The Diaries of Jane Somers – Doris Lessing (1984)

This little nugget really does tick all the boxes to please me:

  • Epistolary
  • Superbly written and edited
  • Realistic characters

I can’t remember where I read about this book, mostly likely on a book blog out there in Blogging Land, but on a whim, I found it at my library and dug in. It’s the story (in two parts) of Jane (or Janna as she prefers), a mid-life 50-ish professional magazine editor who is very happy living her own single life when she happens across an elderly lady one day at the chemist/pharmacy in town. Janna ends up getting pretty involved with Maudie Foster (the elderly lady) who is remarkably prickly and unhappy and difficult (just as Janna can be, really), and so this diary describes Janna’s life and the overlap with Maudie.

It was really very reminiscent of Margaret Laurence’s Canadian classic, “Stone Angel”, in that there is a strong, feisty and somewhat difficult older character whose behavior is puzzling/annoying until you, as the reader, are allowed to see what she is thinking and then you can see where she is coming from. It’s also rather a poignant novel in some ways, as both Janna and Maudie end up needing each other’s friendship but both insist on pushing each other away when really that is the last thing they actually want to do. All very complicated, but I am sure that we will all know someone like this at some point during our lives. It’s a bit like trying to hug a porcupine.

I think the best way to enjoy this densely written novel is to sit down for a long period of time and just dig in and immerse yourself in the story and the characters. It’s not that the story is hard to follow (because it’s not), and it’s not that there are loads of endless characters (because there aren’t), but by sitting down and submerging yourself in their world, it feels (to me) as though I really know these women and that I could go visit them for a cuppa if I wanted to. That’s how good the writing was.

The first half of the book is called “The Diary of a Good Neighbor” and is a nod to the charitable person who is called a Good Neighbor who is someone who voluntarily pops into to check on an elderly person who might not have anyone else to do that. For the elderly characters here, the Good Neighbor is seen as someone who is nosy and doesn’t have enough to do so they meddle in other people’s lives, and Janna gets constantly annoyed when people call her that title. The whole relationship that Janna has with Maudie is slightly off-kilter: Janna wants to help, but only within limits; however, as the story progresses, the limits change and she feels it’s beyond her control. (She! who controls all aspects of her life!)

Janna finds that it is hard for others to believe that she can be friends with the prickly Maudie. The push-and-pull tension between the pair of them is really well done, and made me cringe at times at how exasperated they would get at each other. Communication, people, communication.  Just say what you mean and move on. Sigh. A really good description of a reluctant but important friendship between two unlikely people who need each other.

The second half of the book is the diary of Janna as it continues once Maudie has died. (No big surprise there – Maudie is ancient and in bad health right from square one so you knew she is on borrowed time.)  This time, the book is focused on how a couple of younger women, nieces in this case, have an enormous impact on Janna and her life. Oh, and she falls in love with someone. (The path is not without its challenges for her here, either.)

In sum, not really a “feel good” book – in fact, it can get quite uncomfortable in places –  but this is an excellent read all the same. You will probably enjoy this if you like to read books by Muriel Spark, Mary Wesley, Margaret Laurence, or any of that ilk.

Interesting website about Doris Lessing.

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