Book reviews

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Life in Seven Mistakes by Susan Johnson


I’m going out of my way at the moment to read more novels by Australia authors, so picked up Life in Seven Mistakes by Susan Johnson. Ordinarily I would have avoided a book with a black cover and a pink rose petal as the combination screams romance, potentially with lurid details that would make me cringe with embarrassment, but happily for me I could not have been more wrong about Life in Seven Mistakes, as there were no icky sex scenes at all.

Life in Seven Mistakes tells the story of the Barton family, who are more dysfunctional than most families.

Patriach Bob Barton is retired and lives with his wife Nance in a penthouse at Surfer’s Paradise, on Queensland’s Gold Coast. For all of you non-Australian readers, the Gold Coast is where Australians go to party, our version of Las Vegas or Ibiza. Loads of cash and flash, not much substance, but the beach certainly photographs well.


Anyhoo, (I’m getting my Aussie on here) Bob is a self-made man. He started out as a labourer on the Snowy scheme, which was the biggest engineering works ever done in Australia. He quickly worked his way up in the world to run a global company, and earned massive amounts of money. Bob fell in love with Nance at first sight back in the day, and she with him. An awestruck Bob described Nance to a mate as being more beautiful than Ava Gardner, since Ava’s “face is sort of cruel.” *


Together, Bob and Nance had three children, Elizabeth, Robbo and Nicky, who are all in their forties when they join their parents a few days before Christmas at the Gold Coast, along with an assortment of husbands, wives and children. Everyone except Nicky, that is, because he is in jail.

In the present story, Bob is aggro to the point of being unreasonable, blustering and swearing constantly. It is clear from the beginning of the story that he calls the shots and pays the bills in the Barton family. Nance is a bit of a dragon too, who backs Bob right or wrong.

The current story is told from Elizabeth’s point of view. She is nearly 50, up to her third husband, and has three children with different fathers. She is an artist who is not successful enough to pay her own bills, and behaves like a petulant teenager in her parent’s company. Elizabeth has spent most of her adult life avoiding spending time with her parents.

Robbo is very like his father, successful and blustery, but unlike Bob, Robbo married a woman who wears the pants in their relationship. One of Robbo’s children has an eating disorder.

Nicky’s escape came from drugs, and eventually from being sent to prison, where he found God. I’m fairly sure that when he gets out he will discover drugs again.

Things came to a head in the story on Christmas Eve when Bob’s health suddenly deteriorated. I think underneath it all the Barton family actually loved each other, but it was hard to tell from their behaviour.

Reading about the Barton family made me feel uncomfortable. The story is quite well written and the location and time is familiar and true to life, but I can’t imagine living in such an unhappy family and as a result struggled to empathise with the characters. The book’s title comes from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, from the part that says a man has ‘seven ages,’ from being a baby through to old age. I think the title must have referred to Bob particularly, although all of the characters were struggling emotionally

I’m not sure where it all went wrong for Bob and Nance. They certainly loved and understood each other and in the beginning their little family seemed perfect. By the time their children were teenagers though, Bob and Nance’s parenting mistakes were clear. They interfered in their children’s lives, didn’t allow them to express their own opinions, and constantly put them down when they expressed a view different to their own. Unfortunately for the happiness of the family, this behaviour was continuing in the present day part of the story, as their almost middle-aged children were still attempting to rebel against Bob and Nance’s rules. By the end of the story Elizabeth recognised that even though she doesn’t want to, she needed to start showing her parents that she loves them.

Susan Johnson has written quite a few novels, including one based on the life of Australian writer Charmian Clift. I will look out for this, although if it is true to Charmian Clift’s life, it won’t have a happy ending either.

*This was the only photo I could find where Ava Gardner’s facial expression looked “sort of cruel.” She just looked beautiful in every other photo…





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