Bateman Books, NZ RRP $34.99, Contemporary Fiction
It’s a storyline straight from a romantic comedy – a socially awkward woman, living alone with her chicken and her spa pool, receives a phone call telling her that her late friend has bequeathed her an all-expenses paid holiday. Destination and length of trip: unknown. Said woman is flustered. Can she do it? Break free of the routine and structure that she’s sheltered herself with and leave New Zealand for the first time?
In the sweet and endearing novel Addressed to Greta, the eponymous main character is lonely, frightened and ashamed of her large feet. Walter, Greta’s best friend and her unrequited love, has died and left her a trip of a lifetime, ‘an opportunity to step away from the world you know.’ Greta has lived in Auckland for over twenty years and has never heard of Tiritiri Matangi; she’s never been to the South Island, so this trip is a daunting prospect. She’s sheltered in a way that seems unbelievable. She’s utterly alone, even though she’s never without her the memory of her controlling mother, recalling the things she’d said: gems like ‘Thinking positive thoughts will not pay for the power’, and the nasty ‘If only people knew what you were really like.’
Greta’s unable to cast off her mother Nora’s admonitions and criticisms, even though her mother died five years ago. Greta is scared to make herself a life that includes her dreams and ambitions, preferring the security of her quiet and unfulfilling life. But this trip, from a friend who knew her better than anyone, forces Greta to quit her boring job, to leave her rental property in Devonport, to apply for a passport and take a long haul flight to her first destination: New York City. It’s the first stop on a whirlwind tour, and we get to come along for the ride.
Addressed to Greta is the third novel by Fiona Sussman, a former GP turned fiction writer. Her second book, The Last Time We Spoke, won the Ngaio Marsh Award for Crime Fiction in 2017. This new novel is a departure for Sussman as well as Greta. Sussman ventures here into cosy and warm territory, in a story that deals with large issues in familiar and comfortable settings. This book will appeal to readers of Charity Norman, Nicky Pellegrino and Sarah-Kate Lynch.
Sussman’s writing is strong and evocative – the novel glowed whenever landscapes or cityscapes were described. With international travel off the cards this year, anyone desperate for armchair travel will find plenty to satisfy in this book. Beautiful food is eaten – Greta loves to eat, especially cake and chocolate – and interesting strangers – morticians and architects and pilots – start out as acquaintances, but become her friends. Greta’s earnestness allows her to experience the world in a way that garners the envy of some more worldly characters. She changes from a woman who blushes at magazine covers promising to tell you ‘Ten Risky Ways To Excite Your Lover’ into a woman who initiates a sexual encounter for the pure joy of the experience.
Sussman keeps the momentum up throughout the novel, even when it could have easily stagnated with plenty of flashbacks and memories alongside the present day action. I’d hoped for more pit stops on the holiday, but appreciate the novel would be twice the length if Greta travelled any longer. Sussman sidesteps technology to bask in the romance of hand-written letters and pay phones. There’s something touching about the voice of Walter speaking to Greta through the letters he has left her, and his presence feels strong despite only featuring briefly in flashbacks.
Greta’s trip is a lens through which we can all learn new things, whether they are about the impermanence of humankind, the value in opening oneself up to the world, and the essential understanding that ‘ You cannot change what has already happened…only what you choose to take with you.’
Sussman’s created an oddball in Greta Jellings, a character who suffers from verbal diarrhoea and innappropriate admissions. Greta is lovable in many ways yet incredibly blind to her own naivety; she’s upset when someone calls her Gretchen yet she tells a Rwandan man named Daniel that she thinks he has ‘a white man’s name’. She’s horrified by other traveller’s rudeness, but has no boundaries herself, particularly when questioning Daniel about the genocide; she’s angry at another woman’s prejudice against homosexuals, but she judges nearly everyone she meets about all sorts of things, finding herself shocked when they don’t fit into her stereotypical assumptions. While the characters in the book were always ready to forgive Greta her transgressions, it might be more difficult for some readers to do so.
Greta seemed older than she was supposed to be – twenty to thirty years older, a woman with outdated ideas and ettiquette. Her choice not to have a mobile phone fit with her character, however her disconnect and ignorance of the world around her seemed at times far-fetched – the only way to explain it would be to say that Greta has never used the internet, which in today’s world, doesn’t seem possible.
While the book is cut through with humour, mostly through Greta’s faux pas, the novel is at it’s heart a story about the burden of solitary life. Greta has no one – her former neighbours changed their personalities as well as their address, and she mourns the loss of their companionship; her mother has died and left her diaries full of secrets causing her more pain; and Walter, her best friend and the man who could never love her as she loved him, died from liver cancer, complicated by HIV. She’s worried about disappointing people, so she pushes them away, even when she’s hungry for touch and for real connection. On her travels, she discovers a profound truth: ‘People were meant to be with others. Even the elderly stationmaster defined himself by his significant other. There was power in the plural – the couple, the family, the team, the town. Shared decisions, shared grief, shared joys and burdens.’ And so Greta breaks down her barriers, little by little.
It’s also through travel that she learns another lesson, one that travel is especially skilled at teaching: ‘For a second time on the trip, the significance of Greta’s life zoomed to blend with a bigger backdrop. Her story was just one pixel in a vast canvas. It was oddly comforting, knowing that nothing mattered quite as much as she’d always believed it did.’ Against the pain and suffering of millions around the globe, Greta is able to put her own challenges into perspective, allowing herself some grace and dignity to change her life, to determine for herself what the next step should be.
Addressed To Greta is a charming novel that traverses the globe and the intricacies of human relationships. I hope many readers find comfort in her travels, the happiness she manages to find, and her search for the perfect pair of shoes.