(courtesy Affirm Press)
One of the happy lies we like to tell ourselves is that life as we have it right now is the best version of life it can be.
It often isn’t and we know it deep down but either it’s too hard to change things or we can’t see where changes need to be or asking ourselves if we’re really happy might lead to the uncomfortable realisation that we are not.
One person who has that gloriously awful indecision taken away from her is Libby Popovic, a graphic designer in Sydney, Australia, and the protagonist of The Good Woman’s Guide to Making Better Choices by Liz Foster, wo suddenly find her life, which if you asked her she would have said was fine, thank you, just fine, royally upended by a series of events which basically drive a truck through any notion, however incomplete, of existential bliss.
In short order, Libby, who hails from a property near Beechworth in Victoria and who remains a country girl at heart (though she doesn’t really know how much until her urban life rises up and bites her on the proverbial) sees her high-flying, big-dreaming husband jailed for financial fraud, her house repossessed and her musically talented son’s violin wrecked beyond salvation.
Everything Libby thought was inviolably hers, bar her children Harrison and Ana, and her family down in Beechworth – although even the latter is affected by Ludo’s misdeeds which causes Libby no end of guilt and pain – is suddenly taken from her, along with any notion that she has life figured out.
The urgent tone to their voices dropped to a lower burble. Libby hesitated. She’d been about to go straight in, then thought better of it. Something about their tone. and why would they close the door? It was definitely open earlier. All the guests had left.
Desperate times? Surely things weren’t that bad?
So Libby does what any of us would do and she does her best to get through an incredibly awful situation.
Part of her quite understandable response involves clinging to a reasonably substantial degree of self delusion – her marriage with Ludo remains fine, she doesn’t need a home in Bondi nor all those flashy possessions and with enough time and self belief, she can find her way back to some approximation of the life she once had.
She can’t of course, and deep down she knows that, but when you’re faced with the annihilation of every last shred of certainty in your life, it makes sense that you believe all those new lies you tell yourself, even if they are but pale counterparts to the ones that kept your life afloat.
Written by Foster as a very real and grounded person whose reactions to just about everything, while imperfect, resonate as authentic and true, Libby imbues The Good Woman’s Guide to Making Better Choices with a richness of everyday humanity that elevates from another light and fun person-in-search-of-redemption story to something with real emotional heft and grunt.
The novel does have its absurdist elements, never more so than when Libby, Harrison and a riotously idiosyncratic group of family and friends decide to exact some well-deserved revenge against a party associated with Ludo who gets away scot free, and it is funny and warm and engaging, but it remans throughout a beautifully earthy and often quite serious exploration of what happens you reach a rock bottom not of your making and you have to find a way, some way, any way, back up.
(courtesy official author site)
What also makes The Good Woman’s Guide to Making Better Choices such a thoroughly enjoyable read is how Foster doesn’t pretend that all Libby has to do is meet the right person or be in the right place at the right time and suddenly everything will magically better.
While there is a fairytale ending of sorts awaiting Libby, it is hard-earned and a long way into the novel, underscoring the fact that while we might wish life could be different, it very rarely readily bends to meet our needs, wishes or wants.
In fact, much of the time it seems to wantonly go in entirely the other direction, and even as Libby is forced to return to Beechworth and get reacquainted with a world she still loves but which had largely ceased to have day-do-day relevance to her, she finds herself taking far more backward than she’d like to.
If The Good Woman’s Guide to Making Better Choices was simply some sort of rom-com restoration tale of little weight or consequence, Libby would have the real world equivalent of a magic fairy appear, their wand waving just the right way at the right time to cure all her ills and restore life to some semblance of the comfort and expectation it once possessed.
‘Are you sitting down?’
The needles twisted and expanded into a terrible sense of foreboding. ‘Jake, what is it? What’s happened?’
The kitchen screen door gave a loud bang as it slammed against the brick.
‘You need to prepare yourself.’
But Foster is too good a writer to simply flick a switch and have everything reset to something reassuringly new and wonderful with enough traces of the old to feel like the pair of comfy life shoes you never really want to stop wearing.
Rather she makes Libby work for her happy ever after, and grow wonderfully as a person as she does so, and it makes The Good Woman’s Guide to Making Better Choices feel so wonderful real and lived in and true.
You do get to enjoy all the warmth, humour and joy of Libby’s found family of actual family, friends, and one particular childhood pal who may come to mean more than she expected, and the novel does feel like a warm hug of future possibility waiting to happen, but it also feel a part of the everyday world we all inhabit and so even the more outlandish moments feel like they could happen.
Reading The Good Woman’s Guide to Making Better Choices is to sink into a world that is far ideal but which among a surfeit of stark reality and les-than-ideal life moments is funny, thoughtful, wonderful and a reassuring reminder that while life can throw a ton of crappy stuff (and goat cheese) at us, it can heal itself and hold very hope, and while new beginnings may not happen quickly, they do still happen and we have to somehow hang on, with the support of those we love, until they do.