Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
On reading Joanne Nell’s novel The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village, I was reminded of the movies about the Exotic Marigold Hotel, about a small group of elderly people looking for a place to retire.
The setting for Nell’s book is a retirement village not far from the beach and the story follows Peggy Smart, a 79 year old, who has come here after the death of her husband. Peggy is feeling a little adrift, that she no longer has a purpose in life. Her children are adults with their own lives and her usefulness to them, even as a grandparent, she feels is slipping away. At the same time her children keep reminding her of her age and their fussing generates the fear that she is losing control of her own life.
Having been brought up by a domineering mother who was very judgemental and concerned about what others might think, Peggy had become one of those ‘beige’, invisible women of a certain age. But she missed the intimacy and deeper connection with another human and had developed a romantic fantasy about Brian Cornell, her widower, chartered accountant and Lexus driving neighbour. Having known him for four years and exchanged just brief enquiries about health the friendship had stalled. ‘Either this was a slow-burning passion on a whole new level or she was flogging a dead Dodo’ (3). He and the twice weekly aqua arobics classes seemed to be the main focus of her week .
Sometimes she hated the Retirement Village. ‘The cavalcade of walking frames was a constant nod to her own mortality. It was like waiting for a train, one that may not come for years, or thunder through without warning. She was in limbo: too old to be young, and too young to be old’ (27).
But things changed when she had a fall and broke her wrist and the colourful International jetsetter and glamorous career woman, who’d worked for Vogue, Angie Valentine, re-entered her life. Angie’s life follows the mantra of Dylan Thomas’s poem Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night and soon Peggy, as well as the Village library and social activities, are undergoing a makeover.
This funny heartwarming tale has chapter titles that generate anticipation as to what is to come as incidents in Peggy’s life are revealed. These include: The Dance of the Seven Bath Towels, Champagne and Stormtroopers, Five Dripping Pensioners, Angie’s Special Brownies and In Search of a Thirty-six Waist and a Decent Backside.
Peggy epitimises all those who fear losing their independence and have to rely on colour-coded calendars as reminders for appointments and their weekly medication packs – the tiny army of chemical soldiers waging war on the passing years (2 ). There is a lovely side story in the book about ‘losing your marbles’.
Joanna Nell was born in the Midlands and graduated from Oxford University with a medical degree in 1991. She moved to Australia in 2003 where she now works as a GP with a passion for women’s health and care of the elderly. Joanna writes character-driven stories of self-discovery for women of a certain age, creating young-at-heart characters that break the rules and defy society’s expectations. She lives on Sydney’s Northern Beaches with her husband and two children.
A graduate of the Australian Writers’ Centre, she won an Emerging Writer’s award from the Henry Lawson Society in 2014. Since then, her work has been in a number of magazines, journals and short story anthologies including Award Winning Australian Writing 2017. She was awarded a writing residency at The Bundanon Trust in 2016, courtesy of the Fellowship of Australian Writers.
I would recommend this novel for all readers, adult or child, as it provides a better understanding of the fears their parents face as they age. It is also has an uplifting message for the more mature reader.
By Joanna Nell
$29.99; 368 pp