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Review: Stella And Margie by Glenna Thomson

on January 4, 2018

Stella And Margie
Glenna Thomson
Penguin Random House AUS
2017, 292p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A beautiful novel about two women – a generation apart – thrown together by circumstance, who slowly come to love and understand one another.

Stella and her mother-in-law Margie are two very different women.

Stella is kind, compassionate and just a little chaotic. Margie is prickly, demanding and a stickler for convention. Stella has exciting dreams for the future. Margie has only bitter memories of the past. 

When Margie needs help recovering from a major operation, Stella offers her a place to stay. With no other options, Margie returns to the family farm where for decades, until Stella’s arrival, she was the one in charge. 

Margie has never made life easy for her daughter-in-law, and that’s not going to change now she’s been made a guest in her former home. 

But as the dry summer turns to a beautiful autumn, the two women gradually form an unlikely bond, as the ambitions, secrets, and tragedies that have shaped their lives are slowly uncovered…

This book was the most delightful surprise. I ended up liking it so much.

Margie is 80 and is recovering from a hip operation. Whilst awaiting a bed in a rehab facility, her rooming situation in hospital becomes unbearable and she is forced to accept her daughter in law Stella’s offer for her to come and stay on the family farm. The home that was Margie’s for many, many years. The one she vacated when her son Ross married Stella, who was from the city. Not a farming wife and everything that Margie didn’t understand. She is incredibly reluctant to return to the farm, for many reasons. It’s not what it was when Margie ran the household. Stella seems lazy, failing at housework, at cooking proper meals, failing at the upkeep on the precious garden that Margie cultivated so carefully. Her son Ross is distant and uninterested and Margie struggles to remember much about her two grandchildren. Despite the fact that she’s lived relatively close nearby in town since Ross married Stella, it doesn’t appear as though she’s spent a lot of time with them at all.

The book alternates between Stella and Margie and at first Margie sounds like the grumpiest of old ladies, bitter about her daughter-in-law not being what she would’ve chosen and the ways in which modern women don’t hold up to their historical counterparts. But Margie’s story is a very complex one and is revealed in the most delicate of layers and all of a sudden you begin to understand her abruptness, her inability to be seen as needing help, or even weak. Stella is kind and also businesslike – she doesn’t see Margie as this heavy burden of responsibility as I think Margie feels. I think that in the beginning Stella does regard it as their obligation because Margie is family but she’s not reluctant (unlike Ross). And as she actually gets to know a little bit about Margie and realises how much more there is to this woman that she doesn’t really know despite being part of her family.

Margie is clearly struggling with the modern changes of the farm and their lifestyle. She laments the time the children spend glued to their iPads without understanding what they’re doing, which can be a common complaint. But to be honest, they’re a crucial part of learning these days – my kids’ school does a BYOD from Grade 3 and they use them every day. Margie notices the dust, the slapped together meals as Stella works on something incredibly important to her and the way Stella is always rushing around but without so many things getting done the way Margie would’ve had them done. Margie also refuses Stella’s help on the principle that it’s Stella offering it and often rudely rejects suggestions for the same reason. She knows that she’s doing it simply because it’s Stella doing the asking but yet she can’t seem to stop herself, even when what Stella wants to help with or do is something that Margie wants or needs. I think Margie has a huge amount of pride and due to circumstances in her life, has held herself very aloof from others and it’s something that has become automatic to her, even when that’s not the way she wants to be. It’s a slow process for Margie to let down her guard even just a tiny bit.

Stella ends up becoming such an advocate for Margie – it’s her choice to have her at the farm and she does the bulk (well okay, actually all) of Margie’s care. Helping her shower and dress, washing her clothes, preparing her meals and bringing them to her on a tray. She takes her to her appointments, all whilst juggling many other different time consuming things. In fact she’s so much more supportive of Margie’s presence in their lives than her own husband that it begins to cause friction in their marriage as Stella struggles to get Ross to reconnect with his mother and at least make her feel as though he welcomes her stay. Ross has many unresolved issues over his childhood and his relationship with his mother and some of those seem to manifest into his dislike of Margie’s disrespect for Stella. I thought that it was great he stood up for Stella and didn’t want Margie to disrespect her (isn’t that the wish of many women, that their husbands would call out rudeness and nastiness directed at them from their mothers-in-law) but Stella is actually perfectly capable of taking care of herself and she looks beyond Margie’s dismissal of her as not worthy of much, in a generous way that I suspect I could not. Stella seems to see through Margie’s abrupt attitude or lets it wash over her but she has her times when she feels as though she’s not getting anywhere and why is she making all this effort for someone who doesn’t seem to appreciate it at all?

I read this in a single afternoon – it’s a quiet sort of exploration of families and the secrets some people keep, often for years. The connections and relationships were very well done. I enjoyed the setting and the look at farm lifestyle over the years and how things had changed during Stella and Ross’ era. Both Stella and Margie are wonderful characters in very different ways – I ended up having quite a lot of fondness for Margie. This is a touching look at what it means to be getting older and realising that you are going to have to accept help in humiliating and demeaning ways, but sometimes the people who you feel the most distant from can be the ones that offer so much.

8/10

Book #211 of 2017

Stella And Margie is book #62 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

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