Lisa Ireland writes authentic and relatable stories that really stay with you. I have read her contemporary fiction, though none of her more country offerings, and loved them. Her characters are ones that I connect with and I am sure most women would.
The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan is an emotional novel, it has a huge serving of heart but it also has humour, adventure and an insightful look at life for a woman through the decades.
Shirley Sullivan is our heroine and she definitely was a heroine, a smart and capable woman who, at 79, pulled off a heist that many couldn’t even dream of getting away with; she also knew how to use her age to her advantage.
We get to know Shirley as a canny older lady living in a situation that she isn’t happy with and she’s determined to do something about it.
I’m a little stuck on how to approach this review because so much of the storyline is caught up in some pretty big secrets that I’m not sure how to steer clear of spoilers and do the story justice. I picked the big secret very early on but couldn’t have predicted how it would play out.
We meet Shirley in the present, in the lead up to her big heist, but throughout the novel we also go back to the beginning of her story as Shirley Sullivan so we can piece together how she came to be where she is.
Ireland uses a dual timeline to let us really get inside Shirley’s head, going from the present day to the day she met her husband in 1961.
The young Shirley was raised in a time where her main aim in life was to catch a suitable husband. The day she met Frank she was already courting a suitable boy and hoping that he would be ready to get serious, instead he showed his true colours and found himself needing to secure a new dance partner.
Shirley loved her job, and was expected to give it up as soon as she was wed to focus on being the best wife, mother and housewife she could. A situation that women are fortunate not to face anymore because of the hard work of women of Shirley’s generation, the likes of whom we will meet in this novel.
There are some fabulous women in this book but for now I want to focus on Shirley, she broke me on more than one occasion while reading her story because she suffered what so many women have faced, and she suffered it in a time where it was even more taboo than it is today.
Shirley’s aim in life was to be the perfect wife and mother, she wanted to have a beautiful brood of children and she suffered in her quest to have them. A string of miscarriages ended in a successful pregnancy, weeks of bedrest were required at the end to give this baby the best possible chance and the labour ended with a paragraph that broke me, because it was a scenario that I could remember all too well from my own experience.
A traumatic birth made bonding a little difficult; but over time, and with a little help from an amazing midwife Shirley got through it. This whole side of the story made me very happy that I came generations after Shirley because I’m not sure I could have got through what she did in one piece, I’m thankful to the strong women of her generation that fought for change and made things for us so much more bearable.
Shirley couldn’t decide that one traumatic birth was more than enough and take steps to ensure there wasn’t another pregnancy, she and Frank were practising Catholics in a time that contraception was still a sin, and there was only so long she could put off doing her marital duty.
For 57 years Shirley has done her best to be a good wife, to be a good mother and to make the best of the life she has. She was nothing if not dutiful but she was also very caught up in appearances and what other people thought, sometimes to the detriment of her own happiness.
The present day timeline sees Shirley unable to watch her dear husband fade in a nursing home any longer. She knows the big adventure she’s planning has an expiration date but she wants to at least make it to her destination.
Frank has dementia and Shirley looked after him at home for a long time before there was an accident and her daughter took over their care, moving them across the country to be with her and placing Frank in a nursing home; a reputable and caring nursing home but a nursing home all the same. Shirley didn’t want that for him and she can’t bear to watch him fade away, sure that she could care for him and that he would do better out of that environment.
Much of the time Frank no longer recognises Shirley, which breaks her heart, but through it all he asks to go home; to the beach where he met his darling wife Shirl. She may not have been all she could over the years, she’s made mistakes and she owns it but she’s determined to give him this one thing.
Over the course of a week Shirley travels with Frank from Sydney to Geelong, taking a scenic road-trip to try and stay under the radar. They travel through some beautiful country that I’m familiar with, which was nice, but it’s the journey they take together that is the most poignant.
Frank may not know who Shirley is for most of the trip but he shares a lot about his life with his Shirl, telling her things that she never knew in all their years of marriage. This trip allows them a new level of understanding and a connection Shirley never expected to feel again.
In the past timeline we meet the lovely midwife Rita, an advocate for women’s rights who helps push for change in women’s health when it comes to contraception and works towards change for bereaved mothers. She is a women who was breaking the mould, she didn’t care what other people thought and was going to do it her way. She was also a fabulous midwife any woman would want in her delivery suite, she actually reminds me a little of one of my favourite midwives.
Fiona is Shirley’s daughter, a strong and career-minded mother who is determined to have it all; to prove that you can have a career and be a mother. She is a formidable woman trying so hard to have it all that she refuses to let anyone see her struggles, thereby making it harder for herself. Hopefully there are changes coming…
I love the ending, but I also wish there was another chapter. Ireland has left it wide open for us to choose what we want for the characters next and left it at the perfect moment but I still want to know where Ireland sees them next.
I loved this book and Ireland’s characters touched me deeply, all of them. She tackles a lot of issues that I can’t explore in this review without going deep into spoiler territory and I would have loved to have any of these characters in my life.
The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan shows us a lot about life, love and the secrets we keep to protect our family. The struggles that those of past generations had to carry inside them every day because they weren’t things that you shared.
The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan is book #10 for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2020.
The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan is published by Michael Joseph, a Penguin imprint, and is available now from Angus & Robertson Bookworld, Booktopia and where all good books are sold. In these uncertain times it would be great to try and support a local bookstore, many of the ones in my area have put systems in place to fulfil orders even though their physical stores may be closed to the public.