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Review: From Where I Fell by Susan Johnson

From Where I Fell 
Susan Johnson
Allen & Unwin
2021, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

An anguished email from Pamela Robinson in Australia to her ex-husband in Paris accidentally ends up in the inbox of New York State teacher Chrisanthi Woods. Chrisanthi is sympathetic to Pamela’s struggles and the women begin to tell each other the stories and secrets of their lives.

Pamela, responsible for raising her three sons, must re-invent the meaning of home following her divorce, and Chrisanthi, her dreams long dampened, must find home by leaving it. Temperamental opposites, their emails turn into an exhilarating and provocative exchange of love, loss and fresh beginnings, by turns amusing, frank and confronting.

I love epistolary novels, I always have. This is written entirely as emails back and forth between Pamela, a recently divorced woman living in Australia trying to raise her three sons with various challenges, and Chris (short for Chrisanthi). Chris is a woman who lives in New York who struggles with her disapproving Greek mother and who finds herself involved with the lives of the various people she crosses paths with. Pamela accidentally emails Chris thinking it’s the email address of her ex-husband and when Chris replies to gently tell her she has the wrong address, Pamela keeps emailing her anyway.

I think there’s something about a crossed connection like this, accidentally emailing the wrong person and then pouring out your troubles to them. They’re anonymous, they don’t know you or anything about you, have no preconceived ideas and don’t need to mollycoddle you either. Chris is half a world away, Pamela doesn’t know her or really anything about her and even whatever Chris tells her could not necessarily be the truth. But for Pamela, who has recently moved back to Australia with her three boys (two teens and a younger one, around eight) who were all born overseas, she has little in the way of support. She’s really struggling with her eldest child in particular, who has not taken the divorce and move very well. In Chris, Pamela doesn’t always find a sympathetic ear, but she does find someone she can confide in unfiltered. She doesn’t need to sugarcoat things or hide her true feelings. And Pamela has a lot of feelings.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for Pamela, she’s chosen to end her marriage to Chris (of the same name as the person she ends up emailing) and is now basically solo-parenting as he’s stayed behind in France. Chris (the ex-husband) seems to deeply resent Pamela and is resisting all her attempts at communication, which made me feel for her as she does desperately need some help, particularly with Raf, their eldest, who is 16. Even if Chris has a lot of negative feelings towards Pamela over the marriage, what she’s going through in parenting is very difficult and honestly, he should be assisting her, especially when things take a very bad turn. Pamela has a lot going on, she still has a lot of complex feelings over the ending of the marriage and she’s very given to overthinking and overanalysing and literally reexamining every decision she’s ever made or thought she’s ever had.

On the other hand, the Chris-of-the-emails seems very different. She’s often short with Pamela, terse at times, and has little patience for some of Pamela’s ramblings about her marriage and decisions. She seems very practical although the further into the communication we get, the more Chris lets little snippets of herself and her life slip, although she never dives as deeply into sharing as Pamela does, I don’t think. She shares things but not necessarily those deep thoughts and feelings. You have to piece her thoughts and feelings together mostly from the things she shares. Whereas Pamela is an open book, every thought she has tumbling out of her brain and through her fingers into the email.

Because they do not know each other, they do not know each other’s sensitive subjects, things best left alone or the things that will trigger each other, so it’s sometimes a communication that offends or touches on things that the other is not yet ready to hear or cannot talk about. Chris in particular, is quite blunt, very no-nonsense whereas Pamela comes across much more of a dreamer in her emails, and as I mentioned, very given to rambling on about whether or not she’s done the right thing. She’s very open almost immediately, where as Chris is much more closed at first, has to be drawn out by Pamela, almost coaxed into sharing things about herself and her life.

I sped through this in an afternoon, the format is so inherently readable and getting to know both women felt so easy. I became so invested in both their lives – poor Pamela and the struggles with sons who are bigger, stronger than she is and with little authority to exude over them. With two sons myself (one of whom will be a teenager this year) I’m always drawn into stories about the ups and downs of parenting. Pamela has so much love for her sons (even when some do little to deserve it, frankly) and you can tell that she’s so grateful for the outlet of being able to email Chris. And Chris on the other hand, is a much harder to person to feel like you’re getting to ‘know’ but I was invested in the story of her mother and the neighbour and the young girls from Syria that she was helping. And even more enjoyable was Chris slowly opening herself up to a place of trust with Pamela, where she felt she could tell her more intimate things. Pamela leaps in right away but Chris is much more of a slow burn to confession.

I really enjoyed this. And I’m still thinking about the ending.

8/10

Book #33 of 2021

From Where I Fell is book #17 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021

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Melbourne Writers Fest – Saturday 1st September {Part 1}

Saturday marked the 3rd day I was going to be at the Melbourne Writers Fest. I had booked a session on the Friday (a free one) but I didn’t end up attending as it was blowing a gale and belting with rain when I woke up and to be honest, my bed won over getting up! Saturday I was very keen for the 2 sessions I had booked, the first of which was the Sex & Sensibility panel comprising of Emily Maguire, Chris Flynn and Susan Johnson. Of those three authors, I’ve only read Susan Johnson – I recently hosted a read-a-long of her most recent work, My Hundred Lovers for its publisher, Allen & Unwin.

L-R: Chair Enza Gandolfo, Emily Maguire, Chris Flynn, Susan Johnson

The session kicked off with Gandolfo commenting that novels with explicit sex scenes have traditionally been banned for offensive profanity, such as LolitaLady Chatterley’s Lover, etc but our novelists on the panel were rather lucky to be writing in a time where that doesn’t happen as often (although sometimes it still does!). There are numerous examples now in genre fiction with explicit sex, but not so much in literary novels. Did our authors set out to write an explicit novel?

Susan Johnson: Originally (with My Hundred Lovers) she set out to write a story from the body out, a narrative from the body out. Her first idea (and this was some time ago) was to just encompass her character’s sexual lovers but this turned out to be technically too difficult. When Johnson was living in London, she went to see A.S. Byatt and it was remarked upon that no woman writer has written something that would be similar to Casanova.

Chris Flynn: The sex scenes were the first scenes he wrote. He tried to write this book for a very long time – in fact he wrote 8 drafts and originally the protagonist was an older man. This wasn’t working and one paragraph in the 8th draft, about what the protagonist was doing in his 20’s became the entire 9th draft and that was the draft that he sold to a publisher. He also found the sex scenes the easiest to write.

Emily Maguire: Her most recent book, Fishing For Tigers, started in a different place to where it ended up. Living and working in Hanoi, the character of Mischa came to Emily in the grounds of literature, a peaceful garden where she found her mind was ‘quiet’. There was the idea of writing about a woman who found the same peace that Emily had, but then she decided that had been done a few times before and instead she began the novel after Mischa had found her peace and when something comes into her life to turn it basically upside down.

Susan Johnson: Sexuality is a powerful force – we are much more of the body than we think we are. There’s a destructive/transforming power of sex and potential for sex to overthrow is unsettling. Susan mentioned the former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and also Bill Clinton as powerful men who were brought, at least to a point, undone by sex.

Chris Flynn: His protagonist Billy, led a life of violence until he went to Thailand. For him, sex heals him – it replaced the violence and became the way in which he put violence behind him.

Enza then mentioned the importance of place in all of the authors work and asked them to speak about that.

Chris Flynn: Has visited Thailand and was quite shocked by the sex tourism there. As a little side note, Chris Flynn did a reading from his book, Tiger In Eden, and skipped half of the section he chose to read because he thought it was too explicit to share aloud and that he was a little bit embarrassed! He felt that it was an intimate moment between an author and a reader, not designed to be read aloud, which was quite adorable. Anyway! The sex tourism in Thailand is all-encompassing, not just for “old German men” and that plenty of Western women went there for that type of tourism too. It’s a very sexual place, so for him it made sense for Billy to explore his sexuality there.

Emily Maguire: Her book is set in Vietnam – there is sex tourism but for Western women over 30 there is basically no sex. The Western men all date Vietnamese women but the Vietnamese men rarely ever date Western women. For Mischa, it was a very safe place for her to heal the relationship she extricated herself from – an asexual place.

Susan Johnson: Paris, France plays quite a part in her book and it’s a very important place for Debra, her protagonist. The French find a full life sexually/sensuously a necessity and it is classless – in France even the poor people eat extremely well. For Debra it is a full-flowering of herself.

(Chris Flynn chimed in here to say he agreed with this, based on firsthand experience. He lived in France in his early 20’s and found it eye opening in terms of food, drink, culture, etc and recommends everyone go and do it!).

The British award for Bad Sex came up, which some panelists seemed to find amusing that it was no surprise that the British were the ones who came up with it! There was some excellent talk about how anything, taken out of context, can seem “bad” and that not all sex is meant to be erotic. Sometimes it encompasses the awkward, or the mundane.

The authors were then asked if there was a fear of tipping into pornography.

Emily Maguire: It is not her intention to write pornography but she feels that there is a moral pornography that exists out there that is deeply empathetic and humane and compassionate. It takes something that would be easy to laugh at, or to lead to someone being called a freak and makes it compassionate. In terms of her own writing, the sex scene needs a reason to be there, in terms of advancing the plot. Sex is a way to really get to the core of a person, and really cuts a lot of the bullshit away.

(My note: I found it interesting that the point Emily mentioned, about the sex scene needing to be there, was something Stephanie Laurens and her fellow panelists from the A Fine Romance session also really emphasised. It seems that genre, literary fiction all run to the same thoughts on the reasons for including sex within their novels).

Susan Johnson: Believes that women writing “pornography” is something missing and that there’s a gap in the market. There should be a tearing down of the patriarchy.

Chris Flynn: If women write frankly about sex, is it pornography?

Emily Maguire: People assume it’s personal.

Susan Johnson: People assume it’s a memoir. She had someone offer her condolences on her brother at the Byron Bay Writers Festival. Johnson has two brothers and they’re both alive and well – it is Debra in My Hundred  Lovers that loses her brother. People seem to think the novel is about her.

Chris Flynn: People assume it’s a diary of his time in Thailand, or based on his personal relationships.

Emily Maguire: It’s often believed your first book is autobiographical – hers is about a schoolgirl that has an affair with a teacher. After this was published she had explicit photos emailed to her by men who thought she might be interested, based on her characters and she had people congratulate her for extricating herself from the relationship with an older man, one that she was actually never in.

Chris Flynn: Disappointed that no explicit photos emailed to him!

There was then some questions from the audience, the first of which was was there any pressure to include sex from publishers?

Emily Magure: No

Susan Johnson: No

Chris Flynn: His editor knew he’d cut a sex scene and asked him to extend it. The editor felt him cutting the scene before the orgasm was unfair to the readers so he had to reinstate the orgasm!

Susan Johnson then brought up 50 Shades Of Grey. It’s now the highest selling novel of all time, wanted to know why! Now publishers think that sex sells but it’s impossible to predict what will be the next big bestseller until it happens!

There was a long question I kind of missed about repressed times and hardcore stuff like 50 Shades of Grey, but thankfully the authors all refuted that 50 Shades is anything remotely resembling hardcore! Chris Flynn made me laugh when he referred to it as “erotic nonsense”.

There are no taboos in terms of what you can write about bt there are taboos in terms of acceptance – explicit but conservative.

Emily Maguire: She thinks that Jane Eyre is one of the hottest novels there is. It’s very true to its time – Jane is a physical, sensual woman but this is repressed. Contemporary characters act differently so harder to structure that chemistry.

Chris Flynn: Notices if sex is absent from contemporary fiction and wonders why.

There was a question then on whether or not it was hard to make sex original.

Chris Flynn: Depends upon the characters – they dictate the euphemisms, etc.

Susan Johnson: It’s hard to write about sex well. If sex comes up organically within the story, there’s a better chance.

Emily Maguire: Really got to come from the character. If you’re trying to write something universally hot, it can be cliché. You don’t want to convince the reader they want to do this, you want to convince them this character will do this.

This ended the session and Marg and I went down to the signing at the bookshop – I had told Susan Johnson on twitter I would pop by and introduce myself and I ducked into the shop and picked up 2 books by Emily, Taming The Beast and Fishing For Tigers and Chris Flynn’s book, A Tiger In Eden so I ended up getting all of those signed, plus my copy of My Hundred Lovers.

This was a truly fascinating panel – very informative, insightful, enjoyable and just funny in places too. I came away with a pile of new books to read and lots of things to think about!

(Any mistakes in the translation of the session are mine)

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My Hundred Lovers – Discussion Part 3 and Wrap-Up

Hello everyone and welcome to the third and final part of the discussion on My Hundred Lovers, by Susan Johnson. How is everyone? It’s a terrible day here where I am, perfect for reading and hopefully for some dissecting of this book!

So in the third part of the book we learn a few little things that some of us had been wondering throughout. I’ll talk a little bit about this section and then at the end I’ll have a little bit about the book overall. As always, feel free to bring up your own points of discussion or issues that have resonated with you in any way.

  • What do you think of Deborah’s unusual friendship with the eccentric Horatia? Do you like Horatia?
  • Do you think Deborah was drawn to ‘the beautiful lover’ because of his “full sensuous mouth that bore a curious resemblance to my fathers”? (p177). Or did she just want to sleep with a very beautiful man, so she could say/know that she had!
  • The chapter entitled ‘Breasts’ was for me, both beautiful and sad, one part devoted to her new son and the joy she feels at him and also the wonder at her new ‘page 3 breasts’ and the other part devoted to her husband’s belligerent attitude towards the new baby. Satisfied vs unsatisfied. It seems like the sort of chapter that deliberately raises sympathy towards Deborah and directs animosity towards her husband.
  • The Suspicious Wanderer’s past catches up with her in the chapter ‘The worried lover’ (p191) where she undergoes a test for HIV, which is becoming more commonly known. Do you think that the rise of AIDS and the fact that she knew someone that contracted it had any repercussions on Deborah’s behaviour?
  • In this section, Deborah has a liason with a woman. Do you feel that she is genuinely bisexual, merely curious or in love with the idea of love, no matter where it may come from?
  • Her husband is named David, the same name as her father. Do you feel this is significant? (p219). Do you think that she just keeps finding men who remind her of her father in some way, in any way?
  • Her father buys for her and her alone, a beautiful black pearl (p226) – not one for her mother or her sister. It seems that this sort of event happened all too infrequently in her life, someone singling her out and giving her something beautiful.
  • David an Deborah marry in haste, despite numerous warnings from various people. Did it seem their union was destined to be doomed from the start? (p227)
  • In this section, we finally find out what became of their marriage (p243). Did you see this coming or did it surprise you? Why do you think Deborah still refers to him as her husband, even though he is not?
  • Just after that chapter, is a beautiful moment shared between her and her sister Jane (p246). I know that I for one, would’ve liked to have seen a little more of their turbulent relationship. Do you think that enough insight into the two sisters was given?
  • When Deborah finds that there were people who knew of the affair, she never speaks to any of them ever again (256). Does this seem fair/reasonable to you? Especially after she tolerated the shadow lover’s years of infidelity? Did you feel sympathy for her?
  • Deborah grieves more for  the loss of the houseboat and the local houseboat community than she does her husband (p257). Is she right to feel such anger, hurt and betrayal even though she doesn’t love him anymore? Or should she have just let go?

Now that the whole book is complete, how do you feel about it now, versus in the beginning? Did you enjoy it more or less as the book went on? Do you feel you were given a whole picture of Deborah, her life and her lovers? Or do you feel there were things missing, things you would’ve liked elaborated? Did you enjoy the read-a-long experience, if it was a new one for you? Would you do it again? For what it’s worth, I think this book was absolutely perfect for a read-a-long! There are few books I’ve read that I think could’ve generated such discussion on so many topics!

I’d just like to say thanks to everyone that participated and joined in the discussion, I certainly had a lot of fun hosting! Thanks also to Allen & Unwin for organising this and setting us all up with copies of the book.

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My Hundred Lovers Read-a-long Discussion Part 2

Hello everyone and welcome to the second week of discussion for My Hundred Lovers. Before we start I’d just like to thank everyone for the discussion last week! Everyone was so forthcoming with comments and opinions and that is what makes a read-a-long so thank you all for your high level of participation.

Now we’ve read 2/3’s of the book roughly and have learned a lot more about Deborah. Has anyone’s feelings on her changed at all? Do you feel any more or less understanding of her as a character and a woman? Do you judge her, for her actions? As we found out there are probably a few sections in this part that would raise eyebrows these days!

  • We’ve learned that Deborah was married but so far her husband has not been a large part of the book, only mentioned here and there. On p172, when talking about her love for the beach she says “The glorious summer I lived with my son across the road from Rainbow Beach after I lost my husband.” For those who have NOT read on past p173, do you want to take a guess of what she means by ‘lost’?
  • On p91, Deborah states that “In France, she was someone else. She was a girl whose limbs were free, with carte blanche to fill herself in.” She distances herself from this by referring to herself in the third person again, as though she’s talking about someone else, but she talks of herself. Why do you feel she felt things were different in France, that she could ‘fill herself in’?
  • Was anyone disturbed by the chapter ‘Three Men In One Day’ (p103)? This chapter gives more insight into her family and how they have fared while Deborah was in Paris: “…the sister had grown even more beautiful, the mother more drunk, the father on his magic carpet even further away with his endless maps and horizons. The poor brother had long since stepped onto that drinking path which would lead him to an early death.” She has also lost her beloved dog, put down due to old age and and family cat has disappeared. Do you think anything in that above quote impacted on her decision to sleep with the three men in one day? Is it more simple than that? Can Deborah just not say no?
  • Did you find it hard reading this chapter knowing that things today are quite different and that sort of behavior is is considered to be far more dangerous? Then, “Every girl was on the pill and no one used condoms.” Today there is an attempt at a far more different message concerning sexual safety. Do you think Deborah would’ve been as promiscuous if her time was now? Is it something that you don’t feel worries her at all?
  • The shadow lover, whom she is sleeping with upon her return from Paris (as well as the above 3 men) taunts her with remarks that she is not clever, nor is she as beautiful as her sister. She retaliates by “…sleeping with as many lovers as possible”. Why do you feel she stays with the shadow lover, who treats her this way? Whom she found sleeping with someone else at a party, the reason she slept with one of the 3 men in one day. Do you believe that she loves him? Is it habit?
  • The Blind Lover (p123) chapter interested me greatly. He seemed a good, caring, loving man, at ease with his disability and determined to live a full and happy life. Deborah tried and failed to fall in love with him – if she cannot love such a man, can she love any man who is good for her? Does she have a predisposition to drama that dates back to her childhood? Is she always destined to make bad decisions involving men?
  • In this section, Deborah has an abortion. The father of the child is unknown, due to all the men she has been sleeping with. Why do you think Deborah cries when the procedure is performed on her? Is it regret that she isn’t keeping the baby? Or something deeper, such as the reasons behind why she is in this situation? I found the quote “The kindly Chinese doctor has let Ro stand in for all the absent fathers” disturbing and sad. She then ignores a directive not to have penetrative sex for two weeks after the procedure and sleeps with someone she has zero interest in. Does this tie back in with the above question about Deborah not being able to say no? Equating sex with love, or with worth, or with something that she desperately seeks and will take from anywhere to fill a void?
  • When she finally leaves the shadow lover, she goes to the dissolute lover, which she describes as “out of the frying pan and into the fire!” Is this more indication of her incapability to make wise choices with men?
  • “By then the Suspicious Wanderer knew her romantic streak was fatal.” (p138). Do you agree that she has a romantic streak? Does her idea of romantic and yours match up? And how could it be fatal?
  • I felt a bright spot in this section, a beautiful chapter was the one concerning her love for Nana Elsie and vice versa (p147). Nana Elsie is proud of her in a way that her parents aren’t but this quote “There’s nothing like family Debbie. Friends are all very well but it’s family who stand by you when the chips are down” by Nana Elsie seems very idealised. Surely she recognises that it wasn’t particularly like that for Deborah?
  • We also see the return of ‘the deflowerer’, Jonathan Jamieson (p157). How did you feel about Deborah’s involvement with him?

I knew when I was preparing this post making my notes that I’d found lots I thought would be good for discussion but I didn’t realise it was quite so much! If I’ve left anything out that you feel is important, please don’t hesitate to bring it up. I’m looking forward to hearing how you all felt about this section.

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June Read-a-long – My Hundred Lovers, by Susan Johnson Schedule

Hi everyone! Hopefully now you have all received your copies of My Hundred Lovers but if you haven’t there’s still time! I thought I’d just post the schedule, which looks like this:

Week 1: Pages 1-88

Week 2: Pages 89-173

Week 3: Pages 174-End.

I will be putting up discussion posts on the 8th, 15th and 22nd of June. I picked those dates as they’re Fridays and I thought it would be good to give people the weekend to come and read the posts and comment as I know everyone is busy and has plenty of other commitments.

Hope you all enjoy the book and see you back here on the 8th of June for our first part discussion.

-Bree 🙂

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June Read-A-Long – My Hundred Lovers, by Susan Johnson

In June I am very excited to be hosting a read-a-long for publisher Allen & Unwin of My Hundred Lovers, a new book by Australian author Susan Johnson. From the blurb:

A woman, on the eve of her fiftieth birthday, reflects on one hundred moments from a lifetime’s sensual adventures. After the love, hatred and despair are done with, the great and trivial acts of her bodily life reveal an imperfect, yet whole self. By turns humorous, sharp, haunting and wise, this is an original and exhilarating novel from one of Australia’s premier writers.
Lyrical and exquisite, My Hundred Lovers captures the sheer wonder of life, desire and love.

For the first three weeks in June myself and other bloggers will be reading this book in sections and then discussing it both here on my blog and also on the participants own blogs, should they choose. I’ll be posting weekly, highlighting key points and hopefully there’ll plenty of conversation and opinions as we talk about this exciting novel. I can’t wait to read it, I think it sounds fascinating and I’ve been warned that it’s very, very brutally honest in its style which I think should definitely promote some very interesting topics of discussion.

If you’re an Australian blogger who wants to take part in the read-a-long then please email me your details at 1girl2manybooks {@} gmail {.} com with: your name, link to your blog and postal address so that I can pass your details on to the publisher. There are still some spots open so if this sounds like something you’d like to read and take part in, don’t hesitate to get in contact. You can read at your own pace and come back and comment on the relevant posts  whenever you’re ready, there’s no actual requirement to read along exactly to the schedule (which will be posted when I’ve received my copy of the book and can best divide it up into equal parts).

If you’re already signed up through A&U, add your link to the Mr Linky below so we can all get to know each other!

Feel free to introduce yourselves in the comments too. For those taking part who don’t know me, I’m Bree. I’m 30 years old, I live in Melbourne and I’m a mother of two boys – my eldest will be 4 in August and my youngest is 8 months old. Reading has been my escape for as long as I can remember – my parents bought me a 6ft x 3ft bookcase for my 8th birthday and I filled it that day. I’m a book lover, a book hoarder and I started this blog 2 years ago (this week actually!) in order to keep a record of what I was reading in the year and my thoughts on each book. I never dreamed it would lead me into such an amazing community of other book lovers and bloggers. I’ve participated in several read-a-longs before and really enjoyed them and talking to so many other people about the book, but this is the first one I’ve hosted myself so I’m really excited about that. You can follow me on twitter @1girl2manybooks if you like and I’ll tag any twitter posts with the hashtag #MyHundredLovers

I hope you all have fun, enjoy the book and join in the discussion.

I’ll be linking up all the discussion posts with the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 database and counting the reading of My Hundred Lovers towards my personal goal. Anyone who is also taking part in this challenge, don’t forget that this book qualifies!

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