Motherhood, Age and Marriage: Review of ‘What Alice Forgot’.

I don’t usually read books that have love hearts on the front cover but you can’t argue with your book club. At least I could make the most of the dying embers of my Amazon Prime free trial and get it in time for my 5 day-escape in a Thai resort. I’ve decided I’m over hostels. I wish I’d gotten over them sooner.

I’d finished it by day 2, and, as is usually the way with something I’ve devoured without mercy, it stayed with me even when I wasn’t reading it, shaping my ideas and thoughts in that intense way only 30 degree sunshine and a scorched burnt body can inspire. It was slightly warped: I was spinning down a rabbit hole of ideas; moving images of what age is going to do to me appearing and disappearing in amongst nightmares of tsunamis (I now know every possible evacuation route on Railay Beach).

The only way out of the rabbit hole was to write about it. So here are my poolside lounger thoughts on What Alice Forgot.

Alice-the-protagonist has an accident one day and bumps her head, causing her to forget an entire decade of her life from the ages of 29 to 39. Interlaced throughout is a diary of Alice’s sister as she battles with infertility, and her barmy grandmother Frannie who likes to post blogs announcing all her family’s secrets. The latter was pretty unforgiving but I’ll save my rant about that for book club. Although it’s set in Sydney, my brain arrogantly rejected this and instead chose to imagine the whole thing in America: the place I most strongly associate with crazy PTA moms. Perhaps more worryingly, I ignored all the description of Alice’s home and instead pictured Skyla and Walt’s house from Breaking Bad: apparently that setting is now my go-to for any marriage on the rocks. It should be noted that Nick, the husband, is not a drug dealer and does not at any point steal one of their children.

When I read the book, I found myself hating 39-year-old Alice. 29-year-old Alice is much nicer and friendlier, constantly rejecting her older version, who is a painfully skinny (obviously), meticulous, slave driver of a mother who does everything she can possibly do for her children’s school. Old Nick is shocked at how ‘young’ Alice seems once she’s lost her memory; how naive she is. This scared me: the impact of the next decade. I feel I’m currently skirting on the edges of adulthood. I rent a house and I pay my bills; I go to work and I vote in elections. But yet again here’s another story of adulthood meaning tiredness, routine, boredom, snapping at your partner etc. Or maybe that’s just parenthood. The book doesn’t dare to explore a woman living her whole thirties without wanting or having children, and I’ve still not read one that has the guts to do this, so I remain in the dark about the difference.

“A lack of time was the biggest antagonist for both of them.”

Alice’s mistakes were not giving her husband enough respect as a father: as a stay-at-home mum, she took on everything herself. This is something I’ve seen replicated in this insightful Guardian article about a couple who took shared paternity leave. One of the battles some of us will have to overcome is not just encouraging men to feel more active in parenting but also letting go of the reins ourselves so that there’s room for us to become equal. Her other mistakes were shutting him out at the expense of her female friend and letting her friend’s problems become her own so that when her friend was cheated on, Alice feels cheated on by Nick too. His mistakes were spending far too long at the office; letting her push him away. These seem like easy mistakes to make when you’re stressed and busy and you can’t come up for air. A lack of time was the biggest antagonist for both of them.

Sister Elisabeth spends the entire book getting over her infertility, learning to accept her lot and realising how tough Alice has it as a mother. I rejoiced for once that the ending was not going to be a fairy-tale where the woman miraculously gets pregnant in the 3rd act and time suddenly moves more quickly so we can find out its precious name (see Tony Parsons). But no. Parsons and Moriarty are in it together: Elisabeth ends up blessed with a child of her own and she’s thrilled. Hollywood can rest.

“Could you build the same tangible connections without children and a family unit?”

The book is hard to pin down in terms of its stance on having children, which I suppose is to its credit. There’s the happy family ending of course, and happy family moments (all it takes is ice-cream and a whale) but there’s a lot of realistic arguing and stress. A sense of pointlessness to the entire thing. When Alice learns she has 3 children she’s forgotten, these beings are separate entities: fully fledged people in their own right. She gave birth to them but she does not own them, no matter how many strict routines she put in place before she lost her memory. You can be proud of steering them right but essentially they are separate, even if they share your body-shuddering surname: Love. Through her sister Elisabeth’s storyline, the idea that a biological connection is irrelevant once you’ve fallen in love is slightly enforced through the idea of adoption before being undone again. But it wasn’t undone for me. The greatest loves of our lives are the ones we’ve crafted ourselves not through duty or coincidental intimacy but through hard work and choice. Yet there’s something ethereal about a formal connection. Why else get married? And I have to say, even though I am not accustomed to such feelings, that it was marriage that came out tops in this book. There’s a section at the end which describes a lifetime’s worth of kisses and Hollywood got me. All the times, Alice reflects in the epilogue as she approaches 50, good and bad, ‘seemed to fuse into a feeling that she knew was so much stronger, more complex and real, than…even the love she’d felt for Nick in those early years.’ You can’t get that back: the chance to build something over time like that.

Could you build the same tangible connections without children and a family unit? Do they make the abstract emotional brickwork more substantial?

I feel more naive than ever. And I accept that I may be in my fourth decade now but I’m still learning and, by the time I’m fifty, no matter what I choose to do now, I’ll look back and shake my head. Life will just take me away with it. Alice didn’t even work yet life just thrust her along with all of its demands: get thin, have an immaculate home, go to PTA meetings, take your children to fifty team sports, home bake their food, socialise with other mums who have the same faces. And she completely lost herself. Young Alice is disturbed at what she’s become. How scary. That life can do that to us and we’ll all be too busy to notice.

Not a bad array of thoughts from a book with a love heart on the cover.

Liane Moriarty’s website

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