The Story (from Storygraph)
Everyone tells Martha Friel she is clever and beautiful, a brilliant writer who has been loved every day of her adult life by one man, her husband Patrick. A gift, her mother once said, not everybody gets.
So why is everything broken? Why is Martha – on the edge of 40 – friendless, practically jobless and so often sad? And why did Patrick decide to leave?
Maybe she is just too sensitive, someone who finds it harder to be alive than most people. Or maybe – as she has long believed – there is something wrong with her. Something that broke when a little bomb went off in her brain, at 17, and left her changed in a way that no doctor or therapist has ever been able to explain.
Martha has one last chance to find out whether a life is ever too broken to fix – or whether, maybe, by starting over, she will get to write a better ending for herself.
It’s not very often that I actively find listening time for an audiobook; mostly I tune in when I am walking or travelling anyway, as something to listen to in the background. But by half way through Sorrow and Bliss I was eagerly looking for moments when I could turn it on.
The story is written in first person, from Martha’s point of view. She is a witty and engaging narrator, beautifully flawed, and I grew to love her very quickly. I loved others too – some immediately, like Martha’s sarcastic and emoji-toting sister Ingrid, and some that grew on me through the novel, like Martha’s mother, who became increasingly sympathetic the more I read and understood of her.
The story is told in a cleverly circular way. It starts at the moment around Martha’s fortieth birthday party, when her marriage is finally breaking down, then leaps back into the past, to her childhood. The majority of the book deals with Martha’s life up to that fortieth birthday, and then the final couple of hours of the audiobook pick up the story in her present, after her separation from her husband, at arguably her lowest point. That’s when I really couldn’t stop listening, couldn’t stop rooting for Martha and hoping that, against the massive odds (some of her own making), she won out.
I hugely enjoyed the themes of this story, and their execution. It looks at mental illness in a detailed way, exploring the effects of diagnoses (right ones and wrong ones) on the person diagnosed. One of the most gripping threads of the story looks at Martha’s desire for a baby, which is passionate and yet, for most of the book, entirely denied and suppressed, because she has always been told she should be careful not to get pregnant. She goes about her life confidently asserting that she never wants children, lying to herself and everyone around her, and watching the children of others – including her sister’s – with clear but camouflaged devotion. This story thread, along with others, is immensely sorrowful, while somehow also humorously told, and keeps the reader hoping and hoping…
The novel uses mental illness as a central springboard from which to reach other themes too, broader ones, like what it is people really want in life, how we can be happy, whether you can fall out of love and then back in it again, how to look at responsibility in the context of forces like mental health, upbringing and the actions of others, and, finally, how to forgive, how to love and how to live.
What made this book special to me was that, in the end, it wasn’t even just Martha’s story. Characters around her – even those with very little page time – all had believable and emotive arcs. It felt like a very complete story to me, one which dealt wittily, gently and perceptively with the banalities and wonders of life. Ridiculously funny. Excruciatingly sad. Just hopeful enough.