Through the richly intertwined narratives of two women from different generations, Ashley Hay, known for her “elegant prose, which draws warm and textured portraits as it celebrates the web of human stories” (New York Times Book Review) weaves an intricate, bighearted tale of the many small decisions—the invisible moments—that come to make a life.
“Readers who loved the quiet introspection of Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge will enjoy the detailed emotional journeys of Hay’s characters. Their stories will linger long after the final page is turned” (Library Journal).
When Elsie Gormley falls and is forced to leave her Brisbane home of sixty-two years, Lucy Kiss and her family move in, eager to make the house their own. Still, Lucy can’t help but feel that she’s unwittingly stumbled into an entirely new life—new house, new city, new baby—and she struggles to navigate the journey from adventurous lover to young parent.
In her nearby nursing facility, Elsie traces the years she spent in her beloved house, where she too transformed from a naïve newlywed into a wife and mother, and eventually, a widow. Gradually, the boundary between present and past becomes more porous for her, and for Lucy—because the house has secrets of its own, and its rooms seem to share with Lucy memories from Elsie’s life.
Luminous and deeply affecting, A Hundred Small Lessons is a “lyrically written portrayal” (BookPage, Top Pick) of what it means to be human, and how a place can transform who we are. It’s about a house that becomes much more than a home, and the shifting identities of mother and daughter; father and son. Above all else, this is a story of the surprising and miraculous ways that our lives intersect with those who have come before us, and those who follow.
|Publisher:||Washington Square Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Ashley Hay is the internationally acclaimed author of the novels A Hundred Small Lessons, The Body in the Clouds, and The Railwayman’s Wife, which was honored with the Colin Roderick Award by the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies and longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the most prestigious literary prize in Australia, among numerous other accolades. She has also written four nonfiction books. She lives in Brisbane, Australia.
Read an Excerpt
A Hundred Small Lessons
IT WAS early on a winter’s morning when she fell—the shortest day of 2010, the woman on the radio said. From where Elsie lay, quite still and curled comfortably on the thick green carpet between the sofa and the sideboard, she could see how the sun coming in through the back door made a triangle on the kitchen floor. The light caught the pattern on the linoleum and touched the little nests of dust that her broom had missed under the lip of the kitchen cupboards.
The bright triangle changed as the minutes passed, disappearing from the kitchen to pop up first in the back bedroom, then across the busy pattern of Nile green and white tiles in the bathroom. Later, in her own bedroom, it reached almost all the way across the floor to the thick rose-colored chenille of her bedspread, before it swung around further towards the west in search of the sunroom. The pile of the carpet, from where she lay, looked like neatly sheared blades of grass, the tidy job of mowing that Clem would have done.
There was something comforting about being this close to the topography of the house. She knew this place so well. She wasn’t sure if it was an extension of her, or she of it. So this was a new kind of exploration, noticing the way the floor sloped a little into the spare room, and how the beading sagged slightly on one segment of the ceiling.
Topography: she counted through the letters—ten. Geography; landscape. The answer to fourteen down in that morning’s crossword, where she’d been trying to make “projection” fit. She was losing her touch.
From outside, she could hear the kookaburra; he’d be looking for his food. You could set your watch by him, she thought. There were cars on the road, the squeak of the swing in the park, the rich buzz of aeroplanes climbing up from the airport, the chatter of lorikeets, corellas. All that activity; it was nice to lie still among it—although the kookaburra would be disappointed she’d put nothing out today. And then the house muttered a little too, its boards creaking and stretching as the day warmed.
It was a consoling sound.
They’d had a long chat, Elsie Gormley and this house, more than sixty years of it. It had witnessed all her tempers, all her moods, and usually improved them. It held her voice, her husband’s, her children’s, and now their children’s in turn—echoes and repetitions lodged in around the baseboards, around the window frames like those pale motes of dust that had wedged at the edge of the kitchen floor.
“Reverb,” one of Don’s young boys had told her—Don’s own grandson, she supposed: her great-grandson then. The one with the noisy guitar. “Imagine it like this, Nan: layers of echoes arranged to make it sound like you’re in a great big space.”
Well, ‘reverb,’ she thought clearly. A nice word. She liked to keep abreast of what they knew, how they lived—their magic gadgets, their shiny new phones. Like this, Nan: one swipe and it turns on.
She swiped her fingers now against the thick green carpet. Yes, she could almost hear it. All those voices; all those years.
It was lunchtime, and then afternoon, and as the sun sank lower, she wondered how cold it might get, there on the floor, overnight. She was eighty-nine years old, and her bones were brittle and tired.
The neighbors came then, one to the front door, one to the back. “Elsie,” they called, “are you there, love? Are you right?”
“I’m not here,” she said, and lay still, wondering if she could turn her head far enough to see the fiery clouds of the sunset through the windows at the front of the house.
There were sirens in the street—she could see the reflections of blue and red flashing lights on the wallpaper above her head—and then a policeman broke in through the door. By whose authority, she thought she said, but no one seemed to hear and she was onto a stretcher and into an ambulance before she had time to realize she didn’t have her shoes.
Imagine leaving home without your shoes.
It was cold in the back of the ambulance and too bright. She wanted her cardigan. She wanted to sleep. If she could move her head slightly, she might see the steps, the porch, the battered front door. If she could lever herself up a bit more. But she couldn’t.
“Rightio, love.” The uniformed man was far too cheerful for his job.
Elsie closed her eyes. “I don’t think I’m ready to go.” Her voice, this time, quite loud and clear.
In the hospital, a fortnight later on, she thought they said she was going home, but it wasn’t her home they took her to. Some other place, with a bright new apartment for her, a view down to the river, a bell she could press for attention, and meals, if she preferred it, in a hall. She had her shoes now, and her cardigan—they were bringing her mountains of stuff for such a short stay.
“What’s that word? ‘Respite?’?” she said to Donny when he came one day at lunch.
“Sort of, Mum,” he said. “In a way.”
She’d signed some papers about some people she’d never heard of, a pair called Ben Carter and Lucy Kiss. Donny’s wife Carol said they had a little boy. But what was that to do with her? Were they tenants for her house while she was here?
“Sort of, Mum,” said Don again. “Yes. In a way.”
“Well, make sure they keep up the garden. Your father will never forgive me if that rockery goes wrong.”
Clem Gormley. Now, where was he? When did they say he’d be here?
“Ben Carter,” said Don, squaring the papers. “Lucy Kiss. I think we’ve made the right choice.”
Of course, she knew what was happening; she knew where she was. The facility, she’d always called it, with its apartments for the well ones, and rooms—then wards—for those who weren’t. It was just a stop or so on the bus along from her place, and its back fence butted the sports fields where Donny’s grandkids played. She could walk home from here, she thought. Be back in no time.
She’d lived in that house more than sixty years—nearly sixty-three, she worked out as she lay the first night in her new room in her old bed and her old, cold sheets. She could remember the day they moved in, the size of their loan so cripplingly vast that she never dared to speak of it to Clem. To even put it into words. Back when the house was fresh and new. The house whose lawns her husband had so carefully tended. Rest his soul: yes. That was it.
And yet in spite of so many years, the day she fell, the day she lay there on the floor, was the first time she’d seen the way the light moved from one room to another, tracking from the back of the house to the front, calling into corners, illuminating space.
Such a lovely thing to have seen, she thought. Such a lovely day to have spent.
The modest house was sold, as the real estate agent had promised, in next to no time. “A big block like this, with the park at the back, and the shops, and so close to the city—no trouble at all,” the agent had said.
Elsie’s children, the twins, Don and Elaine, came to empty the house for the sale. Elaine swept shelves of items into bags, disposing of them in the gaping maw of a dumpster emptied once, emptied twice. Don went through things piece by piece: cutlery drawers, button boxes, the old letter rack from the high kitchen shelf. Some of its receipts and notes dated from decades before. There were photos in there too: a gallery of grandkids, an image of Elsie before her own children were born, and the house up to its windows in water during the ’74 flood. He stood a while, wiping the dust off this last image.
“That bloody flood—you know, I don’t think she ever got over it. We should have made her sell the house back then.”
“And made no money on it—who’d have bought here, after that? We’re lucky that people forget.” Elaine had the fridge door open and shoveled jars and packets into a garbage bag. “Look at this—all out of date.”
“Carol used to take her shopping once a week; some of it should be all right.” Don slipped the flood photo underneath the other pictures, and stared a while at a tiny black and white of his mother, taken almost seventy years ago. “She was so pretty, wasn’t she, when she first married Dad? This must have been when she was working at that chemist’s in the city, before we were born. She always said she felt important, behind the counter in her starched white coat.” He turned the photo over: “January 1941,” he read. “The year we were born—and that’ll be seventy years ago, soon.” He shook his head at this impossible thought. “So strange that she’ll never come home. Do you mind if I take these?”
“This milk’s two months past its date.” Elaine dropped it into the bag, bursting the carton so that the room filled with a terrible, sour smell. “I wonder why she never went back to work—she must have been so bored. God, we should have got a cleaner in and—oh!” Her hand at her throat as a crow, big and shiny black, landed on the threshold, cocking its head to look through the door.
“You don’t mind if I take these, Elaine?”
Elaine tied the bag with a savage twist. “Whatever you like.” She glanced across at him. “You were always more sentimental than me—here.” One of the pictures had dropped on the floor. “Here’s another.” She reached down and passed it across.
It was a photo of a portrait, and Don frowned. “It’s a painting, but it almost looks like Mum.” He held it close to get a better look.
“A painting of Mum? Let me see.” His sister took it from him and went out onto the deck, studying it in the sun. “It can hardly have been her,” she said at last, folding the print—in half, then half again—and stuffing it into her pocket. “As if she’d get a portrait done like that.”
Most of the furniture went to a thrift store, along with the clothes and almost everything from the glass-fronted kitchen cupboards: the crystal, the crockery, the pots and the pans.
“Of course, she’s not dead yet,” said Elaine, which made Don wince as he set aside a painted vase he thought was his mother’s favorite and a book he remembered her reading, years ago, around the time that his father had died.
She looked small in the new place, he thought. She looked lost.
“I must get back to reading to your father,” she said when he next visited, patting the old paperback with its spotted pages and crumbly cover. “And did you bring my house keys? How will I get in when I go home?”
In each room, there was something Don balked at removing. The sideboard in the lounge where his own school sports trophies still sat arranged on one end. A plastic fern in the sunroom. The velvet-covered stool in front of his mother’s dressing table.
“Your father did that upholstery—lovely rose-colored velvet; a present one birthday,” Elsie said when he mentioned it. “He said it was fit for a queen.” She smiled. “But you’re right: I won’t need it while I’m here.” She’d watched her reflection change through the decades as she’d sat on that elegant stool, her hair fading from a warm chestnut brown down to grey and the skin under her fine chin loosening. All those crystal canisters on the dressing table; the vials of perfume she’d never quite finished. Who was keeping up the dusting and the sweeping while she was away? Was Elaine chipping her nail polish pulling out the little weeds that grew between the white pebbles in the front garden? She doubted it.
When she visualized her daughter, she saw a younger version of herself. She was always astonished when the real Elaine arrived and looked, and was, so very different.
When the new people came, they put the stool and the fern into a dumpster along with all the wallpaper—“a different pattern in every room,” said the husband, Ben, laughing—and the thick green carpet. “Last vacuumed . . .” He shrugged, glancing down at his small son. “I think Tom’s found a cockroach to eat.” Ben was taller than he stood, his shoulders curled from years hunched over writing. His dark hair was greying and he kept his glasses on top of his head, ready to read things at a moment’s notice. He looked down at his son, his hands busy with the desiccated insect, with a detached kind of appraisal.
“But these floorboards are going to look lovely,” said his wife, Lucy, taking the cockroach out of the boy’s hand. “It’s such beautiful wood. And look, they’ve left a pile of pretty doilies.” They were bundled together behind the door, and she paused for a moment, stroking the patterns on the delicate white linen runners and mats—a suite of flowers and fruit and elaborate twirling curls.
“Look at this—” holding up a star-shaped doily for her husband to admire. “So fine: the stitching’s as neat on the back as it is on the front. I wonder if they meant to take them; seems a shame that no one wanted them. Or maybe they meant them for us.”
Sitting on the floor, Tom unpacked small white pebbles from the back of a brightly colored plastic truck.
“Star,” he said, pointing to the shape his mother held. “Star.”
“That’s a beautiful word—and a whole new one.” Lucy smiled so much she was crying.
“See, Lu?” said Ben, brushing her deep red hair away from her forehead. “I knew we’d be all right here.”
They spent three weeks stripping, painting, moving. The first night they slept in the house, Lucy woke at three, disoriented by the map made by the beading on the ceiling. Which house was this? Which city, which country? In the past years they’d been all over the place—to Washington, to London, back to Sydney, and now to Brisbane.
Where they seemed to have bought a house.
“First step to feeling settled,” Ben had declared—and Lucy thought she ought to trust that he was right.
Brisbane: the place where he’d grown up. Now it was where Tom would grow up too, while Ben went off to his new job with the paper. Gadgets, inventions, and discoveries had always been the things that piqued his interest (Lucy preferred more seriously to describe it as science or technology), and he’d at last been approached to cover that round.
“I’d be mad not to give it a go—all those magnificent stories,” he’d said in Sydney when the offer was first made. “We’ll stay here until Tom turns one, then we’ll go. Come on—the next adventure!”
She had jobs that she did—administration, management. He had a job that he loved. That was how they both defined their working lives.
“You’re mad to go,” her sisters had said. “Tom’s so tiny. You need your networks.”
“Get back to work,” her mother had said. “Best way to settle into a new place.”
“You’ll have a ball,” her father had said. “A whole new city—and take your time.”
Their standard difference of opinion, thought Lucy, and here I am. She stared at the ceiling. Old bed, new house. It was the first house they’d ever bought. They’d been in Brisbane a month or so—and back in Sydney barely a year before that. She was unpacking boxes in this house that she’d packed in London, in Washington before that. She’d never thought of it as moving but as arriving, and there was a trick to arriving somewhere new—a person or a place that made it easy, or a sliver of coincidence that made her think they’d landed precisely where they ought to be.
“And now, the great Australian dream,” Ben had joked. “The kid, the house, the mortgage.” How very fast they’d made that real.
Now, in the night’s light, she looked at her husband’s face as he slept—he was always smiling, home each night with some great story, some great new moment from his day. While she made spaceships for Tom as she emptied their boxes, and began to work out where they were.
Their names had looked so slight against the weight of all that mortgage.
“In at the deep end,” she’d said to her sisters, trying to laugh. And they’d laughed too.
The floorboards felt warm as she walked to the kitchen. She liked the rich glow of the newly polished jarrah, and she liked how they felt underfoot. There was something warm about the whole house at night—perhaps it was the soft light from the streetlamps. She stood by the kitchen window, filling a glass with water, and watched as rain started to fall, smudging the reflection of the lamps in the park into patches of brightness on its concrete path. She walked into the living room with her glass, patting a doily that she’d left on the arm of a chair.
“I know we’re not really doily people,” she’d said to Ben, “but it seems wrong not to keep some of these—they’re exquisite.” Now, as her fingers felt the stitching, she knew the tiny mats would probably hang around for as long as they lived in this house.
Elsie’s house, thought Lucy. Elsie Veronica Gormley. She’d seen the woman’s name on the contract, and she’d pressed the neighbors for any more details. Elsie must have been around ninety, they’d said, and she’d lived here a very long time. She and her husband had bought the house when it was built, back in the forties, and they’d lived here with their twins, a boy and a girl. Her husband had died—no one could quite remember when; no one had been here that long.
And then she’d fallen. And then she’d gone.
“I think they chose to sell to you because you’re a family,” the estate agent had said as she’d slid the contracts across her cluttered desk.
“We’ll look after it,” Lucy said as she signed her name and passed them on to Ben.
“Meant to be,” he said, squinting through his glasses as he signed.
There was a tiny whisper in the darkness from some of the seventeen circles they’d found drilled into the different rooms’ floors when the carpet had been taken up.
“Circumference of a broom handle,” Ben had said. “We should stopper them up.” But he hadn’t done that yet, and the wind sometimes caught at them, stirring puffs of air like little breaths.
Lucy checked on Tom and headed back to bed, rattling the front doorknob as she went by.
“We should change the locks,” she’d said to Ben earlier that day. “You should always change the locks when you buy a house.”
“What?” Ben had laughed. “What do you think is going to happen? Elsie’s going to let herself in?”
“Elsie’s family—how many keys might there be in the world?”
Now, in the darkness, her fingers fiddled with the door lock’s button. Safe and sound, safe and sound, safe and sound. It was like a line from a lullaby.
In the quietness of the middle of the night, she turned these words end over end in her head, dropping back into sleep beside her husband and his warmth.
Elsie woke at three, disoriented by the hum of an air conditioner nearby. Three in the afternoon, she thought, looking at her watch. How could they have let me sleep so long—I’ve missed breakfast and lunch, and there was a bus I wanted to catch.
She buttoned her cardigan, and as she felt around for her shoes, her handbag, her hat, she knocked the vase that Don had brought for her, cracking it into four or five pieces as it smashed against the floor. She’d never liked it—it had been a present from one of Clem’s friends when they were first married. She dropped the pieces into the rubbish bin, wondering why it was so dark. Then she heard the rain against the window and nodded. This time of year, you could expect a thundery shower on a Brisbane afternoon.
She looked into the street: it was very quiet, and although she watched and watched, no cars or buses came. Perhaps there was a strike she didn’t know about. Still, it wasn’t far to walk: through the park towards the river and then along the road.
She’d see her garden, her lilies, her hydrangeas, her azaleas. She’d see how they’d fixed the front door—Donny said it was bright red now, which she wasn’t sure about—and how the walls inside had all been stripped of their carefully papered patterns.
She smiled: there and back in an hour. She’d feel like herself again once she was home. She’d let this strange dark rain ease up before she went.
The next morning, taking Tom into the garden, Lucy paused at the top of the stairs, registering the stray flecks of the new front-door paint spattered on the porch’s balustrade. Such a strong color, somewhere between vermilion and scarlet. Fire engine, Lucy had called it, but Ben revised it—“lipstick”—with a smile. Lucy loved how brazenly bright it was.
She scratched at a splatter, then levered the color from under her fingernail and rolled it into a ball. Their new place. Leaning out from the top of the stairs, she saw the park, the busy through road beyond that, the streaks of shiny color as the cars zoomed by. Hours of entertainment: Tom would love it.
There was a shimmer of movement and a kookaburra landed on the power line, its feathers soft and furry and its head tilted to one side, expectant.
“Hello,” said Lucy. “Are you a regular here? Look, sweetheart, isn’t he beautiful?” She turned Tom around to see the bird’s smooth feathers, its still trust.
A car came around the corner then and the bird took flight, before settling itself farther along the wire. Lucy raised her hand, uncertain if she was waving to the car, to the bird, to the house, or the morning itself. Then she helped Tom down each step.
The kookaburra sat, watching.
“Well done, love,” Lucy said as Tom reached the last tread. “The first step in being somewhere new.” She smiled. “And later, we’ll head out and explore.”
As she turned to herd his steps across the lawn, she saw footprints, smaller than her own and closely set, already pressed into the still-wet grass.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for A Hundred Small Lessons includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When Elsie Gormley leaves the Brisbane house in which she has lived for more than sixty years, Lucy Kiss and her family move in, eager to establish their new life. As they settle in, Lucy and her husband, Ben, struggle to navigate their transformation from adventurous lovers to new parents, taking comfort in memories of their vibrant past as they begin to unearth who their future selves might be. But the house has secrets of its own, and the rooms seem to share recollections of Elsie’s life with Lucy. In her nearby nursing home, Elsie traces the span of her life—the moments she can’t bear to let go and the places to which she dreams of returning . . .
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In the Michael Ondaatje poem, we see the titular phrase “a hundred small lessons” (ch. 12), describing children dreaming of their past lives. How does this idea of dreaming and learning from our previous incarnations relate to the major themes of the book? What are some of the “small lessons” you see in this novel?
2. Early on, Lucy notes that she usually has no difficulty adjusting to new places when she has moved for Ben’s work. Why does it take so much longer for her to feel at home in Brisbane? What are some of the factors that make this transition different, and why do these distinctions have such an impact on Lucy?
3. Lucy is fascinated by the idea of vardøgers, imagining her “other selves” and attributing things she can’t explain to their actions. What are some moments throughout the book that don’t explicitly mention the concept of vardøgers but evoke the same idea? Pick a couple examples from Lucy’s perspective and a couple from another perspective, and discuss what these seem to signify.
4. Birds have been thought to portend good or bad luck and foretell the future in many cultures throughout history. Elsie believes that the disappearance of the baby crow she saw in the yard is “the reason she and Clem had had no more children” (ch. 6). Do any of the other birds that appear in the book strike you as omens? If so, what do you think they signify?
5. The epigraph at the beginning of the novel quotes from a poem by John Burnside titled “III. De Libero Arbitrio,” in reference to a book on free will written by the fourth-century bishop Augustine of Hippo. Now that you’ve read A Hundred Small Lessons, reread the epigraph. Why do you think Ashley Hay selected this poem? How might it inform your reading of the novel?
6. Both Elsie and Lucy become stay-at-home mothers after the birth of their children. Compare and contrast their relationships to motherhood. In what respects does having a child impact them in similar ways, and how and why do their experiences of raising their children diverge?
7. Elaine and Elsie have a difficult relationship, in part because of their differing opinions about what constitutes success and fulfillment in life. What do these concepts mean to you? Consider the various characters throughout the book—Lucy, Ben, Elsie, Clem, Elaine, Donny, Richard and Ida Lewis, etc. What assumptions about their happiness or sense of achievement might you make if you came across them in real life? How do these compare with what the characters themselves express over the course of the novel?
8. In chapter 13, Elsie first sees her portrait by Ida Lewis. Were you surprised by how she reacted to the painting? What do you think she was hoping for, prior to seeing it? Do you think she was disappointed? Why, or why not? What do you think her relationship with Ida meant to her, and why did she decide not to continue to see her?
9. While preparing for her wedding, Elaine says “I thought there’d be more to it than this” (ch. 4). After a moment, Elsie responds, interpreting “it” as a reference to Elaine’s bouquet. Later, Elsie recalls this moment, thinking “I’d never before thought [Elaine] was greedy” (ch. 6). How did you understand this scene as it transpired? What were Elaine and Elsie really saying to each other? Do you think Elsie’s recollection of that moment changed over time?
10. The last chapter is titled “Lucy’s house.” At what point did you feel it became “Lucy’s house,” after long being thought of by Lucy herself as Elsie’s house? What are some things you do to make a space yours when you move somewhere new?
11. Elsie laments that Elaine and her daughter Gloria “never found a way to be friends” (ch. 2), and later wonders aloud if she and Elaine were ever friends. Do you think it’s important for family members, specifically mothers and daughters, to be friends? Discuss the different expressions of love we see throughout the book and the role of emotional intimacy in the many familial relationships. Are love and emotional intimacy the same thing? Why, or why not?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Lucy spends much of the book fantasizing about who Elsie is and what her life in the house was like. Consider your own home, and imagine either its past or future tenants. Who are they? How might they feel about their home? Write a short story envisioning a scene from their lives in your home, and share with your reading group.
2. Lucy and Elsie both must confront a flood endangering the same home, and must contemplate the way their possessions and the memories and significance they represent could be suddenly washed away. What would you grab from your home if you could only take what you can carry? If possible, bring one of these items to your reading group, and share why you chose it.
3. Check out Ashley Hay’s other novels, The Body in the Clouds and The Railwayman’s Wife. To find out more about Ashley, visit www.ashleyhay.com.au, or follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ashleyhaywriter.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
AudioBook Review: Stars: Overall 4 Narration 4 Story 4.5 If you are expecting a book full of angst and huge, dramatic revelations, this is not the book for you. This is a story of two women and the intersection of their lives with the help of one house. Elsie had lived in her home for sixty years: the centerpiece of much of her life, laden with memories and lavished with care and all those tiny touches that makes your house your home. When a fall sends her to hospital, and her son has arranged for the sale of her home, that chapter in her little house has come to an end, and she is reconciling her life now with what it had been: the familiarity, comfort, memories, and independence that are now forever changed in her new circumstance. New to the little Brisbane house is Lucy and her husband and young son, Tom. Just having the sense of Elsie and her family around her in tiny touches left behind brings her some comfort and confidence. A family was raised here successfully – there is no reason she shouldn’t have a similar outcome. Through individual moments, Elsie recounts her life and struggles often as Lucy is in the thick of things: the one thing helping Lucy along is the thought of Elsie, the sense of her that she finds in every room when she quietens and listens for her. A lovely sense of ‘memory keeping’ in the house, one that Lucy connects to almost instantly, and allows herself to wonder about those who were there first. The small pieces left behind serve as guideposts for Lucy as she struggles with her husband’s remove frequent absences, little Tom’s into-everything toddler self, and her own feelings of a marriage not quite working, at least not as she hoped it would. Unprepared for the isolation and changes that the move and a child would bring to their marriage, it’s Elsie that becomes Lucy’s best friend in absentia, her guidepost and her teacher as she learns to navigate marriage, motherhood and all of the challenges, big and small, that happen in a life. Narration for this story is provided by Fiona Hardingham, a performance that not only carries the correct accent but has a smoothness in delivery that carries the story softly forward. Never over-reaching for emotion or a moment, Hardingham allows the story to take wing, occasional flights of fancy and moments of harsh reality all treated with the deference and respect needed and required by the writing. A lovely listen that transports to the moment and place, and allows the story to proceed at a pace that allows complete absorption. A wonderful story that is unlike others I have read, but completely refreshing in the unique moments, flights of fancy and harder truths faced all while being surprisingly angst-free, just detailing lives and their points of parallel and intersection in ways that feel natural and plausible. I received an AudioBook copy of the title from Simon and Schuster Audio for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
I read this book for my book club. I look forward to discussing it with my friends. There is much to share. This is definitely a character driven book with generational stories that intertwine in unexpected and beautiful ways. There were things in each character I could relate to - Lucy as a young mom struggling with her new place in the world; Elsie as an older woman struggling with changes forced upon her; Elaine as a daughter wanting more out of life; Gloria sharing a special bond with her grandmother. I found each believable and realistic. As I read, I found myself thinking about the patterns and relationships in my own life. A book that can reach beyond its pages is definitely worth the read.
Australian author Ashley Hay's A Hundred Small Lessons tells the story of two woman who lived in the same house at two different times. When elderly Elsie Gormley falls in her house and breaks her hip, she has to move from the home where she and her beloved husband Clem raised their twins, Elaine and Don now 70 years old, to a nursing home. Elsie lost Clem over thirty years ago and has lived alone since then. She has a good relationship with her son Don and his wife Carol, but she and Elaine have clashed since Elaine was a teenager. Elsie loves Elaine's daughter Gloria and spent a lot of time with Gloria while she was growing up. Elaine didn't take to mothering as Elsie did. Elaine married young, like her mother, but never reveled in the joy of raising her daughter and keeping house. One of the most poignant scenes takes place as Elaine pours her heart out to Clem about how desparately unhappy she is with her life. Clem listens to his daughter, and tells her that it isn't too late to go back to school or find a satisfying job. Clem has a much different, warmer relationship with Elaine than Elsie did. Lucy, her husband Ben and their toddler son Tom buy Elsie's house when she moves to the nursing home. Lucy loves her husband and son, but she is melancholy. Ben travels frequently for work, and he and Lucy have moved several times across the world, finally settling in Brisbane. Lucy becomes somewhat obsessed with Elsie. She finds a box of photos in the attic that belonged to Elsie, and when Tom accidentally spills something on them and ruins them, she is upset. Lucy feels Elsie's presence in the house, and even tells Ben that she has seen Elsie in the garden. Ben indulges Lucy at first, but he becomes increasingly exasperated by Lucy's continued behavior. As a middle-aged woman Elsie poses for a portrait for an artist who lives nearby. This experience changes Elsie in a profound way. She begins to see herself in a different light. Lucy meanwhile speaks frequently of her vardogers- versions of Lucy Kiss who exist in different times and places, a Sliding Doors effect. She brings up her vardogers when an old boyfreind unexpectedly turns up at her door. Hay writes very descriptively- her opening paragraph, describing the house as Elsie sees it from the floor where she has fallen is particularly evocative. It makes you want to lie on your own floor to see what you see, things that you miss seeing everyday from your usual perspective. A Hundred Small Lessons, whose title is taken from a Michael Ondaatje poem that Lucy recited to Ben on one of their first dates, is about the journeys taken by Elsie and Lucy on their way to finding their own identities. It's about growing into your own identity and marriage and motherhood and how they change you. There is a coincidence that hints at a connection that Lucy's family and Elsie's family have that ties them together in a sweet manner, making for a lovely ending to this story. Of the two stories, I found Elsie's more interesting, maybe because we got more of it as she was older. And Clem was such a sweetheart, he gives husbands a good name.