The Sugar Mother by Elizabeth Jolley


I was moved to read this by ANZ LitLovers' enthusiasm for it. She describes the plot which involves a fussy academic on his own while his younger obstetrician wife is away for a year as "delicious." It's hard to identify with these characters at the outset as their quirkiness defines them. By fussy I mean having three notebooks to record observations of his body: one for the external, one for the internal and one for intangibles. Cecilia laughs at all the foolish self-centered things he says, and apparently laughs all the time. She has left detailed instructions for his care with her friend Daphne and their set of friends with whom they have ritualized wife-swapping parties. Her plans are thwarted by a mother-daughter team in need of a benefactor who moved in next door shortly before Cecilia left.

Within moments of her departure, they arrive on his doorstep as they were locked out of their rental house and in their first conversation, the mother determines they have no children. 

"Aw, well, what will be — will be as I always say," she nodded wisely. "They seem to go in these days for sugared mothers don't they."

"Sorry?" Edwin paused. "Ah!" he said, "surrogate." He laughed in his most charming way. "not sugared," he said.

"Yes," Leila's mother said. "that's the word. With no family," she pronounced it 'farmily,' "a woman can be very lonesome."

The mother and Edwin work out a plan to provide Cecilia with a surprise baby for the family and Edwin finds he appreciates the good cooking and care the mother provides as he falls in love with the soft and largely silent Leila. His anxieties and need to make records in his notebooks diminishes and it is many months before he begins to consider the possibility that Leila was already pregnant when they arrived.

As I have not withheld plot turns, you might wonder why I haven't revealed what happens when Cecilia returns early while mother, daughter, and new baby are still in the house. The end of this book is pleasingly, deliciously inconclusive.

Not surprisingly there is not a smooth flowing narrative, but a series of narrow escapes and surprising realizations for Edwin. For all their foolishness, the characters have their appealing moments and one laughs at them in a kindly way.

Elizabeth Jolley is a much respected Australian author who died in 2007.

Available at the UVa library and from Amazon.

Elizabeth Jolley, The Sugar Mother, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1988, 210 pages.

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