I am a member of a book group called WDG Reads - it’s a spin off from our local drama group, which I’m also a member of, set up by Amanda who is a professional librarian. We have approx 15 members and there are usually between 8 and 12 of us at each meeting.
I had been speaking to Hannah Beckerman on twitter and had been fortunate enough to win a signed copy of her debut novel The Dead Wife’s Handbook so when the book group was looking for something to read for the March meeting I had no hesitation in recommending this book.
The evening of our meeting arrived and for various reasons we only had seven members present, four had read the book, three hadn’t, but that didn’t stop them joining in. The subject matter ensured it was a lively meeting.
After a general chat about the cover, subject matter and who had/hadn’t read it we decided to structure the meeting by focusing on the book club questions at the back of the book.
Unanimously, we all agreed that the book wouldn’t have had the same impact, emotionally or structurally if the book had been told by someone other than Rachel. We all felt that our emotional involvement in the book was enhanced as a result of Rachel’s limbo state, her coming and going at various points with no control to influence, comfort or in fact, at times fight her own corner. Had the tale been told for example by Max, there wouldn’t have been a story that hadn’t been done before, many times. Rachel was more believable by the very fact that we didn’t have to suspend belief. Her inability to influence people or situations was more believable.
We thought that Max was in a lose, lose position with Ellie and Eve. Although Max was ready to move on he didn’t really give a lot of thought to what effect his new relationship would have on Ellie. He assumed that because he’d decided Eve was a nice person everything would be all right. He was definitely putting himself first, forgetting a child has different emotional attachments and needs. One member felt quite strongly that as a head-teacher Eve should have been more responsible in the park - she shouldn’t have and in fact because of her job role wouldn’t have taken her eyes off Ellie even though she wasn’t really her responsibility. Others commented that a job role doesn’t stop you being human and even if Ellie had been her daughter accidents happen.
For a book set in the present day we all felt that the reaction of Eve’s parents was wrong. We’re not saying it wouldn’t be possible for them to react the way they did because we’ve all read enough news to know that sadly this happens all too frequently. Families, close ranks and shut down rather than face problems head on - we suspect they reacted the way they did as a form of survival - a bit ostrich like really, if we bury our heads it’s not really happening. It didn’t really make any of us feel more sympathetic towards her, although all we did discuss in detail how traumatic it must have been for her and the impact on her adult life.
Harriets reaction was totally un-called for we thought. It was almost like she was nodding in the right place to begin with. Encouraging Max to get back out in the real world and start living again but when he did she didn’t like it! On reflection we agreed she probably did think he should start living his life again, it was just the speed his new relationship travelled at, Eve we thought did move into Max’s home too quickly and Rachel’s family and friends were unprepared to find her installed where Rachel should have been. Celia’s reaction was totally justified we thought. How can a mother cope losing a daughter - incomprehensible, add to that she had already had to learn to live again without her husband after he’d died in the same way. For Celia in particular turning up to Ellie’s birthday party and finding Eve there (playing mum, cake and all) with no prior warning - wow, what was you thinking Hannah - it was truly awful and heart breaking to read.
As a group, on the whole we were rooting for Eve and Max’s relationship to be a success. They both deserved happiness having suffered in different ways and for Max we felt his life shouldn’t have to be put on hold forever. However, we did feel it all went a bit too fast and Max in particular was a bit blinkered and oblivious to the little things and the effects they had on Ellie and Celia, Rachel’s mother. By trying to cope with life without Rachel we felt he pushed Celia out. She’d already lost a husband and now her daughter. The only thing left holding her together was Ellie and she needed her - we felt although Max didn’t act un-naturally he should have tried to think about her and her feelings more. Rachel was their link and without her it was difficult for both of them.
I’ve always thought and said - if I was to die I’d want my husband and family to be happy and if that meant moving on and a new relationship - go for it. I stand by my beliefs but….I’d previously thought it might be nice to look down and give a wave to my family, just so I know they’re all right - NO WAY absolutely not. I want to be GONE when I’m gone - no glimpsing for me, I couldn’t cope. The rest of the group felt pretty much the same way. One friend has always said she wanted her husband to be happy but, if he came home with a Thai bride she’d haunt him forever! (many years ago, there seemed to be a spate of people in our local pub on becoming a widower or were already single acquiring themselves a new bride from Thailand)
We were unanimous in saying we thought Eve would make a good step-mother. She appeared loving and caring without being pushy. We felt she was a steady, sensible person who seemed to be in for the long haul and was happy with the complete package, not just wanting Max and tolerating Ellie. There didn’t appear to be any jealousy of Rachel at all. There was an acceptance that she was and always will play a (virtual) big part in Max and Ellie’s lives.
There wasn’t much discussion around this question but yes, on the whole everyone agreed that Harriet and Connor would make a good couple but it perhaps wouldn’t be an easy ride. Both were quite strong characters but both were fully committed to Ellie, Connor in particular was a fantastic Uncle.
Again, we all agreed that the use of the seven stages of grief to structure the book was perfect. It was very true to real life and gave the book and Rachel’s non-existence a reason to be, change and let go. This question in particular evoked a long discussion as two of the people who had read the book had been involved in marriage break-downs and found aspects of the book traumatic for different reasons. One felt exactly like Rachel and suffered in exactly the same way watching her husband move on in a new relationship, hearing and being told things about him and his new lady, the impact on the rest of the family, both immediate and extended. Her life literally fell apart, she did greave for all she’d lost and for her future - thankfully now she’s in a good place - life does go on! The other lady, read this book much slower than any other book she’d read - each chapter was like re-living her marriage breakdown. She moved into a new relationship with her children and the book made her question the impact this had had on them. At the time they were not much older than Ellie. She said she spent many evenings just staring at the ceiling after reading this book, it provoked many questions that she wanted answers to and on many occasions very nearly rang her daughter at Uni to ask her what it was like for her during them difficult years - what impact had it had upon her? She’s thankful now she didn’t ring in an emotional state at midnight but had decided she’s going to give the book to her daughter and see if any questions arise from doing so.
Rachel, through the grieving process was able to move on by the end of the book and this is ultimately what we wanted for her. If she was dead we didn’t want her to suffer anymore. We’d always thought it was the people who get left behind that suffer but now we’re not so sure-is something else or not? It doesn’t seem fair somehow that if you die you suffer twice in theory. Once because you’re dead — it can’t get any worse than that and then again because you have to watch your family suffer and then move on.
We all absolutely agreed, who we are and how we live our lives, the impact we have upon those around us, in particular family and friends is far more important than any physical achievement. To think that the values and standards we instil in our children stays with them forever whether we live or die has got to be the most powerful thing. Rachel watching Ellie once again become the happy, relaxed child at ease with herself has got to be more comforting than seeing the heartbreak and suffering that she endured in the early days.
What a fantastic novel this was Hannah, despite our small numbers at our last meeting we talked more and for longer about this book than we have for many months. There’s not many books that provoke such discussions that come from the heart but this one made each and every one of us think and look at our lives and I know that The Dead Wife’s Handbook will come up in discussion again and again as the members who couldn’t attend the last meeting turn up to other meetings and share their thoughts.
I look forward to reading your next novel and want to say what an absolute pleasure it has been talking to you about your book, other books and life in general. You really are inspirational and you, yourself have a truly generous heart.
Dawn x x
Read my review here!