The Making of Her – Bernadette Jiwa

Joan Egan grew up poor, living in a house on the Cranmore Housing Estate in Dublin. She was the eldest child, the “mistake” that led to her parent’s hasty marriage. Her mother died when she was thirteen. Her father, always a heavy drinker never did well after that . The youngest four children are parceled out to strangers, leaving Joan and her younger sister, the next to oldest, to find work and keep house. While working at a candy factory, not far from the estate, Joan finds herself flirting with a bike messenger for Egan & Son Builders Merchants & Suppliers, a thriving family business. We know early on that she married the messenger, Martin Egan, son of widow Molly Egan who runs the business. Throughout their marriage, almost thirty years, Joan and Martin have a kept a secret. Jiwa unfolds their story moving back and forth between the mid 1960s, the mid-1990s and and covers other aspects of Joan’s life through her memories of the period before she met Martin. And before April. ,

Fortunately for my review of this lovely novel that brings Joan to us, the publicity for the book put Martin and Joan’s secret out there. In 1966, before they were married, Joan gave birth to their daughter, April, in London. Martin had to be there for awhile and they could hide the scandal of her pregnancy by having Joan stay in a boarding house and give birth to the baby there. They gave her up for adoption and later married and lived as if the there never was an April.

Before she married Martin, Joan had responsibilities but she lived a fairly independent life with a strong, intelligent personality and high standards for herself. Marrying Martin meant living with his mother in his upscale childhood home where Joan never feels accepted. Martin never gets around to finding a separate house for the newlyweds. Molly is a snob who certainly didn’t expect her son to marry down as he did. When Martin and Joan have their daughter Carmel, Joan cannot connect emotionally with her new baby. Every day she thinks about April. Molly and Martin make Joan almost irrelevant to her daughter. She does exercise independence when she insists on working in the business instead of being a homemaker. But… Joan is never Joan again. The loving passionate relationship she had with Martin withers. They do not connect as a couple. He falls into the lure of making money, making his difficult mother as happy as possible and doting on Carmel. Their relationship moves from mutual respect and deep love to a transactional arrangement. Marrying up has made Joans old friends and neighbors avoid her and has not turned out to be the story she imagined when Martin and she got to know each other with little thought on her part about his money and privilege.

And then, thirty years after April’s birth, a letter arrives from London. April needs help that only her biological family can offer and decisions must be made. Carmel works for the business and is a whiz. She is not in on the secret. Molly certainly will erupt if she finds out. Martin desperately wants to keep their secret and go on with the pretense there never was an April and that Joan is just being sentimental.

Jiwa’s gift to us is Joan, who lost huge chunks of herself along the way but never forgot what mattered to her and what she lost. The book is the re-making of Joan. Jiwa shares her innermost thoughts with us at every stage. This is a first person story of how Joan got where she is, emotionally damaged at a young age, showing tremendous spirit but then, losing part of herself and no longer fighting to be Joan. There are steps she can take that maintain the secret, possibly forever. Each step she takes or considers moves her to greater understanding of herself, the family she grew up in and who she needs to be. This is so beautifully written, engaging, could not put it down writing. I wish I could do it more justice.

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