(Jump over to read a review of Yes, My Darling Daughter)
"Postcards from Berlin"
(Reviewed by Judi Clark SEP 07, 2003)
"I realize I am happy: my body fluid and easy with the wine, my room hospitable, beautiful, this man with the Irish lilt in his voice approving of my picture; this is easy, this is how it should be."
Catriona Lydate, her husband Richard and their daughters Sinead and Daisy are entertaining a group of Christmas carolers in their home, when she meets Fergal. Fergal is very interested in one of Cat's paintings and straight off he's encouraging her work. The carolers include her best friend, Nicky, who is an artsy new-age type. The others are people she mostly knows through their children, such as Natalie's mother. She's feeling good about her family and her home, though there does seem to be some hints at things to come, such as when she tells us that her husband Richard is chatting with a young girl who is the age that Catriona was when Richard "chose" her. From all outside appearances, one would think that Catriona Lydgate has always known a life of privilege. And as she looks around at her home filled with the Christmas carolers, she tells us it is a home that "any woman might look at now in that greedy, appraising way." And then Fergal asks, "I know you, don't I?" and Catriona confesses to us that this brings out a fear in her that lays a cold hand on her heart.
Cat is a full time wife and mother raising two girls. Sinead, in her early teen years, is actually Richard's daughter from his first marriage; however, Catriona has been raising her since she was five. Daisy is eight year's old. Both girls are talented, pleasant and equally loved. Up until now all has been running smoothly. But things begin to change the night before the family is to spend the day with Richard's parents; they are taking the family to a puppet show, an event chosen specifically for Daisy. But in the night, Daisy develops a fever, and other flu-like symptoms. Right off we can see Richard's impatience with the situation and encourages Cat to force Daisy to recover. But when even Richard gives up trying to give Daisy medicine - it makes her retch - it's agreed that Cat and Daisy will stay home, while Richard and Sinead will attend the play.
This is the start of a pattern for Catriona and Daisy, in which Cat wants to do the best by her daughter but often feels guilty for not pushing her daughter harder. Like the first day of the new term after the holidays. Daisy, although recovered from the flu, has not been eating properly. She dresses for school, but when she comes down the stairs, her face is white. Cat drives her to school anyway, hoping for the best, but once there it's obvious that she's too sick and Cat, although she had planned to attend an art exhibition that day, takes Daisy back home. Cat can't help but wonder if she should have insisted just one more time that Daisy go into the school, yet the sight of her daughter's tears just pulls at her heart. As the symptoms continue, Cat feels more and more helpless until she finally puts a list together of what she can do to help out Daisy, which includes a visit to surgery (this novel is set in England, thus it uses different health care terminology) as well as some alternative healers recommended by Nicky.
Now for those of you who have been faithful visitors to MostlyFiction.com, you've likely read the review on (if not the actual book) called What's Wrong with Dorfman? by John Blumenthal and you're probably wondering my fascination with sick, undiagnosable characters. But I assure you this is coincidental. Despite the similarities, these are two completely different plots and books, although like Dorfman, Daisy remains undiagnosed until the end. In Daisy's case the plot twists around to put the blame on the mother. Because Catriona is overly protective and seems to have extensive medical knowledge, the specialist jumps quickly to the conclusion that Daisy's problems are more likely to be psychological, something that Catriona is doing and possibly something as extreme as "Munchausen by proxy" in which a mother makes her child sick on purpose to get attention. As it is, Catriona is hiding a key fact about her own childhood that happens to be the most common trait to those who commit Munchasuen by proxy.
Since Catriona is the narrator, we as the reader have to figure out how truthful and honest she is being about how she is caring for Daisy. All the while, we know that there are secrets that she is keeping; like, the fact that she is receiving postcards from Berlin from someone in her past and hiding these from her husband. We also have to wonder if her marriage is as strong as she says it is as there seems to be a disconnect between Catriona's narration and the words she chooses to use that often contradict the picture she is painting for us. And as we learn more about Catriona and her past, we can't help but see that although the situations are not at all similar, Catriona is not so very different from her own mother when it comes to hiding the past. If there is any moral to this story, it is hiding from the past can be very harmful to the future.
Although the synopsis for this novel describes the book as suspenseful, I would say that a more proper description is atmospheric. There is much that happens in this novel, and though it has the appearance of unfolding slowly, the reality is that a lot is said in a few words and much happens in a few pages and all of this is at a nice, consistent pace. Catriona goes from the happiest moment in which she believes her world is as it should be (and she's painting only stills of dead flowers), to less and less sure of herself as a mother, as a wife and even as daughter (but now her paintings include people for the first time and get more and more complicated). On the other hand she remains from start to finish a strong woman. This is not an easy contradiction to pull off, yet she and the other characters ring true. As evidenced from her past, Cat is a survivor and her inner core guides her to do the exact right thing for her child. In doing so, she does right for herself and even her own mother. By the time the novel ends, Catriona's world has been completely shaken and when the dust settles and the past secrets are put to light, we can see that this new alignment is more likely to make her happier than what appeared to be a perfect world at the beginning of the novel. And now that I think about, maybe this book isn't so very different from John Blumenthal's novel.
- Amazon readers rating: from 7 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Postcards from Berlin at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Trust (1999)
- Alysson's Shoes (March 2002)
- Postcards from Berlin (August 2003)
- The River House (June 2005)
- Yes, My Darling Daughter (April 2009) (aka The Drowning Girl In UK)
- The Soldier's Wife (June 2011)(aka The Collaborator in UK)
- Miscarriage (1987)
- Pleasure: the truth about female sexuality (1993)
- Some Girls Do: why women do and don't make the first move (1997)
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- The official Web site for Margaret Leroy
- MostlyFiction.com review of Yes, My Darling Daughter
- MostlyFiction.com review of The Soldier's Wife
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