From the BLURB:
Stella Sweeney is back in Dublin. After living the dream in New York for a year - touring her self-help book, appearing on talk shows all over the USA and living it up in her 10-room duplex on the Upper West Side - she's back to normality with a bang. And she's got writer's block.
Stella wants a clean break as she didn't exactly leave New York on a high. Why is she back in Ireland so soon? Who is it who keeps calling? Stella wants to get back to being the woman she used to be. But can she? And should she?
‘The Woman Who Stole My Life’ was the 2014 contemporary novel from bestselling Irish author, Marian Keyes.
Keyes has been a prolific, bestselling author since her 1995 debut – but I’d never read anything of hers before ‘The Woman Who Stole My Life’. I went in not knowing much (that blurb is really quite bare), but I’d been hearing a lot about this book since 2014 so was moved to give her a try.
What the blurb leaves out (one of the many things) is that this is story within a story, sort of – spliced between protagonist Stella Sweeney’s current life predicament, trying (unsuccessfully) to write a follow-up to her bestselling book, having moved home from New York with her tail between her legs after a humiliating event she’d rather not discuss … then we’re privy to small extracts from her book, titled ‘One Blink at a Time’ and the real-life catastrophe that prompted its being written. Because not so long ago Stella – once happily married with two older children – woke up one day dead tired, with tingling in her extremities. Next thing she knew, she’s being rushed to hospital as her body slowly starts shutting down … because Stella has a one-in-a-million disease called Guillain-Barre syndrome, a nerve inflammation that sees her entire body shutting down and effectively keeping her entombed and unable to move.
Stella recounts her time in ICU, only able to blink her eyes (left/right for yes/no) as her form of communication. Her family barely keep it together; her son Jeffrey becomes increasingly angry for her being sick, her daughter Betsy becomes Biblical and her husband Ryan just seems hopeless. The one bright spot in her day become neurologist (and someone Stella’s previously been in a car accident with) a doctor called Mannix Taylor, who devises a system of communication with her through blinks.
So, that’s the basic premise – how a beautician from Dublin found herself with a one in a million syndrome that kept her a prisoner in her own body, went on to become an author sensation, writing about her ordeal and recovery … and then lost it all and found herself divorced, and living back in Dublin.
I initially found a lot of Jojo Moyes and Liane Moriarty to Keyes’ story – not so much in tone or style, but substance (and, yes, the obvious comparison is to Moyes’s ‘Me Before You’ about a quadriplegic – but they’re really vastly different). Rather, I found connection in how Moyes, Moriarty and Keyes all seem to start with this premise of “what would you do?” It’s what grounds even their more outlandish storylines – by having them happen to thoroughly ordinary, relatable women that prompts the reader to wonder, “what would I do in that situation?”
But ‘The Woman Who Stole My Life’ is a 531-page book, and by the midway point I found myself looking around for … substance. By that point in a Moyes or Moriarty book, usually, all cards were being laid on the table and an ominous tumbling towards ending would be underway. Not so with Keyes and this book – by the midway point I was keeping my fingers crossed for more meat and angst, more oomph to the story which to that point had been careening along nicely and keeping me enthralled. But it was also a bit too cutesy. I kept waiting for Stella to really hit her lowest-lows, but it never felt like she quite got there. The Guillain-Barrè syndrome was awful, to be sure, but once I realised it wasn’t the whole basis of the story – that there was supposedly more heartbreak in store for Stella – I kept waiting for it to hit, but it never did for me.
Fair warning though: the woman of the title (who steals Stella's life) doesn't really make an appearance until the last third or so of the novel, and is only alluded to before then ... which felt underwhelming and threw the pacing off a little bit for me.
There’s romance here too, but it doesn’t have the edges and depth I was hoping for either. Again – it was cutesy. And I even found myself more interested in how Stella’s (then) husband was coping with her being in ICU, partly because it was funny, but also because it hit more closely to that “what would you do?” launching off point;
Her face cleared, then she looked almost angry. ‘You fancy him.’
‘You’d better not,’ she said. ‘You’ve got a good husband, who’s killing himself to keep everything going. You know he went out to buy tampons for Betsy?’
Christ. Would I never hear the end of how Ryan had gone out to buy tampons for Betsy? It had become like a tale from Irish mythology. Great deeds done by Irish men: Brian Boru fighting the Battle of Clontarf; Padraig Pearse reading the Proclamation of Irish Independence on the steps of the GPO; Ryan Sweeney buying tampons for his daughter, Betsy.
I admit; I enjoyed myself while I was reading this (though partly I think because I literally got to halfway through this 531-page book before realising it was veering away from the heft of story I’d been hoping for going in). Keyes’ humour is definitely charming, but I though it sometimes detracted from the real meat of the story and cushioned her opportunities to hit the story a little harder. But that’s obviously Keyes sticking to what her readers expect from one of her books, so I’ll admit this might just be me going in as a newbie.
I would read a Marian Keyes book again, with the right “huh, what would I do?” storyline hook – but for the most part I think I’d prefer to stick with my favourites, Jojo Moyes and Liane Moriarty.