Families can be dysfunctional and messy, especially when it comes to spending the holiday season together. Life in Seven Mistakes by Susan Johnson is a satirical look at what happens to three generations of the Barton family when they get together over a ten-day period to celebrate Christmas and the golden wedding anniversary of the elderly Bartons. This is a fly-on-the-wall look at the struggle to get on, to build bridges and take some joy in being together. While the setting is beautiful – the sun, sand and surf of the Gold Coast in Queensland – the scenes can be ugly and at times very familiar.
Dysfunctional families and the generation gap that exists between the ages are just two of the themes tackled in the black comedy Life in Seven Mistakes. It is the seventh book by award-winning Australia author Susan Johnson and one that paints a true-to-the-bone picture of families and the mess they can cause, especially when gathering together for the holiday season.
Life in Seven Mistakes
The novel takes a fly-on-the-wall look at three generations of the Barton family who have reunited on the Queensland Gold Coast to celebrate Christmas and the golden wedding anniversary of the elderly Bartons, Bob and Nancy.
They are joined by their daughter Elizabeth, her husband Neil, and her three children from three different fathers. Into the mix is thrown her brother Robbo, and his family. Noticeably absent is their younger brother Nick who is doing time for drug trafficking.
While the setting is beautiful – sand, sun and surf – the scenes are ugly. At times Johnson has us so involved in the arguments that we feel we should step in and lighten the atmosphere or point out some home truths. The book takes place over ten days and addresses seven mistakes that the family have experienced over the years.
Structure of Life in Seven Mistakes
The novel is broken down into chapters that alternate between the current day family gathering in Queensland and an intimate look at Bob and Nancy’s life from the very first moment they met.
As a young couple living in the Snowy Mountains with Bob working on the Snowy River Scheme, life is good and the world is their oyster. As the older Bartons, Bob is overbearing, rude and cranky, while Nancy is submissive and seems uncaring of her children and more concerned about her children’s failings.
The contrast in chapters is interesting, but so too is the comparison between a young Elizabeth doing what she is told by her parents to a woman nearing fifty who can’t seem to act her age when she is around her parents, falling into the same trap of letting them control her thoughts and decisions.
Art in Life in Seven Mistakes
One frustrating aspect of the book is the nature that art plays. Elizabeth is a ceramicist who has built her reputation and body of work up over the years to be at the stage of “getting somewhere”. Following the family gathering she is to have her first solo exhibition in New York.
Although we get glimpses of her work, it is not enough. The art is not focussed on, like the character Elizabeth is not allowed to focus on it when with her family, although it seems to be the only thing that makes her truly happy in life and the only time she is at one with herself.
The rest of her family have no appreciation of her art or her achievements. Her father wants her to get a real job and her husband is resentful that she gets to do what she wants while he has to go off to work everyday. No one sees her art as work. This will be a theme that many readers will be able to empathise with.
Life in Seven Mistakes comes to a dramatic climax, all the while allowing the reader to be swept along with the action that is at times heartbreaking and at others, cringingly familiar.
Life in Seven Mistakes: A Novel by Susan Johnson (William Heinemann – Random House Australia, 2008, ISBN: 978-1-86325-6155, 344 pages.)
My rating: ★★