Recently life had a started to get on top of me a little bit. I felt overwhelmed; with my partner being unwell, my MS not coping with the heat, and several things in the house going wrong. The dishwasher flooded the kitchen, then two weeks later the washing machine did the same, but lifted the entire floor too. Finally, I emptied my bath water and came downstairs to find it had christened the kitchen island and we had a lovely new hole in the ceiling. I’m immune-compromised so I’m still avoiding crowds and wearing masks. Finally, there’s the effect of the menopause when dealing with all those things. I’m far more likely to burst into tears these days. Masks mean I sweat more – not just a little glow, I can look like I’ve just got out of the shower in ‘tropical moments’. Then my reading glasses steam up, but I can’t take them off because I can’t read anything. I’ve taken a short break from blog tours and deadlines to deal with some of this and spending some time reading exactly what I want. So, I’m on the couch, a cold flannel on my neck, with two fans pointing at me, as few clothes as I dare to wear, and an ice cold can of coke in my hand. I was browsing my NetGalley shelf when this title jumped out at me. It could not have been more apt.
Eliza feels like she’s going crazy. She’s emotional, keeps forgetting things, feels angry and she’s hot, oh so hot.
This is a smart and funny novel about love, life and a second shot at freedom for rebellious women of a certain age. Late for work and dodging traffic, Eliza is still reeling from the latest row with husband Paddy. Twenty-something years ago, their eyes met over the class divide in oh-so-cool Britpop London, but while Paddy now seems content filling his downtime with canal boats and cricket, Eliza craves the freedom and excitement of her youth. Fifty sounds dangerously close to pensionable: her woke children want to cancel her, a male motorist has just called her a ‘mad old bat’ and to cap it all her hormones are on the run. Who knew menopause was puberty’s evil older sister? But then a moment of heroism draws an unexpected admirer, and Eliza sets out to discover whether the second half of life can be a glass half full after all. She might suffer mental fog and night sweats – and have temporarily mislaid her waist – but this is her renaissance.
I bonded with Eliza immediately and not just because of the menopause. We’re a similar age, so I could identify with growing up in the Britpop era – I fell totally in love with Damon Albarn, a love which has lasted a lifetime. All of our references points were the same, and having inherited two beautiful stepdaughters in their tweens and teens I could really appreciate Eliza’s relationship with her daughter. I also have a strong relationship with an elderly dog. Menopause is causing tension in Eliza’s marriage, particularly annoying for her is the loss of libido. That deep connection she and Paddy once had seems to have gone, lost in the logistics of family life and life stresses around their finances. Eliza’s realisation that she’s becoming invisible has extended into her working life too. She has always wanted to be a stage actress, but her career has never really taken off. Now she’s getting less and less work, and aside from one Japanese tourist who thinks she’s Emma Thompson, she feels very under appreciated. She’s doing voice work, reading audiobooks mainly, plus has a side job showing people around properties for a local estate agent. All of the everyday stresses in her life – marriage, family tensions mixed with financial concerns, having ‘woke’ children, her youngest son who is on the spectrum – leave her feeling exhausted. Into this low point steps a handsome Italian restauranteur, who happens to have taken over her family’s favourite bistro from his uncle. Exuding charm from every pore, he flatters Eliza and makes her feel desirable when of late she’s felt men’s eyes pass over her and to her teenage daughter. It’s like one big ‘hormotional’ perfect storm and I wondered whether anyone would come out of it unscathed.
It’s easy to love Eliza; she’s loving, caring, vivacious and witty. However, her husband Paddy grew on me too and I felt a great deal of empathy for his own middle aged struggles. There is growing evidence of male menopause, despite society being largely dismissive and calling it a ‘midlife crisis’. Jokes about middle-aged men trying to recapture their youth with hair transplants, sports cars and unwise affairs with younger women are still commonplace. Yet the NHS recognises a group of symptoms similar to those experienced by women – irritability, insomnia, weight gain, loss of muscle mass, erectile dysfunction, loss of libido and memory problems. Some doctors have questioned whether these are symptoms of a loss of testosterone, but the NHS classify it as a psychological syndrome characterised by increased levels of depression and raised anxiety amongst men in their late forties and fifties. Paddy is definitely going through something like this, but he has had a lot to contend with. His father’s death and the loss of the narrow boat they worked on together hit him hard. Eliza’s family bought the boat so he could still work on it, but that brings its own guilt and shame because Paddy could not afford to do this himself and run it. His wife earns more than he does and she’s starting acting like a crazy person. He thinks her loss of libido is down to him being a failure as a man. This book hinges on the fact that problems occur when couples stop communicating.
The author really pitched this book perfectly, balanced between the serious issues and the comic moments. Her other characters were well rounded, with interesting quirks to their personalities or hidden depths. I thought her sister was an infuriating superwoman who could juggle everything perfectly, but when she cooked Sunday dinner she was in a complaining, sweaty, heap like I am on Sundays! Her mum had depths of hidden wisdom and despite never seeming to ask, had a pretty accurate idea of what was going on. I found Eliza’s daughter infuriating though. She was very preachy and deeply committed to social justice and women’s rights. Despite agreeing with her in some cases I found her speeches annoying and the long Shakespeare quotes pretentious. I think this is how the author intended her though. She was an exaggeration of my stepdaughter’s generation and I could see a lot of our 15 year old in Summer’s causes and the way she spoke. I think the youngest son’s autism was handled well too. When she found out the real reason he wouldn’t use his allocated transport to get to school I was heartbroken for him. All anyone wants is for someone to understand them and listen to how it feels, rather than dismissing them with a lazy stereotype or the ableism on show here. The final adventure was both funny and poignant, and I left the book feeling like I’d been seen and acknowledged. I also had a huge smile on my face, because it had really lifted my spirits, so much so that I would really love another instalment of Eliza and her family in the future.