Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 6, 2021

From Where I fell, by Susan Johnson

It is so refreshing to read a novel that’s about character!

From Where I Fell comes from the pen of Susan Johnson, long-time observer of the zeitgeist and wickedly funny about human failings.  This novel explores a relationship that’s becoming more common, one that’s entirely digital.  Like the relationship that I have with some of you, my readers, both on- and off-blog.

The relationship at the heart of the novel begins when needy, histrionic Pamela in Australia sends a cry of pain to an email address where she thinks it will reach Christophe Xavier Woods, her estranged ex-husband in Paris. Instead, chrisxwoods@ sent with hope via both hotmail and gmail, lands in the inbox of Chrisanthi Xenia Woods, in upstate New York.  Instead of ignoring/deleting/blocking an unknown sender, Chris sends a kindly response.  Chris is the kind of person who likes to help.

I used ‘estranged’ to describe the status of Pamela’s marriage because when children are involved, a respectful relationship between divorced parents should continue in the best interests of the children. Everybody knows this, but it’s not easy to do.  Pamela’s husband has used geography to opt out.  He calls his children on the phone, but he has obliterated Pamela out of his life.  He remains, however, a character in the novel, one who makes no explanation for his spiteful behaviour.  Which affects his children as well as their mother.  Who, guilt-ridden and anxious about parenting alone, is not exactly ‘together’ anyway.

Pamela responds to the kindness in the reply from Chris and a sustained correspondence develops.  Small elements of cunning in the way this epistolary story unfolds are worth noticing.  The women nickname each other Plato and Socrates, and some of their subject headings are called dialogues, recalling the form of prose known as Socratic Dialogues from the fourth century BC.  Like the ancients, these two women discuss moral and philosophical problems which are eternal.  But dialogues about their particular concerns were absent from the history of literature for centuries…

The two women seem like opposites, but they share common characteristics, not the least of which is that they are lonely.  Pamela has no one else to vent to, and Chris, apparently secure in a marriage of long duration, doesn’t have a BFF either.  The reader can only speculate about this.  Pamela has only recently relocated to Australia, but could easily vent to friends overseas.  Why doesn’t she?  And Chris has lived in the same place all her life—you’d think she had the luxury of supportive friendships going back decades…

Part of the answer has to do with personalities carefully crafted by the author.  Yet another battery of Pamela’s anguished emails (eight, following already hurt feelings) gets a terse response from Chris:

Re: A dream
From: Chris Woods
To: Pamela Robinson

Don’t you get sick of talking about yourself all the time? (p.83)

A subsequent apologetic email is time-stamped almost immediately but not read until after Pamela sends her hurt response a day later:

OK
From: Pamela Robinson
To: Chris Woods

OK, I get it—I finally get  it. It’s over—whatever ‘it’ was.  I wish you all the best.
Pamela (p. 84)

The one-line apology from Chris acknowledges that her response was mean but that Pamela’s email caught her on a bad day.  

Unlike Pamela, who’s a classic over-sharer, Chris doesn’t explain what happened on that bad day.  She thinks America has gone to the dogs because everyone reveals themselves:

Do I need to know some Kardashian is fighting with her husband?  Do I care if some crackhead is screaming at his neighbour over the rent on Judge Judy?  I do not.  Keeping some things left unsaid is my preference. (p.92)

It’s not until much later in the novel that Chris indirectly explains what had pushed her buttons that day.  Reticence on the one hand, and a narcissistic deluge of venting on the other. An interesting combination!

Chris seems more sensible and caring but she has a breaking point which makes for poisonous relationships on her home turf, while Pamela flounders around, nagging her three children until the family turmoil erupts into something much more serious.  They both give each other advice that ironically at times might be better suited to themselves, but Chris’s advice is never about feelings.  It’s not until things go very badly wrong for her that she begins to express emotion, albeit in a guarded way.  She has overstepped the mark with people she’s trying to help and they’ve rounded on her, leaving her exposed, vulnerable and hurt.  This is when the reader recognises that all this ‘helping’ is a substitute for what’s missing in her life.

What happens next with a virtual friendship like this?  I didn’t predict the ending, so it came as a shock, and a warning to all of us to invest time in the real world because that is where real love, affection, fondness and support comes from. I’m not talking about using digital tools to maintain existing relationships; we’ve all learned through lockdown just how valuable these tools can be.  I love being able to keep meaningful contact with people overseas and I’ll keep doing that even when the pandemic is over.  But when we engage with people we’ve never known f2f, the interface is between best selves and a lot can be unsaid, exaggerated or deliberately concealed.  Cyberspace allows time between responses that can either exacerbate or soothe tensions; it’s not like real conversation where body language can guide us.  Ultimately, Virtual relationships can be disposable.

Book groups would love this book because there is so much to unpack, it’s a book that rewards re-reading.

Kim at Reading Matters reviewed it too.

Author: Susan Johnson
Title: From Where I Fell
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2021
Cover design by Sandy Cull
ISBN: 9781760876555
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin


Responses

  1. Thanks for the link,Lisa. Your review is much more erudite than mine!

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    • I think a lot of people will be interested in the whole ‘motherhood’ issue which doesn’t interest me much since those days are long behind me; but it was the characters that fascinated me!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I noticed she had another book out Lisa. Love the cover, and this sounds really interesting given so many of us conduct digital friendships these days. I’ve read it all because, although I’d like to read this, it won’t be soon and I’m sorry to admit I will have forgotten the detail of your review enough by then!!

    Love the cover.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Looking forward to reading this one. Lovely review for it to entice me.

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    • We are so lucky to have Susan writing for us. She has never had the attention she deserves (in terms of prize nominations) but she keeps on producing amazing books anyway. My favourite is Life in Seven Mistakes, but I’ve been reading her books since I first came across The Broken Book. back in… oh, about 2005?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have never read her yet! Which just confirms what you’ve said about her not having the attention she deserves.

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  4. Hi Lisa, looks like a good fun read. I have reserved it at my library!

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    • Good thing you got in quickly… Brighton Library has three copies, two are reserved already and they haven’t even got them in circulation yet. Kingston has got two copies on order… ordering more than one copy means they know this book is going to be popular!

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  5. Hi Lisa, my library doesn’t have the book. It has changed systems, and sources books from other libraries. It lists four libraries that say it “will be available soon”. So hopefully I will be able to borrow it soon!

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    • Oh. Does that mean it doesn’t have its own collection?

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  6. As I am an Australian named Pamela (Pam) I don’t know if I should read this. Histrionic and all, haha. Sounds like a different premise for a book.

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    • LOL Pam, I think it’s probably safe!

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  7. If you’re looking for more character driven story, I think you might like The Performance by Claire Thomas. I read it last week & just trying to pull together my thoughts for it. Loved it.

    Like

    • I’ve got that one on my radar… I look forward to your review.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. All I can say is I’ve ‘met’ people by email and they’re never the slightest bit what you’d expect. I mean, look at you for instance, readers will be shocked to learn you’re nothing like your photo, you’re much younger in real life (and I don’t always wear a hat).

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  9. Hi Lisa, I have read and enjoyed it. I did like the connection the two women made – self help for both of them. I have one quibble, in the email title ‘Happy Christmas to you’, it is signed Patricia, not Pamela. Was this an editing mistake?

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    • You know, I never noticed that… I think it is a mistake!

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  10. Hi Lisa, I also think it is a mistake. It threw me, I kept returning to it, thinking I missed something.

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    • I think I’ve got an email from the publicist, I’ll let her know.

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  11. […] Susan Johnson’s From where I fell (Lisa’s review) […]

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  12. […] Susan Johnson’s From Where I Fell, see my review […]

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