Book review: The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan by Lisa Ireland

Thursday, May 14, 2020 Permalink

I’d requested The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan by Lisa Ireland for review but unfortunately didn’t receive it. I have a rule that I’m not allowed to buy any books until the end of the year and then I’m only allowed to buy those that might make my ‘best of the year’ post. My weird logic is two-fold. I’m not really working at the moment so can’t justify buying many books PARTICULARLY when I receive so many for review. And my to-be-read (TBR) pile stresses me and I don’t want or need to add to that guilt – although there are quite a few books on there I’ve not requested and are outside of my usual reading genre.

Anyhoo, I’ve really loved Lisa Ireland’s last two books The Shape of Us and The Art of Friendship and met Lisa and also really like her. (I’ve mentioned before if I tend to like someone in person I generally find I like their writing!) So, when a friend suggested I borrow her copy of The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan I jumped at the chance. And thank god I did as I loved it! In fact it’s probably my favourite of the three (of Lisa’s books) I’ve read.

Book review: The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan by Lisa IrelandThe Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan
by Lisa Ireland
Published by Penguin Random House Australia
on 28/04/2020
Source: Borrowed
Genres: Women's Fiction
ISBN: 9781760895594
Pages: 336

When Shirley Sullivan signs her 83-year-old husband, Frank, out of the Sunset Lodge Nursing Home, she has no intention of bringing him back.

For fifty-seven years the couple has shared love, happiness and heartbreak. And while Frank may not know who his wife is these days, he knows he wants to go home. Back to the beach where they met in the early 1960s . . .

So Shirley enacts an elaborate plan to evade the authorities – and their furious daughter, Fiona – to give Frank the holiday he’d always dreamed of.

And, in doing so, perhaps Shirley can make amends for a lifelong guilty secret . .

It’s kinda strange that I’ve now read two books in short succession that featured mothers, daughters and granddaughters; the other being Beth O’Leary’s The Switch. Even though I’m the same age as the middle-aged mother in both books I’ve related most to the older character – the grandmother. They’ve been the lead in both and I’ve felt a strong sense of connection with them. I can’t help but wonder if I feel like that when I read books about those 20 years my junior. (Hmmm… something to ponder when I’m bored or supposed to be sleeping!)

So, I adored Shirley. Ireland sets the story up so we meet Shirley visiting her husband of over 50yrs, Frank in the nursing home. She doesn’t believe he should be there though struggles with the fact he cannot recognise her now. I could sooooo relate to this and people’s attitude to those with alzheimers or dementia and I’ve written about my father’s dementia in the past. The anecdote I share in that post is echoed by Shirley here.

Little do we know Shirley has a secret or two up her sleeve and takes us all on an adventure. Those secrets unfold in the present (ie. breaking Frank out of the aged care facility) and in the past.

Ireland does a fantastic job of sharing Shirley and Frank’s literal journey as the elderly couple attempt to make it to the destination Shirley has in mind. The ups and downs are very believable but I also really liked the people we (well, they) meet along with way. Mostly however I really appreciated the way Shirley’s forced to confront some of her perceptions about Frank’s new life. She believes the aged care home isn’t doing its best by him. He’s on too much medication and sleeps too much. She’s sure he’ll be different once she weans him off the drugs and gives him something to live for. And of course she discovers she’s both right and wrong.

I really liked Ireland’s insight when it came to Frank and his varying degrees of lucidity. She doesn’t sugarcoat his condition and there are no magic cures. I loved the way Frank reminisced about his marriage, not realising of course he was talking about his travelling companion. Ireland could have gone several ways here but I think manages to balance realism with schmaltz.

Of course I also need to talk about the past… we’re privy to Frank and Shirley’s first meeting and the pressures on the young couple to marry and have a family. We’re reminded expectations were so different then and Ireland touches on some of the issues faced by women (namely Shirley) at the time. There’s certainly a contrast to the options available to Frank and Shirley’s daughter Fiona and Fiona’s three daughters.

As for Shirley’s other secret, Ireland ekes this out slowly. We revisit the past over a period of fifty or so years periodically so are given insight into Shirley’s life. Ireland times the fusing of the past and present brilliantly in a beautiful way. I did not expect the ending offered and am at a loss to say much about it without giving anything away.

Underneath the story of Shirley’s (and Frank’s) escapades there are some messages about the relationships in our lives. About loving someone and being in-love. About the sacrifices we make for family and for love. The decisions we think we can live with; and those we can’t.

Because I can’t help myself and am possibly a thwarted editor in another life, I would have liked to get to know Fiona a little better. Perhaps some chapters from her point of view might have been useful; though (at the same time) I recognise this is Shirley’s story.

I’m not sure why this book came as such a surprise – perhaps because Ireland’s two most recent books have centred more around friendships than family but this is a stunning read and all I could think when reading it is how much my mother will both relate to it and love it.

The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan by Lisa Ireland was published in Australia by Penguin and is now available.


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