The Gingerbread Woman by Jennifer Johnston


I was unfamiliar with this Irish author and listened to the audiobook as a result of Reading Matters' enthusiasm for her books. 

The plot had some very familiar elements, but a variation that I found quite appealing. The main character is a free-spirited woman who does free-lance writing and lands temporary university posts lecturing on Irish literature. Clara has just returned from one of these gigs in New York City to her cottage by the sea not far from Dublin. Her disastrous affair in New York is revealed to us bit by bit as she writes notes for her book "The Gingerbread Woman." It will have "a touch of the tragic, the comic, both there inherent in the title, 'run, run as fast as you can, you can't catch me, I'm the gingerbread man,' or should I say 'woman.'" She has recently had major surgery that we know is somehow related to this affair; she chafes under the care of her mother (known to make jam at every turn) and her doctor.

Clara meets another damaged soul Lawrence and his dog Pansy while they are out walking. I felt I had read his story before: a man made happy and fully human by a wonderful woman; the woman and their young child die tragically. Still, Lar (as he is called) becomes a vibrant character. He is a teacher, but at the moment is unmoored and wandering around aimlessly, staying is hotels. Clara, in her free-spirited way, invites him to stay a few days at her house and they manage to comfort each other. The variation is that this is not a love story, they do not become romantically involved; they just irritate and engage with each other by turns. This level of human contact helps each of them and by the time Lar departs, they both seem to be on the mend.

I enjoyed the Irish reader and noted a couple of phrases I particularly like. Having lived in London, Paris, and New York, Clara describes herself this way:  "I am by way of being the cosmopolitan one in the family." She tells about her mother giving her sister advice. Her mother said that no man was worth breaking your heart over after Rosie had been dumped by a man. " 'Particularly not that man,' I misguidedly put in my tuppence worth, at which point they both turned and ate the face off me."

Lawrence is from County Antrim and The Troubles, while not a part of the story, do have a tangential role. Early on in their time together Clara sets out the rule that she doesn't want to hear about the North, "No North in this house. I don't mind you talking about your wife, your child, your mother, your hopes and fears, your punctured dreams, but not the North. None of the gutted-by-history crap. Don't pollute my house with that. When you want to have that conversation, we'll go to the pub or walk in the rain."

The frank kindness of families, friends, and strangers is the heart of this engaging story.

Jennifer Johnson, The Gingerbread Woman, Headline Book Publishing, 2000, 224 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available only from Amazon. Other works by her are in the UVa and public libraries.

Add comment



Recent Posts


Blogs I Like