Australian authorsBook Reviews

The Sugar Mother by Elizabeth Jolley [book review]

Beware of the book’s seductive charm. Once you’ve been lured in, the door slams shut behind you and its not easy to emerge with your perceptions entirely unchanged …

Sugar motherThis quote from the New York Times Book Review, on the back cover of my copy of The Sugar Mother, perfectly reflects my reaction to Elizabeth Jolley’s novel.

It’s one of those novels that grabs you from the start, not because of any shock-inducing event or dramatic moment, but because it’s clear this is a writer who understands how to make odd characters spring to life. As you read further you get so swept along by the humour of this tale of a pathetically fussy professor and his relationship with the newcomers next door that you almost miss the undercurrents. The humour never completely goes away but it’s countered by some elements that left me with an uneasy sensation.

There’s no feeling of apprehension at the start of the book however as we meet the Pages : Edwin, a middle-aged professor whose obsessed about his health, and his much younger wife Cecilia. She’s a successful obstetrician who is embarking on a fellowship year abroad. She has taken care to leave Edwin in good hands, arranging for their set of friends to host him at regular dinners so that he doesn’t get lonely.

What she couldn’t have predicted was that their new neighbours, Mrs Botts and her twenty-something-year old buxom daughter Leila, would make a move on Edwin almost the minute she leaves. It start’s innocently enough. They’re locked out of their new home and since they have no-where else to go, Edwin offers them refuge in his home.

Mrs Botts is a wily old bird for whom the naive Edwin, for all his intelligence is no match.  His future at the university seems unstable but at home with the Botts’ women he feels like a lord of the manor. The fool becomes obsessed with Leila, jumping readily at the idea planted by Mrs B that the girl could become a “sugar” mother (a lovely Malapropism) for Edwin and his childless wife. Edwin’s growing  infatuation with Leila sees him become more distant with Cecelia, avoiding her phone calls and pulling out of a trip to visit her in Europe. There is no way this can turn out well….

Edwin is a delightful character. An annoying individual who painstakingly documents all his ailments in a book which has separate pages for each part of the body, he is just as pernickety about finding the perfect quotes for his lectures. But he’s also a rather pathetic character who doesn’t fit in with the hip lifestyle embraced by his wife and her friends. The first flush of love between him and Cecilia has vanished:

The feeling of being special and chosen and cared for was gradually absorbed, he realised now, in the more important matter of appearances. How they were seen by other people began to mean more to them and they must, all the time, have been meaning less to each other and thinking only of the next thing they were going to do. Things which would be evaluated by other people and measured against standards which were not necessarily their own.

The ‘swinging’ parties with their friends, which presumably were meant to bring an added spark to their relationship, have lost all meaning for Edwin.

The evening, in the pattern of doing things, was endless, hours of jokes and anecdotes, mostly with double meanings. They would eat and drink and talk too much in loud voices and play foolish games … and would end with the ritual of keys in the ring since that was the way of broad-minded couples …

His growing disenchantment with life makes him ripe for emotional and financial exploitation at the hands of Mrs Bott.

But perhaps we shouldn’t expend too much sympathy on Edwin. I know Leila is older than Lolita but there is still something unsettling about the way this 54-year-old lusts after the body of the much younger girl. He treats her as a child one moment, making her hot drinks  to help her sleep, and then caressing and fondling her at every possible opportunity.  So caught up is he in his desire and – the boost to his ego – that he is blind to reality even when  a close friend raises an alarm bell about the cost of having these women in his house. I wanted to throttle him at times, and shake him out of his blind faith in the domestic bliss he imagines he has with the Botts, but right at the end I did feel my sympathies return.

The Sugar Mother is a novel which is full of unexpected delights. It’s the first time I’ve read anything by Elizabeth Jolley – I hadn’t even heard of her until Lisa at ANZLitLovers decided to host an Elizabeth Jolley reading week. But now I’m hungry to read more…..Luckily I had already bought an earlier work; Miss Peabody’s Inheritance.





What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

24 thoughts on “The Sugar Mother by Elizabeth Jolley [book review]

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  • It’s intriguing to read your review juxtaposed with discovering the context of Jolley’s life story through her step-daughter’s memoir, “A House of Fiction,” especially regarding the character of Edwin. Looking forward to diving into “Sugar Mother” soon.

    • I confess I know nothing about her life so that’s something I should try to fix!

  • Pingback: Wrapping up Elizabeth Jolley Week at ANZ LitLovers | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  • Thank you for joining in and for writing this delicious review! That quotation from the NYT is just perfect, because it captures so well how *sly* Jolley’s writing is. It’s as Sue from Whispering Gums says, we were bowled over by her writing when we first discovered it, and I think it’s partly because she does ‘sly’ brilliantly. It’s rather like as Jane Austen does it, in the sub-text, but not in a 19th century world where Austen’s world surprises because it’s is so long ago, unpacking a feminine world we otherwise mostly know from history books, but in Australia, in our contemporary world.
    And when I think of the reach of the blogs like yours, I am so pleased that Jolley’s name is back on the agenda for book lovers around the world:)

    • That comparison with Austen is a good one. I have a feeling that Jolley too rewards re-reading

  • This book makes me think of something that happened today: my cousin’s husband was saying something about not adding flavor to food, and that’s why he got married (implying a woman must cook for him if he wants to eat well). That sentiment about domestic comfort coming from women because men are both incapable and domineering irritates me!! But the way Mrs Bott and her daughter seem to know what they’re doing has me intrigued!

    • Oh yes they are smart cookies – Edwin just has no clue how he is being manipulated

  • This does sound very good. Like Kaggsy, I’ve been enjoying the various reviews of Jolley’s work that have been floating around the blogosphere this week. And I like that quote from the New York Times Book Review – it seems to suggest something unsettling or subversive.

    • Unsettling is a good word to describe this book Jacqui. A few times my eyes glided over a few sentences nly for me to stop and think What did I just read? and have to go back because I had missed the sub text

  • Woo hoo, Karen, you have reacted the way many of us did when we first read her. My first introduction was a short story, but I think Miss Peabody was my first book. Thanks for reminding me of The sugar mother. Jolley is wonderful for the way she plays with your sympathies – and makes you separate, sometimes your moral reaction from your feeling one so that even though you know someone is doing wrong, you feel for them as well because of their humanness. It’s a safe (fictional) way of sorting out our thoughts and ideas.

    I’ve written (so far) three “favourite author” posts, and Jolley was the second. I’ve been thinking of my fourth for a long time, but I think I’ve got it. (Lisa says I’m allowed to have about 20 favourite authors!)

    • Now you have me trying to guess what will be the third though I have little chance of being anywhere near right ….

      • I’ve done three … third was Astley. It’s the fourth you have to guess!!

        • I know, sorry if i sounded confused – I give up trying to guess

        • You’ll just have to wait …. but don’t hold your breath. It’s not THAT exciting 😀

        • Im not much good at holding my breath – I tend to expire:)

    • I wanted to ring the man’s neck more than once because he was so blinkered

  • I’m intrigued by all the Jolley reviews I’m reading – and I realise I’ve read so little from Australia, I really should put that right!

    • That’s why I joined in with the week. My Australian reading has improved a little in the last two years but Lisa comes up with so many names of whom I have never heard but want to read after reading her reviews. Problem is that often the books are prohibitively expensive in the UK


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