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Monday, December 16, 2013

'Walking on Trampolines' by Frances Whiting

From the BLURB:

'Tallulah de Longland,' she said slowly, letting all the Ls in my name loll about lazily in her mouth before passing judgement. 'That,' she announced, 'is a serious glamorgeous name.'

From the day Annabelle Andrews sashays into her classroom, Tallulah 'Lulu' de Longland is bewitched: by Annabelle, by her family, and their sprawling, crumbling house tumbling down to the river.

Their unlikely friendship intensifies through a secret language where they share confidences about their unusual mothers, first loves, and growing up in the small coastal town of Juniper Bay. Their lives become as entwined as Annabelle's initials engraved beneath the de Longland kitchen table.
But the euphoria of youth rarely lasts, and the implosion that destroys their friendship leaves lasting scars and a legacy of self-doubt that haunts Lulu into adulthood.

Years later, Lulu is presented with a choice: remain the perpetual good girl who misses out, or finally step out from the shadows and do something extraordinary. And possibly unforgiveable.

It's not how far you fall, but how high you bounce.

Tallulah ‘Lulu’ de Longland meets Annabelle Andrews when the girls are 12-years-old. It will end up being the first day of an intense, tumultuous and ultimately life-altering friendship that sees Lulu become an honorary fixture of the infamous Andrews-family clan of artists. Annabelle’s grandfather was so famous that he got his head on a stamp when he died. Her grandmother was well-documented in the Australian tabloids as his put-upon wife who kept taking the skirt-chasing scoundrel back. Annabelle’s uncle is a world-famous documentary filmmaker and her mother a glamorous bohemian, beloved by the gossip columns. Frank Andrews is Annabelle’s father; a renowned painter, quiet alcoholic, devoted husband and father. Annabelle lives with her mother and father in a sprawling and tumbled-down River House. 

Lulu’s life, by contrast, is dull. Her father Harry is a plumber (‘plumbing the depths of excellence’) she has younger twin brothers whom she has a hand in raising, and her mother Rose requires constant care and attention. Rose had a difficult childhood, and in her adulthood has developed a slight case of agoraphobia as well as a slew of other little quirks (like naming all her dresses). While the Andrews family dance and laugh in their jungle of a backyard, Lulu spends her childhood watching Rose hide away in the kitchen preparing delicious meals to make up for her shortcomings.

Annabella and Lulu become so close, they even develop their own language of sliced words and Lulu feels like an extension of the Andrews clan. But Annabelle can also be domineering; sulking when Lulu spends time with her other friends, Stella and Simone, and insisting that she and Lulu be each other’s shadow. Not much even changes when, at age 16, Lulu falls in love for the first time – with Josh Keaton.

A beautiful, curly-haired boy on a bike who quickly becomes her whole world, Lulu is relieved when her best friend and boyfriend get along and they become a solid triangle … it’s just a shame that Lulu couldn’t see what was perfectly, uncomfortably clear to everyone else … not until she was 18 and her and Josh’s plans to spend a year travelling were railroaded by his falling in love with Annabelle. 

Annabelle and Josh would spend the next few years doing all the things Josh and I were meant to do: Josh helping Annabelle put on her backpack, laughing as she fell with the weight of it. They would travel and take pictures, they would drink too much red wine in crooked little bars in Spain, they would squint their eyes against the whitewashed walls that hold up the Greek Islands, they would land like lemmings in Earls Court in London, and I would stay at home, in the streets I grew up on. 
I would stay at home with Harry and Rose, look out my window and wonder which of them I ached for more. 

Years later, Harry kicks Lulu out of the family home and sends her to the city to kick-start the life she’s had on hold ever since Josh and Annabelle left, and left her behind. Now in her mid-twenties, but crippled by the feelings of inadequacy Josh and Annabelle’s betrayal left in her, Annabelle is hired as personal assistant to the current King of the Airwaves – Duncan McAllister. A rash, brash radio-host on his fourth-marriage who goes on to become Lulu’s best friend.

Duncan is even there for her when Josh and Annabelle re-enter her life, and years of hiding away and fearing disappearing have Lulu acting out in the worst, most friendship-damaging way imaginable…

‘Walking on Trampolines’ is the 2013 coming-of-age novel from Australian author, Frances Whiting. 

I’ve had recommendations for this book piling up ever since its October release, and now I can totally understand why. Here is an immensely readable, little bit heartbreaking, little bit chest-swelling novel that examines female friendship, first love, coming home and letting go with infinite tenderness.

I read this book in one day, and finished well into the night because I didn’t want to put it down or leave these characters for longer than I had to. And when I got to the last page, I wanted nothing so much as a hint that I may see them again – and this, despite the fact that by that last page I had tears running laps down my cheeks and my nose clogged with snot. 

The novel is set in the 80s-early 90s and it perfectly fit this book that caused a swell of nostalgia in me. The 80s/90s time made the whole story a little bit soft-edged and seemed to set a polaroid frame around the plot – it was felt in the girl’s after-school lives that were dominated by long wanderings around their home town and in the infamy of the Andrews clan (laid out in urban legends and ‘Women’s Weekly’ article snippets). 

The book actually cuts between a disastrous mistake of Lulu’s in the ‘present’, and then carries us back to the girl’s first meeting at the age of 12 and Annabelle Andrew’s huge impact on Lulu’s life as they grow up together … right up until the point when Annabelle steals Josh Keaton out from under her, and both Lulu’s first love and best friend leave her to navigate her 20s solo – save for Stella and Simone, two other school friends who never liked Annabelle.

I loved revisiting the girl’s friendship from ages 12 to 18. I loved that Lulu’s narrative was peppered with clues and wincing-foreshadowing of what was to come later down the track. Even knowing that something was coming, Whiting did such a credible job of wrapping me up in Lulu’s idyllic childhood friendship that it still came as a wallop. I think because I saw a lot of myself in Lulu, and I had friends like Annabelle. In fact, I had so many Annabelle-esque friends that I was both sighing and anticipating the inevitable fallout to come … while also totally understanding that Lulu was heedless to stop it (even if she’d wanted to). Annabelle is fun and daring; she brings out a side of Lulu that no one else can and while in her presence Lulu feels like a better version of herself. 

The one part of the book that frustrated me (and still niggles, long after I’ve finished reading) is that after the terrible betrayal of Josh and Annabelle, that storyline was never satisfactorily picked up again. Lulu’s life stutters and halts for a few years after their betrayal and departure, then she picks herself back up – becomes PA to the most powerful man in Australian media, even gets herself a boyfriend. But the spectre of Annabelle and Josh still hangs. Whiting put readers in a position much like Lula’s – waiting and expecting Josh and Annabelle to come bounding onto the page, the same way that our heroine is always half-expecting to bump into them down the street or waiting for her on the front porch. And it’s a shame that that expectation is never rewarded … even when Annabelle and Josh do make a reappearance (just long enough for their messy triangle to get even messier) they’re shuffled off the page again. 

In the first half of the book Annabelle came across like a child wounded by her mother’s indifference and her father’s weakness. Josh, himself a product of an abandoned-father, was so sweet and tender even in the aftermath of betrayal – but when these two reappear in Lulu’s life later on they suddenly read more like caricatures of themselves from the first half of the book. Josh smirked a lot and didn’t say much. Annabelle seemed removed and like a light had gone out in her. I kept waiting for these two to come back into Lulu’s life for a third time and for them all to properly interact with one another instead of merely grazing each other … but it never happened and I’m still a little saddened by that. 

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Lulu’s life post-heartbreak. Duncan McAllister actually becomes a robust and entertaining character in the second-half of the book that Whiting had me both laughing and crying over, in equal measure. 

But the last half of the book did feel nigglingly short. A new romance for Lulu is only ever given surface-tension, and I still found myself waiting for Josh and Annabelle and for Lulu to get angry, get sad, get something with them. 

I actually think my frustrations with the book were part of its charm. Whiting got me caring about these characters – she made them all magnificently flawed (even, especially, Lulu who’d previously spent her life as a ‘goody two shoes’). A lot of the book is about Lulu living in the past and crippled by her inability to move forward, forget and forgive – and maybe the very fact that I kept wanting Lulu to revisit old history and wounds says a lot about me. 

There’s definitely a hint of Liane Moriarty to Frances Whiting – in the tender family/friendship melodramas, suburban secrets and beautifully relatable coming-of-age tale. I’m not exaggerating when I say I could not put this down, and I’m not lying when I say that Frances Whiting is now a must-read author for me.



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