December 27, 2008

Wife in the North

Wife in the North by Judith O'Reilly
2008 Public Affairs Books
Finished on 12/12/08
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

Perhaps it was because she was pregnant and hormones had eaten her brain that Judith O'Reilly was persuaded by her husband to leave London for the northern wilds. But pregnancy hadn't addled her enough not to have a back-up plan: If life in the country didn't measure up, the family would return to the city.

Far from home, Judith, a journalist and mother of three young children, discovers just how tough an assignment making a new life is. In the heart of the country, with no decent coffee in sight, Judith swaps high heels for rubber boots and media-darlings for evangelical strangers and farmers' wives in an effort to do that simple thing women do—make hers a happy family.

Her headlong foray into the country invites adventure at every turn. As she adjusts to the lay of the land and searches for her own true north in an alien landscape, her story offers a hilarious, heartfelt reflection of how to navigate the challenges and rewards of motherhood, marriage, and family.

Oh, my gosh! I couldn't have chosen a better time to read this hilarious book. With its bloglike daily posts, it was a perfect read for the hectic holiday season. I could pick it up and set it down without losing the moment of the narrative, much like catching up on a favorite blog after being away from the computer for a week or so.

O'Reilly is a wonderful storyteller. She had me laughing out loud one moment and bringing a lump to my throat the next. And as with any good book, I wound up marking numerous passages with Post-it Notes.

On mothers and daughters:

One day you wrap, in acid-free tissue layers, the daughter in you. You admire it as you put away its girlish chiffon colours, you mourn its passing as you stand on tiptoe to put it away on the very highest shelf. From a hanger, you take off and shake out the sensible navy role of mother and slip it on. Mother not only to your children but to your own mother. I am at that moment.

On friendship:

Real friends I count like beads on a rosary... You do not keep every friend you ever make. If you are lucky, you keep one or maybe two from the pigeonholes of life: study, jobs, children. One of the best places for making friends is, of course, the office. I have friends from all of the places I worked, newspapers and TV. If you invest wisely, you double them as they grow old and marry. Some friends become another family. Some friends you talk to once a year. A few are there in every crisis and extremity. You hurt when they hurt. There are times you put down the phone when they have read you the latest chapter of their life and weep for them. Some occasionally disappoint. Occasionally, you disappoint back. You try to listen. In sadness and disaster, you say: "I love you," and hope they can hear between their shouts of pain. You say: "I'm here for you," and hope they can see you in their darkness. It seems the least that you can do.

On country life and laundry:

I do things in Northumberland that I would never do otherwise. I hang out washing. I enjoy the weight of a wet shirt in my hand, the reach of my arm and the tidy clip of the plastic peg. Sunshine in my eyes, I squint and string the clothes along the line which runs across the common grass between the sea-fringed fields and the cottages. Then, I catch and heave and hoist them up to the clouds; a length of skinny, metal piping, standing guard, the line caught in its wooden, snake-tongued mouth. They flap and flurry in the northern breezes, lift, noisy and excited in the whippy gusts straight blown from the world's other side to here. It relaxes me to do it, see it, hear it.

On grief:

I took the Yorkshire Mother out to lunch. It was a strange sort of occasion. She has four sons, sprawling, brawling sorts of boys, much like my own, and an older daughter. She should have five sons, not four. Her eldest would have been twenty-one today but no key to the door for him. Dead before his time, seven years ago. Last week, waiting for our boys to come out of school, she said: "Wednesday would have been his birthday. I'll be going to his grave instead." My heart took on the colour of her sadness. I said: "Would it be weird to have lunch with me before you go?" A mother does not forget a son's birthday however far from home he is. We chinked our glasses, drank up the champagne fizz, wiped out the bubbles with our fingers, then filled the empty glasses with our tears.

I truly enjoyed this gem of a book and can think of several friends I'd recommend it to. However, I do have a couple of minor quibbles. About halfway through, I began to grow tired of the author's sarcastic complaints about her husband and her unhappiness in her new location. I suspect she wanted to show an honest reaction to the family's relocation 350 miles north of her beloved London, yet I couldn't help but cringe when she started to complain once again. Kind of like that awkward feeling you get when you're at a dinner party and a husband or wife begins to criticize the other spouse in front of the guests. You feel badly, wishing you weren't a witness to their rants. You love them and enjoy their company, but would rather not have an intimate knowledge of their unhappiness.

On compromise and dissatisfaction:

My husband left for London for two weeks. Let me see, how long have we lived here. Oh yes, three weeks. How pregnant am I? Seven months. How many children do I have? Two and a bit. Do I want to be here? No. Excellent. He has a deadline, he always seems to have a deadline. He is the one who wants to live up here, yet he is the one who has to work away for weeks at a time. I knew he would have to go back soon after we moved: he can do part of his job down the line but not all of it. Seeing him go—not having him here—is about as hard as I thought it would be. He called me. He said: "I miss you." I gripped the phone, said, "If we lived in London, you wouldn't have to miss me."


One of my acute frustrations living up here is the lack of space. Outside it's all glorious green rolling acres everywhere while the beaches are empty stretches of washed sand. Inside this rural dream country life, it is hell. Five of us squished together in what is effectively a two-bedroom, toy-strewn hovel. Six, counting Girl Friday when she is here. The house is like something from eighteenth-century pre-revolution England—all cottage industry and screaming children with a little less smallpox.

I also feel Wife in the North would have been even more enjoyable if it weren't quite so long. The stories (good and bad) became repetitious and I actually considered setting the book aside for a bit, if not entirely. I'm glad I continued on, though. The author shares a touching piece of personal history in the final pages and I would have hated to have missed reading those passages.

Wife in the North is a bit reminiscent of Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence
(yes, there's a home renovation) and Jeannie Laskas' Fifty Acres and a Poodle (no, there aren't any cute animal tales). Great laughs, touching stories, and a lovely glimpse into life in the country.

You can peruse Judith's blog, but be aware if you plan to read her book, many (if not all) of her posts prior to December 31, 2007 are included in the book.

There's also a very good review by a Waterstone's bookseller here.


  1. Sounds interesting! I especially liked the quote on friendship. To be reminded of Peter Mayle's book is a strong recommendation, too.

  2. Great review - I'm going to add this to my wish list.

  3. This one sounds like a book that would suit me well right now with my shortened attention span and all. And the cover grabs me. No idea why, but I love it!

  4. JoAnn - She really has a way with words. While many of her daily entries were about the house or children or absent husband, there were many, many beautiful passages. I wanted to share them all, but then you wouldn't need to buy the book and read it yourself! ;)

    Carrie - Glad you enjoyed the review. I hope you get to the book soon.

    Andi - Yes, this is one you'd really enjoy, me thinks. Her sarcastic wit had me chortling, and yet there were so many lyrical and tender passages to add balance to an otherwise snarky rant. I can't wait to catch up on her blog, as I'm not quite ready to leave the English countryside.

    I love the cover, too. Nothing like a pair of red pumps or muddy Wellies! :)

  5. Sounds delightful...and on to the wish list it goes!

  6. Beautiful passages. I liked the imagery of the one about mothers and daughters. I do that in my mind - put periods of time away in a box, then place it on a shelf. When I got pregnant when our then youngest child was 11, I was thrilled, but found myself not wanting to take the imaginary box off the shelf that contained Halloween dress-up days.

  7. Anonymous10:00 AM

    Adding this one to my wish list! Thanks Les.

  8. Ever since I saw you were reading this, I've been dying to know what you thought. I had read a review that made me not like it or her much, and I still feel much the same way, even though you mostly liked the book. Some people do think they are being funny when they whine on and on, but she sounds a bit much for me. I wish I could remember whose review it was to share it with you. One can't help but wonder if this marriage will continue.

  9. I really liked reading your review. I think I was a bit more harsh about it but I guess the "complaining" really got to me. I think I probably should have set it aside more and read it in spurts. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more. In any case, I do think parts were really good and funny. Oh and were you bothered at all by the fact that she never revealed anyone's name? I don't know why that bugged me so much.

  10. I keep hearing about this book but have yet to get my hands on a copy. I might have to change that this year.

  11. I'm putting this one back on my list. I'd read a review that wasn't neither entirely negative, nor terribly positive--and marked it off. Thanks for including the quotes!

  12. Kim - I'm going to loan it to a friend, but maybe once she's finished, I'll offer it up for grabs.

    Booklogged - She really has a way with words. Your story made me smile!

    Kari - I may offer it up for grabs when I get it back from a girlfriend. I'll keep you posted!

    Nan - As I read the book, I thought of you and just had a feeling it wasn't your cuppa tea, in spite of the location (and cover!). I read a few negative reviews after posting mine, so I probably stumbled on the one you read. I have a good feeling about the author's marriage. I think she was overwhelmed being left alone with the little boys (while pregnant) in a strange/new community. I probably would have felt the same way. And, they lost a child, too, so I felt some empathy for her.

    Iliana - Thank you. I just wrote two new reviews and felt they were pretty lifeless. I guess when a book speaks to me, I can go on and on and on. :)

    Yes, the complaining did get to be a bit wearisome. And I couldn't believe she continued to run out of gas and continued to blame her husband! You'd think she'd learn to fill it up herself. ;)

    It didn't bother me that she didn't use anyone's real name until I read your review. Obviously, I had noticed the lack of names early on, but it wasn't something I focused on until you said it bugged you. :)

    Lesley - It might be up for grabs in another month or so. I'll keep you posted.

    Jenclair - See my note above! I'll let you know if I'm going to give my copy away. Glad you enjoyed the quotes.

  13. Hi Lesley, thanks for the review and chat. I have a few spare US editions - if you wanted to run some sort of write-in competition, then let me know the winner and I'll post over a copy.
    You may well be right about the winging - I'm hoping that the insights it offers on what it is to be a wife and mother and daughter today can make up for that.
    Anyway as I say let me know if you want a book as a prize. Best wishes, wifey

  14. Judith/Wifey - That would be great! I'll let everyone know I have a copy up for grabs and will let you know the winner's info. Do you have an email address I can contact you at? If you leave it here in the comments section, I'll delete it without posting to my blog. Thanks!


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