I probably wouldn’t have picked up My Hundred Lovers by Susan Johnson in a bookshop – the coy pose of the woman on the cover combined with the title suggests a story heading in a direction that’s not my thing. However, the testimonial by Geraldine Brooks on the cover was enough to make me rethink my assumptions and I’m glad I did.
I read My Hundred Lovers as part of a read-a-long hosted by 1 Girl 2 Many Books. It was my first read along – I liked the format and I’ll look forward to participating in more. Needless to say, the dozens of book bloggers that took part in the read-a-long have dissected the book into a million pieces – you can see all the comments over at 1 Girl 2 Many Books.
First up, the story is not about a hundred people the main character has slept with. If you’re expecting a raunchy bit of ‘mummy-porn’, I suggest you stick to Fifty Shades. Instead, My Hundred Lovers is about one hundred things that the main character (who is alternately referred to as ‘the girl’, Deb and the ‘Suspicious Wanderer’) loves or has loved. There are people mentioned – Deb may be considered promiscuous by some – but the ‘lovers’ also include sunshine, cheese, going to the hairdresser, new pencils, Paris and more. It is these chapters where Johnson’s exquisite descriptions and sharp observations really shine.
For example, she says of her dog – “I felt his heartbeat, lighter and faster than a human’s, as if all his life was being used up more quickly. I lay with him in my arms on the carpet or grass, and he gave out great, hot sighs.”
In the read-a-long discussions, the word ‘sensual’ kept popping up, particularly when we were looking at the early chapters about the girl’s childhood. I didn’t find it to be sensual but instead an exploration of ‘sensory’ memories – the way things looked, felt, tasted, smelt. A good example is Deb’s description of being in bed with her Nana, her mother and her siblings – she describes “…a huddle of bodies, ankle against ankle, a fug of human breath…”. There are also beautiful chapters where she describes being in the pram under swaying jacaranda tress, rippling light, the sun on her skin, and the feel of her mother’s red fingernails scratching her back.
I think people are ‘sensory seekers’ by nature, especially children who have fewer inhibitions than adults. I strongly recall rubbing the satin edge on my blanket when I was about four-years-old, loving the slipperiness of the fabric. I also remember laying my head against my mum’s cool upper arms on a hot day – why were her arms cool? I still don’t know but I liked it. I loved visiting my Nana’s florist shop, the air filled with the powdery fragrance of carnations (it was the eighties and carnations were the ‘fleur-du-jour’). We’re all sensory seekers and for that reason, I didn’t find the book overly sexual.
Through the collection of memories, a story does unfold. Played out in various chapters (but not chronologically) you hear about Deb’s husband, her son, her drunk mother, her beautiful sister, her philandering father, her dead brother and ultimately ‘losing her husband’. The story flirts with themes of addictive personalities, loyalty to family and how much childhood impacts on the course of one’s life. However, when it comes to Deb, you don’t really get answers but are left to speculate.
There were some very nice lines about love that I found thought-provoking –
“My heart has a memory.” – which is the basis for the whole book. You will pause and consider your own ‘hundred lovers’ after reading this.
And – “But fear should evoke our gratitude for its ability to reveal us to ourselves. Fear reveals the things we love, and without it to tell us what it is we find most precious, we might never know what we love at all.”
Ultimately, Geraldine Brooks’ testimonial was misleading. The story wasn’t really about an “erotic adventurer” – Deb seemed to stumble into relationships rather than seek them out.
Secondly, Brooks promised that “…through these vivid stories of the flesh, a mind and a soul emerge in full.” Interesting because I felt that even to the very last page, Deb was still holding something back. I don’t mind finishing a book with questions remaining but I don’t like feeling as if I haven’t come to know the main character any better (especially given that this book ‘revealed’ so much).
If I went by the text alone, I would pair this book with delicious croissants – there is in fact a whole chapter devoted to this particular ‘love’. Instead, I’m taking Deb’s lead and using my own food love and that is asparagus with Hollandaise sauce (I use a cheats blender Hollandaise recipe and it’s perfect every time). I could eat plates of the stuff. Bring on spring.
4/5 I’m hovering between scoring three or four for this book. There were lots of aspects of this book that I enjoyed, particularly Johnson’s writing style and thinking about my own ‘hundred lovers’. But ultimately I needed more from Deb – ironic given that she told so much.
My copy of My Hundred Lovers was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.