Messy, Wonderful Us
By Pam Norfolk
Leave the winter cold behind and head off to the ethereal beauty of Lake Garda… but get ready for so much more than sunshine on this unforgettable Italian odyssey.
After a string of witty and wonderful rom-coms under her pseudonym Jane Costello, former journalist and editor of the Liverpool Daily Post, Catherine Isaac, has moved her writing into top gear and driven her ‘new kind of novel’ straight into the bestsellers list.
Messy, Wonderful Us, a stunning tale of family secrets, tangled relationships, love, friendship and self-discovery, is her follow-on to You Me Everything, now optioned for film, and it certainly fulfils all the promise and exceeding talent of that initial change of writing direction.
When she set out on this intriguing path, Isaac declared that her new genre would be ‘exploring some difficult themes but with compassion and humour,’ and this uplifting, emotional rollercoaster ride through some dark corners and sunlit uplands is one of the most affecting reads of 2019.
Research scientist Allie Culpepper, 33, from Liverpool has always lived a careful, focused existence, dedicating her career to finding a cure for the genetic disease, cystic fibrosis, while putting her love life on hold and her ticking biological clock ‘on snooze.’
Her beloved father, Joe, has always been the rock in her life since her mother died from cancer when Allie was only six. But when she is rummaging through some drawers at her grandmother’s home, she finds a letter dating back to 1983 which turns upside down everything she had believed about her family.
It’s a discovery that sends her to the town of Sirmione on the shores of Lake Garda with her best friend since schooldays, Ed Holt, a high-flying businessman, travelling alongside her. Ed has just shocked everyone with a sudden separation from his wife, Julia, and Allie hopes that a break will help him open up.
Her dad doesn’t know the reason for her trip, and Allie can’t bring herself to tell him that she is flying to Italy to unpick the truth about what her mother did all those years ago. But the secrets that emerge as the sun beats down on Lake Garda, and then on the Mediterranean coastline of Liguria, don’t merely concern her family’s tangled past.
And the two friends are forced to confront questions about their own lifelong relationship that seem impossible to resolve.
Packed with the acute psychological insight, natural warmth, wry comedy and exquisitely drawn characters that we have come to expect from Isaac, this is a story that tackles the realities of life and some of the hardest-hitting topics with unflinching honesty, but without losing its sense of eternal optimism.
Rich and compelling storylines encompassing three generations of women, and their complex, ‘messy,’ relationships, play out against the lush backdrop of Italy in a series of twists and turns, and sometimes jaw-dropping revelations.
These are real, flawed people with painful secrets, facing conflicting emotions and life-changing events. Their individual stories are written with compassion and insight, and discovering how their journeys end is just one of the many rewards of this beautiful, thought-provoking novel.
(Simon & Schuster, hardback, £20)