A review of The Mistake by Wendy James

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Mistake
by Wendy James
March 2012, Paperback, 288 pages, RRP:$29.95, ISBN-13:9781921901041

The Mistake follows the life of Jodie Garrow, a woman who is living the life of her dreams. It’s a life she has carefully constructed, built up from her childhood dreams. Her husband, Angus, is an old-moneyed, good looking lawyer with political aspirations. Her children Hannah and Tom are thriving in expensive, high performing schools. Jodie lives in a good neighbourhood, in a nice home, with good supportive friends and does regular charity work. She has all she ever wanted. But Jodie has a secret in her past that no one in her perfect family knows about, and its impending revelation threatens everything Jodie holds dear.

The Mistake is a super-fast, engaging read that has the intensity of a thriller, with the compelling psychological complexity and deep thematics of literary fiction. Jodie’s development is subtle, moving between an internal and external perspective that contrasts Jodie’s slick, calm demeanour with her inner turmoil. The book mingles reflection and memory with perception and superficial judgement. Initially Jodie’s calm has a similar effect on the reader as it does on the narrative public – it distances us. However, as the story progresses, we learn more and more of Jodie’s unhappy upbringing – her unloving mother and missing father:

All Jodie wants, all she has ever wanted, is a life without grubbiness, without chaos, a life that follows a clear trajectory of progress, of achievement. Surely, she thinks, it isn’t that much to ask. (187)

There are plenty of villains in the story. The most pervasive is Angus himself, with his easy, privileged infidelities, though he does begin to grow a little through his panic attacks, fear and pain. A less complex villain is Angus’ hideously snobby mother, who achieves an unambiguously Dickensian unpleasantness, Jodie’s false friends are also antagonists who begin to creep away when her secret becomes public. The biggest villain however is the general public that is quick to judge, and takes such great Schadenfreude in Jodie’s misfortunes. The story pivots on these antagonists, and brings in a broader philosophical perspective about the role of the media and the public’s hunger for voyeurism:

She can see now how it happens, to the Amy Winehouses, the Heath Ledgers, the Michael Jacksons – can understand why they seek the solace of drugs or alcohol or risky behaviour. Perhaps it makes no difference, really, whether they’re feted or maligned, adored or abhored – either way, they’re endlessly exposed their every action scrutinised discussed, critiqued. They’re like butterflies trapped under glass, microbes under a less than benign microscope. Separate. Isolated. Utterly alone. (202)

Jodie doesn’t get off lightly – she has to pay her dues, as, to a lesser extent, does Hannah. But in the dramatic irony of their growth, there is a strong development and self-realisation, particularly for Jodie. The Mistake is about far more than a single mistake. It’s also about our choices and the flimsiness of the lives we build around ourselves- the many trappings, roles, compromises, and illusions. Though the novel reads easily and won’t be easily left until the full truth of Jodie’s story is revealed, this is no comfortable beach read. There’s a depth to the theme and a richness in the characterisation that will stay with the reader. The power of friendship too, to winkle out truth and deeper meaning in life, is one that provides some redemption to Jodie’s story, though the powerful ending still comes as a shock.

The Mistake is an expertly written, compulsively readable novel that repays the reading with rich reflection. There are no easy answers here and the multiple ‘truths’ of the novel are continually called into question. Everyone is culpable. There are plenty of parallels between Jodie Garrow’s life and those of other real-life women who have been caught up in a media frenzy and judged based on appearance. Nevertheless the psychological implications go beyond a political statement. This is a powerful book with broad appeal.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.

Article first published as Book Review: The Mistake by Wendy James on Blogcritics.