Book review: The Lessons by John Purcell

Sunday, May 15, 2022 Permalink

I read and enjoyed John Purcell’s 2018 novel The Girl on the Page. He’s also written erotic novels under the pseudonym Natasha Walker so doesn’t shy away from writing about sex – or more specifically (here anyway) the way people use sex – particularly for reasons other than pleasure.

Book review: The Lessons by John PurcellThe Lessons
by John Purcell
on 13/04/2022
Source: Harper Collins
Genres: General Fiction, Literary Fiction
ISBN: 1460756991
Pages: 384

When teens Daisy and Harry meet, it feels so right they promise to love each other forever, but everything is stacked against them: class, education, expectations. After Daisy is sent by her parents to live with her glamorous, bohemian Aunt Jane, a novelist working on her second book, she is confronted by adult truths and suffers a loss of innocence that flings her far from the one good thing in her life, Harry.

Jane Curtis, now a famous novelist, is at a prestigious book event in New York, being interviewed about the overlap between her life and her work, including one of her novels about the traumatic coming of age of a young woman. But she evades the interviewer’s probing questions. What is she trying to hide?

The Lessons unfolds from several points of view – that of Jane, Daisy and Harry and Simon – a wealthy young man who’s essentially a devoted patron of Jane. Alternating chapters are told in first person and Purcell easily and seamlessly jumps between voices and characters. The novel spans several years in the 60s and then just a few days in 1983, relayed by Jane during her trip to the US.

I kept forgetting how young everyone was initially so kept finding myself surprised that Jane (in the 1980s) was only turning 50. I think it was also because Daisy and Harry in particular – though only teenagers – were very mature when we meet them in the early 1960s.

I really loved the detail about the publishing and book industry and Purcell is effortlessly able to weave this through the narrative, reflecting his own passion for reading and literature in general. I probably would have liked a little more of this, but realise it appeals to me because I’ve similar (albeit less extensive) interests.

Purcell’s given us some unlikeable characters – including Daisy and Harry at times – who (at times) I felt deserved each other. Jane’s philandering husband describes her as a manic depressive but she’s certainly narcissistic and (often) just plain old nasty. There’s the easily-led Simon who blames his father for the fact his self-esteem is dependent on women; and then there’s Daisy’s self-absorbed mother, whose mental and emotional health disintegrates as the novel progresses.

Purcell offers a cynical take on love, lust and relationships. Rather than romantic love, there’s lust and obsession… with sex and sexual acts taken and proffered as weapons or tools of power or manipulation.*

I really don’t understand the level of confidence, bravado, brazenness one would have to believe they possessed to feel confident others will bow to their demands.  Indeed some of Jane’s overtures weren’t necessarily consensual and could be easily viewed as manipulative or coercive. I suspect if it was a male character in that role we’d be far more horrified. I certainly didn’t look on her with envy or admiration for her moxy.

And the brazenness of some of her acts – jerking a stranger off on a plane – seem far from sane or feasible in my white-bread little world. So I didn’t view her as a feminist turning the tables on those males around her; rather I felt pity.

Purcell surely intends to shock or horrify us (in a non-scary way!) with the actions and behaviour of some of our players here. Human frailty laid bare. Which it certainly is. And no one – no one – fares well.

I did find the gap between the 1960s and the 80s a bit too large to traverse. I realise we’re not meant to know what’s happened in between – that’s hinted at and supposed to come as a surprise – but I felt like I’d missed a chunk of the story. Despite that I enjoyed this well-written, thought-provoking read.

This is obviously more than a story of first love and love lost; it’s one of regrets and influences that permeate our lives forever after. Readers’ morals may be challenged (or not!) here and it would certainly be a worthy bookclub read for that reason. I’d be interested, for example, if different generations view this book and its characters differently. (And I’ll let my 78 yr old mother borrow it next.)

The Lessons by John Purcell was published in Australia by 4th Estate (Harper Collins) and is now available.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. 

* I should mention – for anyone concerned – the sex scenes aren’t at all graphic. Indeed, they’re glossed over in the main part.


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