A Hundred Small Lessons by Ashley Hay


This is my (and her) third novel and what a satisfying experience it was to listen to it. 

It centers on a modest house in Brisbane and the two families that lived in it sequentially. First was Elsie, Clem, and their twins. After the twins were grown, had children of their own, and Clem had been dead for nearly 40 years, Elsie was moved into a facility a short walk away. The house was bought by a couple, Ben and Lucy, who had a one-year-old boy, Tom. After years of roving for Ben's journalism career, they settled in his hometown.

The joy of this book is the revelations of these rather ordinary lives and the interactions within each of the families, made most appealing by the long arc of Elsie and her family's time in the house.  Though she had not met her, Lucy was sensitive to Elsie's presence in the house. She found Elsie's teacup, left behind by her children when they cleared the house. Ben wondered why Lucy took up drinking tea in Brisbane when she hadn't before, even when they lived in London.

The answer was behind the beveled glass of one of the kitchen cabinets. A teacup, saucerless, a slightly fluted queen cup with a big blue floral blaze. "Peonies," thought Lucy, "and something like a fuschia." She'd found it forgotten at the back edge of the deck, the sludgy mud rim of its last cup of tea still coating its bottom For a few days, washing it with every load of dishes, she thought of returning it to Elsie, ringing the estate agent or looking up the address on the settlement papers. Then on a whim she'd taken it from the kitchen bench and made herself a cup of tea….She could tell it was the drink the house was used to.

In her new apartment Elsie wonders what became of her favorite teacup.

Elsie and her family's life in the house, beginning in the early 1940s, reflect the times. Elsie lived the life she always wanted:  beloved wife, mother, grandmother. An interlude with a neighbor who asked Elsie to sit for her as a subject for her painting briefly revealed a different life to Elsie. Her daughter was never happy to follow Elsie's path, and was angry with her mother for not helping her move in a different direction. 

When Clem was dying, Elsie read to him. We learn only that it is a classic of Australian literature and mentions the character Stan Parker. It was easy enough to discover that it was Patrick White's Tree of Life.

Though Lucy had always found her way in the various places they had lived, she was having trouble settling into this new situation:  motherhood and the less sophisticated Brisbane. She took comfort in Elsie as she imagined her, but worried about various difficulties she encountered. When she needed to, she turned to the mother of her childhood friend and found the help she needed.  

Revelations to Ben and Lucy at the end of the book by Elsie's granddaughter are satisfying to both of them. And of course to me. I love this book and miss having Elsie, Lucy, and the others with me.

 Ashley Hay, A Hundred Small Lessons, Atria Books, 2017, 304 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the public library and from Amazon.

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