The Good Parents by Joan London

I’m going to start with the ending of Joan London’s The Good Parents. I loathed it, which is a shame because up until page 327 (of the 349 page book), I was enjoying the story.

It’s rare that an ending derails my reading experience. I’ve read loads of books that have finished in a way that I didn’t like but you’re in the hands of the author, trusting them to steer you to an appropriate conclusion. I assumed I was in safe hands with Joan London and 327 pages of reading confirmed that. And then, as the end of the story drew near, a plot point made me say “Pfft…”. It was as if London decided she couldn’t wait to be done with The Good Parents and so, after creating such vivid characters, the way things went were decidedly lack-lustre.

The story starts with 18-year-old Maya, a naive girl from rural Western Australia, who has found a job as a secretary in Melbourne. She begins an affair with her much older boss, Maynard, whose wife has cancer. Maynard’s business dealings are vague and when his wife dies, he closes the office and leaves Melbourne, taking Maya with him. Meanwhile, Maya’s parents – the beautiful Toni and idealistic Jacob – arrive to visit Maya, only to find her gone.

Much of The Good Parents is dominated by Toni and Jacob’s back-stories, and sub-plots which focus on relationships deemed ‘unsuitable’ – a girl with a guy from the ‘wrong-side-of-the-tracks’; a relationship where religion is a barrier; a girl with a much older man; a mother involved in an online affair. London creates some excellent characters (notably Jacob’s sister, Kitty, and Maya’s brother, Magnus), which make these otherwise familiar stories interesting. However, there’s an unevenness to this book. For each character that is beautifully developed, there’s one that is lightweight and poorly anchored to the story (Maya’s roommate, Cecile, and Maynard’s son, Andrew).

I like London’s writing, although this book lacked the delicacy and wry humour of A Golden Age. There are hints of London’s lovely light touch, particularly in the section where Kitty goes to look after Magnus – the descriptions of Magnus’s mixed tapes (which he calls ‘living sounds’) are wonderful. Also good are some of Toni’s adolescent scenes –

“He had chosen exactly the right moment to secure her, when she was at the peak of her contentment and fascination. Yet someone, a long-forgotten maiden aunt perhaps, a voice in her blood, was always whispering in her ear that it was a dangerous luxury to relinquish yourself like this.”

Yet the highs are few and far between and the ending left me annoyed.

2.5/5 I rounded up on Goodreads but it could have gone the other way…

Kitty cooks for her nephew, Magnus –

“The first thing to remember about boys was that they were always hungry. Food was an overture offered to savages. It smoothed negotiations, established trust.”

I would trust anyone that combined potatoes, bacon and cheese (it’s called Tartiflette and the recipe comes via Ferdakost).


As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and the Melburnian winter – the results for the day I finished this book (July 30): Belfast 9°-17°, Melbourne 8°-15°.

13 responses

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

    • I went in with high expectations.

      Not sure if you remember much of the end but, without spoilers, Toni does something that I felt was uncharacteristic plus there’s a convenient coincidence – the two things combine to bring the story to a close. I perhaps would have been okay with just one of these things happening, but two? It jarred.

      • This sent me off to my reading journal where I wrote five A4 pages about this book and not a word about the ending – except that I was puzzled by the reference to Paradise Lost and wrote two pages about what I thought it meant….

      • So odd, isn’t it, the bits that stick out when we all read the same book?! Even more strange, I can’t recall the Paradise Lost references and I only just finished it (although I haven’t read PL so it may have been lost on me)… There were lots of War & Peace references, which I liked.

      • It’s at the end where they say “They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow through Eden took their solitary way” cf (from the last stanza of Bk 12): The world was all before them, where to choose
        Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
        They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
        Through Eden took their solitary way. And Jacob thinks “You can never keep the serpent out” – the serpent being the temptation to stray.

  2. I almost feel like I don’t understand this book. Are the parents trying to track down their 18-year-old daughter? Is it Maya’s story? What an unusual tale… What made you pick it up?

    • The blurb suggests it’s Maya’s story but it is actually the individual back-stories of her parents – finding Maya ends up being peripheral! I picked it up because I really loved her 2014 book, The Golden Age. I can only conclude that she matured a lot as a writer between these two books.

  3. Shame. I don’t mind hating an ending as long as it fits with the story; if I hate it because it goes against how I wanted it to end… well that’s my problem. But when it’s all a bit convenient it drives me crazy.
    And re: the comment above about the blurb – last time that happened to me it was a book I’d been offered by the publisher. The blurb was completely misleading and if it had the blurb it *should* have had, I probably wouldn’t have taken the book – and I told the publisher as much. Misleading blurbs are the bane of my existence.

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