood seems too fractured to do anything about this. We need a national organisation that can speak on behalf of all of us who care, and be funded to lobby governments and get something done.
        Whatever happened to WEL?
        *pause*
        I looked it up: see here https://www.wel.org.au/affordable_housing
        The website looks like it’s the NSW branch but hosting the national organisation, and they have a national policy. But how do we support it, other than joining it?
        Victoria’s website doesn’t even mention affordable housing, maybe I should join them and suggest that they do…
        I can’t see anything relevant at the Union of Australian women, but I have a friend there, and will ask her if she knows anything.

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        • PPS Following on from this discussion about the homelessness of older women I have (thanks to my dear friend Mairi Neil who is active in so many causes) located HAAG, the Housing for the Aged Action Group. You can add your voice to others who are gravely concerned about this by joining for a mere $5, (pensioners for free) and you can do what I did and donate at the same time. It is important to join even if like me you enjoy secure housing, because politicians take notice of numbers. They need to know that lots of people care about this social issue and want something done about it.

          Like

  7. I have a copy to read, and I’m looking forward to it.

    Like

    • I predict that you will like it too:)

      Like

  8. […] Charlotte Wood, The weekend : novel, on my TBR, Lisa’s review […]

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  9. […] Other People’s Houses is also a salutary tale for women of a certain age, because an abrupt change in our personal lives is what eventually happens to most of us.  It is very common for women to become unpartnered late in life, and after a lifetime of being part of a couple, to have to learn to live alone.  It happened to both my mothers-in-law, who thrived, and my mother, who to her own surprise did not. It has happened to a number of my friends.  I don’t think  And in Hilary McPhee’s case, this unmooring coincided with a frightening crisis in her health. Friends, family, children and neighbours carry her through, reminding me of Charlotte Wood’s celebration of female friendships in The Weekend.  […]

    Like

  10. […] The Weekend, by Charlotte Wood […]

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  11. […] The Weekend by Charlotte Wood (Allen and Unwin), see my review […]

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  12. […] Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed the book. […]

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  13. I really enjoyed your review, partly because you took a slightly different tack than I did, so shared some really fabulous quotes that I didn’t! I like how you share a quote about/from each of the women. There are so many wonderful comments and scenes in this book aren’t there.

    BTW I thought the back of my copy says, though I don’t have it with me here, that the book cover was by Sandy Cull. I think it’s the bottom left of the back cover (or maybe bottom right) though I may be misremembering the “cover” word. It is a great cover isn’t it.

    Like

    • Yes, you’re right about the cover design credit being … half on the back of the book and half inside it on the verso page. Whatever made them do that? I mean, having found it inside, it didn’t occur to me to look in both places. I have never seen that done before.
      Not only that: I have dozens of books where that space is covered by the bookseller’s price tag.
      Anyway, I’ll fix it above. Thanks:)

      Like

      • I always look on the back cover first as that’s more often than not where the illustration information is. But you are right that it is often covered by the price sticker. I can think of various reasons why they might put it in both places but it’s interesting to split the info.

        Liked by 1 person

        • “Illustration in ovation”! What was I typing. On my iPad or iPhone that’s what. I let so many predictive text options through when I do that because I forget it’s predicting and stupidly thing that what *I* write is what goes!! I think “in ovation” was supposed to be “information” but clearly predictive text knows best!!

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          • Don’t worry, lots of people have problems with predictive text and I usually just fix it. But (for reasons you know about) I have been a bit preoccupied with other things, so I missed fixing this one. Will do it now.

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            • Thanks, but I’m certainly not criticising you for not catching it. I really should get used to checking. You’d think I would by now, really! Hope all went went well.

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  14. […] have said The Weekend was one of their favourite books of 2019: Sue at Whispering Gums and Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers, for example, have both written elegant, well-argued, positive reviews of what’s recognisably […]

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  15. […] The Weekend, Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin), see my review […]

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  16. […] The Weekend (Charlotte Wood, A&U), see my review […]

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  17. […] Weekend by Charlotte Wood (Allen and Unwin), see my review and Theresa’s at Theresa Smith […]

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  18. […] & Unwin, Allen & Unwin) The Weekend, Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin), see my review The Yield, Tara June Winch (Penguin Random House Australia, Hamish Hamilton), see my review There […]

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  19. […] pleased to see what I interpret as a return to form with her more subtle and deliciously complex The Weekend. So I am pleased to hear Wood talk about this novel, and am hoping to hear about what she’s […]

    Like

  20. […] The Weekend by Charlotte Wood, Allen & Unwin, see my review […]

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  21. […] & Unwin, Allen & Unwin) The Weekend, Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin), see my review The Yield, Tara June Winch (Penguin Random House Australia, Hamish Hamilton), see my review There […]

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  22. […] The Weekend by Charlotte Wood, see my review […]

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