The Spare Room: A Novel

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"How much of ourselves must we give up to help a friend in need? Helen has little idea what lies ahead - and what strength she must summon - when she offers her spare room to an old friend, Nicola, who has arrived in the city for treatment of her illness. Skeptical of the medical establishment, and placing all her faith in an alternative health center, Nicola is determined to find her own way to cope, regardless of the advice Helen offers." In the weeks that follow, Nicola's battle for survival will turn not only her own life upside down but also ...
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The Spare Room: A Novel

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"How much of ourselves must we give up to help a friend in need? Helen has little idea what lies ahead - and what strength she must summon - when she offers her spare room to an old friend, Nicola, who has arrived in the city for treatment of her illness. Skeptical of the medical establishment, and placing all her faith in an alternative health center, Nicola is determined to find her own way to cope, regardless of the advice Helen offers." In the weeks that follow, Nicola's battle for survival will turn not only her own life upside down but also those of everyone around her. Helen unexpectedly finds herself driven through extremes of rage and tenderness to become Nicola's nurse, protector, guardian angel, and stony judge. Powerful and taut, and full of wisdom and dark laughter, The Spare Room is a magical gem of a book that packs a huge punch.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
It may be a privilege to prepare the place where a guest will sleep, but what about when that privilege involves offering up a spare room to a dying friend? Helen has little idea of the consequences her singular act of generosity will set in motion when she invites her old friend Nicola to stay while she undergoes treatment for cancer. Still wonderfully bohemian at age 65, Nicola distrusts conventional medicine and is set on an alternative course of treatment that Helen immediately recognizes as a fraud. But Nicola is determined to find her own way on this journey, and Helen can only bite her tongue and watch helplessly.

Charting territory -- in friendship and in life -- that is both heartbreaking and bittersweet, Garner has fashioned a novel that's powerful, moving, sharply funny, and rich with lived experience. What are the limits of friendship? How much should one presume? Who will care for members of a generation who haven't planned for the inevitable? With clarity and grace, Garner tackles the thorny and delicate issues involved in helping a friend in need. Though we can't rightly call Garner a "new" writer, she is truly great; this little gem of a novel is proof positive. (Spring 2009 Selection)
Liesl Schillinger
The Spare Room reads like an unsparing memoir in which flashes of dark humor and simple happiness (a magic show, a grandchild's flamenco dance, a shared joke) lighten the grim record of an overwhelmingly difficult chapter in a woman's life, a chapter whose meaning she still struggles to decipher years on, whose sharper entries still stab her conscience, but can't be erased by time.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Garner (Monkey Grip) employs her signature realism in this stunted novel about the infuriating and eye-opening experience of caring for a terminally ill loved one. Helen prepares a room in her Melbourne home for Nicola, an old friend who travels from Sydney to begin a course of alternative treatment for bowel cancer. The central conflict of the story centers around these treatments: Helen fears they may be doing more harm than good, while Nicola has undying faith in the unorthodox practices of the Theodore Institute (these revolve around vitamin C injections), leading Helen to question her ability to care for someone so deep in denial. Garner paints Nicola's unflinching optimism with a heavy hand, and her grand naïveté is unconvincing, a flaw that's hard to overlook in a novel about a cancer patient. As it wears on, the narrative becomes clouded by litanies of worsening symptoms and platitudes about death, and Helen's bickering about the treatment-while valid-become grating and tiresome. (Feb.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Nicola's stage-four cancer takes her from Sydney to Melbourne, Australia, for alternative therapies and a brief stay in friend Helen's spare room. Two women who have known each other for 15 years, spending three weeks together with the weight of one crushing disease: How do we calculate what's important in our lives? Garner (Cosmo Cosmolino) offers up her own equation as these two sexagenarians nearly come to blows when mortality is the bottom line. Nicola puts up with cupping (per Helen, "the more benevolent bullshit") and incapacitating vitamin C drips because she wants to believe they will save her. Helen, who thinks the Theodore Institute reeks of quackery, wonders if the torture of the treatments is worth the cost in terms of Nicola's dignity and time with family and friends. As Helen says, "Death will not be denied. To try is grandiose." Garner's neat prose suits these two crusty dames, who drag themselves through a situation where, ultimately, love is all that counts. Highly recommended for public libraries.
—Bette-Lee Fox

Kirkus Reviews
In a short, wise, oddly uplifting novel by Australian writer Garner, an old friend dying of cancer makes a memorable final visit. Garner (The First Stone, 1997, etc.) tackles big themes-truth, death, the limits of friendship-with ease. Nicola and Helen are "old bohemians" whose bond reaches back a decade and a half. Sydney-based, wealthy Nicola is quirky and imperious (she has no use for deodorant, suitcases or underwear), whereas Melbourne-based Helen is more grounded, with family living next door. When Nicola arrives, her cancer is already far advanced: She has had surgery and radiation and is at stage four, the final stage, but the point of her visit is to try another, expensive alternative therapy. Helen, a tireless host, soon finds herself angry, partly because death has arrived in her house, partly because Nicola refuses stronger painkillers, but mainly because her friend stubbornly insists the treatment can cure her. Helen vents some of her mounting rage on the institution treating Nicola, taking her money while aware that her case is terminal. But eventually she confronts Nicola for using the treatments to distract herself from preparing for the end. When an oncologist advises a spinal operation, to be performed locally, which would mean Nicola's stay would be extended, Helen snaps. She can tend her friend no longer. What ensues is described briefly but with enormous love, despite Nicola's unchanging expectations. Wit, simplicity and scorching honesty distinguish an understated triumph. Agent: Kim Witherspoon, David Forrer/Inkwell Management
From the Publisher
"My favorite discovery of the year."—Anne Enright

"Luminous. . . It reminds us that literature not only can, but must, address the most important subjects, because it does so in ways no other form can."—Claire Messud, Newsweek

"Garner is perhaps most easily introduced to new American readers as the Joan Didion of Australia—a person who writes with a diamond drill, depicting human relationships with such brutal clarity they seem to be rendered for the first time."—April Smith, Los Angeles Times

"A Molotov cocktail of a book. . . Her voice is full of unexpected humor."—Emily Carter, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"A book so sensitive, sad, funny, and alive that it surely deserves an honored place on many shelves."—Diana Athill, The Daily Telegraph (UK)

"Two women who have known each other for fifteen years, spending three weeks together with the weight of one crushing disease. How do we calculate what's important in our lives? Highly recommended."—Bette-Lee Fox, Library Journal (starred review)

"Only great fiction demands us to reset our moral compass and look at our value coordinates all over again. The Spare Room achieves this."—Neel Mukherjee, The Times (UK)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805088885
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/3/2009
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 192
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 7.60 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Helen Garner was born in Geelong, Australia, in 1942. Her award-winning books include novels, stories, screenplays, and works of nonfiction, including Monkey Grip, The First Stone, and Joe Cinque's Consolation. The Spare Room is her first work of fiction in fifteen years. She lives in Australia.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Beyond the guest room in Helen's home, are there other images the title The Spare Room brings to mind? How much room, energy, and patience does the narrator, Helen, have to spare?

2. Discuss your own experiences with caregiving. What are its rewards, and its difficulties? Would you have allowed a friend like Nicola to stay with you until the very end?

3. What is universal about the way humans handle their own mortality? At what point is Nicola able to accept that her illness is terminal? Is it better to know the outcome of our lives, with an opportunity for a long goodbye?

4. How does Helen Garner balance humor with the raw reality faced by her characters?

5. How would you describe the friendship between Helen and Nicola? Are they compatible in very many ways? Are they honest with each other? Which friend would you turn to in a similar situation?

6. In chapter seven, Nicola fears that she has wasted her life, comparing herself to Helen, who is close to her family. Discuss the two kinds of lives illustrated by Nicola and Helen. What is the best measure of a life? What sorts of "families" do we create for ourselves through friendships?

7. Though The Spare Room is a novel, Helen Garner is often asked why she and the narrator have the same name. She has said that she used her own name because she wanted to acknowledge the reality of certain deeply troubling emotions, particularly anger, that she has experienced while caring for dying people whom she loved. How did it affect your reading to see that the author and main character are both called Helen and are both writers?

8. Discuss the notion of hospitality and culture. When is it acceptable to turn someone away? Which guests must be welcomed, no matter what?

9. Nicola bitterly resists hospice or any other signal that she has run out of options. What accounts for the different approaches people have to their final days: those who accept death versus those who fight it?

10. What will Bessie remember about this episode in her life? How does Nicola's illness unfold as seen through the eyes of a child?

11. Discuss the magician who performs beautiful feats in chapter ten. Why is it sometimes good to suspend rational thinking? Is it harmful to believe in magic?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 12 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2012


    I found this story short, and quite frankly absurd. The author obviously has a problem with homeopathic or hollistic treatments to write about it in this perspective. I understand that its not everyones choice but it is certainly some peoples decision and the main character of this book definitely comes across offensively. Also i found that the main character or narrator if you will is somewhat rude at times to her friend who is ridden with cancer often wishing shed die soon or treating her as if she was a burden, being someone who has lost a grandmother to cancer , even on their worst days you dont wish for them to be dead. I also have a grandmother who is at a hollistic institute currently for 3 weeks hoping to fight this with treatments that wont be as harmful and violent as chemo can be and she has shown positive results in her fight against liver cancer cat. 4. This author was way off base although it was short and her ending was abrupt as if she was tired writing and slapped it together, it had bits of moments but i wouldnt reccommend it to anybody especially those struggling with cancer. She disregards any hope might one feel during the dreadful fight against cancer. Call me biased, i know people die of cancer plenty close to me already have but leave hope for the survivors this book is plain cinical.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2012


    So much emotion in this little book. The story will be indelibly written in my mind.

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  • Posted April 14, 2010

    more from this reviewer


    Helen lives in Melbourne, Australia and her friend Nicola from Sydney is going to be staying with Helen for a few weeks while she undergoes a holistic treatment for cancer that no longer responds to normal medical interventions. Helen is unprepared for how sick Nicola is, but also the fact that Nicola is in complete denial about her health. Helen is very suspicious of the treatment Nicola is receiving. As she spends several times a night changing Nicola's sheets and caring for her, Helen wants to call in palliative care. But Nicola won't hear of it. Helen finds that the more Nicola acts as if nothing is wrong, the angrier Helen becomes. She enlists the help of Nicola's family but no one is able to get through to her and Helen finds she can't wait for Nicola to just leave and become someone else's problem.

    My review: I wasn't expecting to like this book. I honestly don't recall requesting it from LibraryThing's Early Reviewer's. Yet somehow I not only enjoyed this, it was one of the books that helped me out of my reading slump.
    Garner writes directly and the story is unsentimental and compelling. And it only 175 pages, I read it in one sitting. Despite it's shortness, the story was fulfilling: funny, smart, touching, and brave.

    "Peggy glanced at me. Horrified sympathy passed along her eye beams. It weakened me. A huge wave of fatigue rinsed me from head to foot. I was afraid I would slide off the bench and measure my length among the cut roses. At the same time a chain of metallic thoughts went clanking through my mind, like the first dropping of an anchor: death will not be denied. To try is grandiose. It drives madness into the soul. It leaches out virtue. It injects poison into friendship, and makes a mockery of love."

    This was a powerful book, very stark and really made me think. How far would we go to care for one we loved? Would I be able to tolerate someone refusing to accept the possibility of death and killing themselves with treatments that have no credibility? I think I would have speak my mind and not hold it all in.
    here Iris, Nicola's niece tries to explain this to Helen.

    "Want to hear my theory? said Iris. There's a lot of horribleness that Nicola refuses to countenance. But it won't just go away. It can't because it exists. So somebody else has to sort of live it. It's in the air around here. Like static. I felt it when she walked into the house tonight...It's like getting a madness injection."

    This was a great book, strong but not depressing. I highly recommend it.

    my rating 4.5/5

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  • Posted July 9, 2009


    If you are a friend, have lost a friend, or just question the importance of a friend, this is the novel for you. Like a good cup of tea, the novel should be given the right amount of time to "steep" so it can be
    appreciated to the fullest.
    Deby Coley

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 4, 2009

    Thought provoking little gem.

    As a forty something woman married to an older man with no children of my own, this book really drew me in. Because I often wonder what I will do if I have a terminal illness. Who will take care of me? I think about it but don't obsess about it. This book shows the power of friendship, the fraility of friendship and life.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 27, 2009

    Loved this book

    I saw this book at my local library and was attracted by its title, cover, format, author photograph (is anyone else influenced by this?) and opening paragraph. I read this book straight through and loved it. It has great character development and a subject that could be depressing, but is not. We are lucky author Helen Garner decided to write another book after a 16 year hiatus. I hope to find more books by her.

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  • Posted December 15, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    This is a fascinating look at friendship

    Dying from bowel cancer, Nicola decides on an alternate treatment method of vitamin C infusions at the Theodore Institute. Her long time friend Helen invites Nicola to live with her as she has a spare room while she undergoes the radical therapy. The terminal ill woman appreciates the kindness and leaves Sydney for Melbourne.<BR/><BR/>However, as Helen observes Nicola¿s efforts to stay alive, she begins to believe the Theodore Institute is filled with con artists providing magical elixirs that do not work. She fears her friend will die soon anyway and is wasting time better spent with loved ones. On the other hand Nicola believes a miracle is forthcoming leading Helen to wonder if she is the right person to help Nicola die with dignity.<BR/><BR/>This is a fascinating look at friendship as the lead couple see the cancer situation radically different. Helen believes Nicola is foolish wasting her precious last moments and money hoping for a Hail Mary miracle instead of spending what time she has left with her loved ones. Nicola believes Helen is a grump who cannot comprehend life and death as dying has not yet confronted her. Although Helen's eternal squabbling and lecturing become irritating as she either needs to support her friend¿s dying wishes, which centers on miracle treatments that probably will fail or toss her out, readers will relish this poignant character study as the reactions to how to behave when pending death seems shortly.<BR/><BR/>Harriet Klausner

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