Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. -- Anna Karenina --
I thought of that legendary opening sentence when Elaine Beale raised the curtain of Another Life Altogether with this inaugural humdinger:
The day after my mother was admitted to the mental hospital, I told everyone at school that she had entered a competition on the back of a Corn Flakes box and won a cruise around the world.
The narrator is Jesse Bennett, a thoughtful, intelligent, introspective thirteen year old girl struggling to find her identity, her place. It's the 1970's. Yorkshire, England. Bay City Rollers, etc.
Jesse's an only child, trying to fit in and be accepted amongst her peers, and it doesn't help matters that her mother has serious psychological problems that keep landing her in Delapole, the local loony bin! Her optimistic father deals with the debilitated home situation by pretending things are not as bad as they really are, but [as one might imagine] the toll on a daughter in such a scenario can be devastating. Jesse resents the fact that she must excuse her mother's actions, and continually protect her from herself.
The Bennetts move to the country, to a remote community in order to make a new start of things. Here Jesse encounters the same struggle for acceptance but eventually strikes a friendship with Tracey, a bit of a rotten-apple of a kid. Influenced by her allegiance to Tracey, Jesse struggles to be true to herself and her own capabilities and desires. Fitting in is everything -- and meanwhile, her mother gets loonier and loonier.
Jesse has a secret known only to herself, and expressed only in the unsent letters she has hidden away in a cookie-tin, kept in the closet. If her secret gets out, she feels it would spell the end of her life as she knows it. The shame would be too great. Life, this life, or any other worth living, would be over.
Little does she know that the very release of that secret may be the only way she can experience real freedom. Real life. Truly, another life altogether.
Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Indeed. And this is the story of a uniquely unhappy family that found a way to overcome tremendous obstacles to happiness. In many ways, this novel is a testament to the merits of staying together for the sake of love. There are dozens of memorable characters I have not mentioned. Themes and threads I have not remotely touched upon. Suffice it to say that this is a deeply resonant, often times hilarious, heart-rending story. An unflaky look at flakiness. A searing, worthwhile, five-star-of-five al dente feast of a meal.
For more about Another Life Altogether, click -- HERE.
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