Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 23, 2021

Addressed to Greta, by Fiona Sussman

Addressed to Greta is New Zealand author Fiona Sussman’s third novel, and I asked the library to order a copy, based on this review at Read Close.   Sussman was already on my radar since her debut novel Shifting Colours and I featured her in Meet a Kiwi Author so I was expecting to enjoy this.  

And, despite a mild tendency to stray into Worthy Sentiments, Addressed to Greta is enjoyable reading.  It features a socially-awkward single woman in her late thirties, constrained by the relentless voice of her dead mother Nora’s preoccupation with conformity and respectability.  (Nora has her reasons for this, but we don’t find out what they are until long after we have blamed her for Greta’s predicament.)  Greta has never had a relationship, and since the death of Walter, she doesn’t have any real friends, nor any family.  She is lonely, insecure, and captive to the safe routines of her life.

Walter, however, changes everything, and from beyond the grave at that.  She had fallen for him, only to find out that he was gay, but in a sign that’s there’s more to Greta than meets the eye, that romantic love morphed into a deep affection.  It was Greta who stayed by his side when he died of liver cancer.  And because he was very fond of her too, he left money in his will for her to travel and see more of the world than New Zealand has to offer.  (Greta hasn’t even been to the South Island.)

The catch is that he’s left instructions with his solicitor Angus, that her all-expenses-paid trip overseas will be orchestrated entirely by him.  Until just before her departure she doesn’t know what Walter’s choice for her first destination is, much less the others.  There’s a three-month time limit on her departure date, so that if she dithers, the money will go to charity.  Plus, since she doesn’t know how long she’ll be away for, she has to give up the lease on her home, resign from her job, and find somewhere for her pet chicken to live during her absence.  These are major life-changing decisions for a single woman with limited employability and insecure housing, and the reader has to take it on trust that Walter, whose conditions of acceptance imply that he thinks he knows what’s best for Greta, hasn’t dealt her a dud pack of cards.  The characterisation of Greta shows that she needs to learn to take a risk, and the novel is a rom-com of sorts, but all the same, these conditions look like controlling behaviour to me.  

(I don’t have much patience with people/characters who try to control events from beyond the grave.  They’ve had their time on earth!)

Anyway, full of trepidation, Greta sets off for New York, escorted around the city for a week by Walter’s friend Frank.  From Frank she learns aspects of Walter’s life that he had withheld, and she feels peeved that someone else knew him better than she did.  She survives her terrors (which derive mostly from watching American films) by meeting a succession of very nice people, who, one after the other, teach her something about rising above stereotypes and the inequities of the world.  She then learns not to trust her ignorant assumptions in London, and has various epiphanies along the way in Rwanda.  

In a Bridget Jones kind of way, most of this is quite droll.  Greta is tall and ungainly and has embarrassingly large feet.  She speaks before she thinks, and she over-explains her faux-pas and apologises all the time.  She hugs people without knowing whether it’s culturally appropriate or not, she badgers her tour guide about whether he’s Tutsi or Hutu when he has clearly explained that he is Rwandan only, and she even curtsies to a doorman.  Even smiling at all this feels a bit mean because it’s such a poignant situation.  Her progress through this journey of discovery is constantly punctuated by her mother’s sour voice and poisonous admonitions, with Walter’s encouraging letters not entirely able to drown her out. 

After her jaunt to see the gorillas in Rwanda, Greta comments on the the tour group as ‘interesting’ and, true to form, persists with the topic when Daniel, the tour group leader, clearly doesn’t want to criticise them.  

‘Some must drive you mad, ‘ she persisted. ‘Mrs Gladwell was my most annoying customer.  Dion Parkle too.  How do you manage to remain so good humoured?’

He offered her some dried banana from a packet.  ‘You know the word ubuntu?’

She shook her head.

‘It means, “I am who I am, because of you.” Everybody we meet changes us a little, no?’

Greta thought about the group.  Seven lives had unexpectedly intersected.  She wondered whether anyone’s path had been altered as a result.  Whether anyone’s cosmic plan had been reconfigured.

‘What you do today impacts me,’ Daniel said.  ‘And what I do, impacts you.  We are all connected.  That is humanity.’ (p.273)

One of many aspects of the trip that Greta finds stressful is the constant desertion by people charged with looking out for her.  When she parts company with Daniel to go on to her next destination, she wonders what it would have been like to have a permanent partner in her life.

The guaranteed safety of someone, always.  How was it that her life had turned out like this?  Why did she have to be the one left swimming solo?

There’s a lid to fit every can,’ was what Nora used to say. So, Greta grew up believing that somewhere out there was a man who would complete her.  She just had to find him and then she’d be fine.

But she was thirty-nine and had not yet found that someone.  No one bar Walter, who didn’t count, being ‘unavailable’ in the life-time-commitment sense.  Where was this superman who was supposed to supplement her deficits and be the solution to all her problems? (p.216)

Clearly Greta is not a feminist.  

Beyond finding some elegant shoes in Size Huge in New York, does Greta find happiness? The author has wisely refrained from an obvious happy ending, leaving just a few hints here and there that Greta’s life has changed for the better.

One little quibble: I’m surprised the editor didn’t rein in the occasional use of medical terms.  (Sussman is a former GP.)  ‘Mandible’ instead of ‘jaw’; ‘acromegaly’ on page 140; enochlophobia and panophobia on page 172—seriously, who knows what these are without having to look it up?  Do readers who haven’t come across thyroid problems know what is meant by eyes bulging in thyroidal exclamation? 

You can find out more about Fiona Sussman at her website

PS It’s just dawned on me that Walter’s 3-month deadline would mean that if his legacy had coincided with the pandemic and its closed borders, Greta would have missed out on the trip and the money through no fault of her own!

Author: Fiona Sussman
Title: Addressed to Greta
Publisher: Bateman Books, NZ, 2020
Cover design by Keeley O’Shannessy
ISBN: 9781988538600, pbk., 338 pages
Source: Bayside Library

 


Responses

  1. Sounds like an entertaining read.

    I think that Greta should read that book about non-violent communication that I’m currently reading :-)

    – acknowledge and express your needs,
    – avoid judgement
    – don’t relie on other people to fulfill your needs but take responsibility

    Like

    • Yes, I was torn between thinking this book has a rather old-fashioned message (that a Prince Charming, albeit a dead one, will fix a woman’s problems), and chiding myself for thinking that, when it’s meant to be a cosy feel-good story.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Even I am a bit surprised that the book’s message is a woman’s problems can be fixed by a (dead!) man.
    The Rwandan guide reminds of when Yugoslavs were (or said they were) quite happy to be Yugoslavs.

    Like

    • Well, from what I read in this book, not identifying as either of the two sides is all part of a reconciliation program though whether that’s by government fiat or a social movement I can’t tell. The novel paints an upbeat portrait of the country, obviously (a bit too obviously) trying to counter the negative impressions that people (exemplified by the central character Greta) have of Rwanda.
      I’ve read novels by three Rwandan authors, all of them about the genocide, and all three of them are exiles in France. I wish I could say I had read a recent novel by a Rwandan living in Rwanda, but I’ve never come across one.

      Like


Leave a Reply to Lisa Hill Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Categories

%d bloggers like this: