I’ve always been slightly in awe of people who compose and send out Christmas letters to friends and family every year because just getting cards sent out when you work full time takes a lot of effort. Maybe that’s one reason I was attracted to Hello from the Gillespies by award-winning and internationally bestselling author Monica McInerney. But this novel is about much more than Christmas letters, as you’ll soon see. It’s about families and what tears us apart or pulls us together. It’s about the Australian Outback, about hopes and dreams lost and found, and – well, you’re just going to have to read the review to learn more because there is a lot to love in this novel.
Twenty-two-year-old Angela Gillespie traveled to Australia on a backpacking vacation from London. She was in a relationship with Will, a young man studying to become an architect, and her life was mapped out. She would marry Will, they would live in London, and they would live happily ever after. But then she was instantly and irresistibly drawn to Nick, an intriguing young man she met in a pub in Sidney, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“Was it fate or destiny or sheer chance that she had looked up just as he came in the door? She’d been reading Wuthering Heights at the time, her head full of thoughts of Heathcliff. It was as if an Australian version had walked in. It wasn’t his looks or his height. He wasn’t conventionally handsome. It was the energy coming off him. A vitality. She’d have guessed even before he told her that his job was a physical, outdoors one. It wasn’t just his tan. He looked fit, strong too. His hair was as dark as hers, his eyes a deep brown, Irish coloring, she’d learned later.”
When Angela met and fell madly for Nick, she knew he lived on a sheep station in the Australian Outback, which sounded terribly romantic to her, but she had no idea what that meant. She didn’t know he was the heir to a vast amount of land. She thought a Station was like a small farm – wrong. When they stood on the house steps, the Gillespies owned everything they could see for miles around and their nearest neighbor was miles away (obviously). But that didn’t matter to Angela. She loved Station life, except for the spiders, and adapted beautifully. She became the rock on whom her family depended for everything and she thrived. Thirteen years ago, she even joined a Station-Stay program to bring in a bit of extra income, hosting visitors from all over the world and showing them the Outback that she loved.
The twins, Victoria and Genevieve, came barely a year after she and Nick married, followed a few years later by Lindy. Then, when Angela thought her child bearing was done and the three girls were grown, along popped up Iggy – her surprise child when she was forty-four years old. By then the girls had left home. Victoria had moved to Sydney to work in radio. Genevieve had worked on local films but eventually moved to New York to work in the film industry there. Lindy was the unsettled one, who had tried a mishmash of things, but Angela felt she would eventually find her way – at least she hoped so. Iggy is now ten years old. They tried sending him to the boarding school where Nick had gone, even though Angela felt he was too young, but Iggy hated it with a passion and is now back at home where he wants to be – talking to his imaginary friend and roaming the Outback close to home.
Every year for the last thirty three years Angela has sent out a Christmas letter to over 100 friends and family members. Since the Gillespies live so far from everyone, it seemed like the best way to let everyone know how their lives were going. Every year the letter is chatty and upbeat, filled with news about each member of the family with just a touch of what people in marketing would call spin. After all it’s the holiday season and people want to hear about the good things in life.
“She knew the children found the whole idea mortifying – they, and Nick, had stopped reading the letters long ago – but perhaps in years to come they might like to see them. Angela hoped so. She secretly thought of them as historical documents. All the facts of their lives were there, after all, recorded in brief dispatches.”
This year, though, Angela is having a hard time writing the letter. It’s been an awful year. The drought played havoc with the Station’s livelihood, the sheep had to be sold, and Nick made a deal with a mining company for mineral/gem exploration on part of the land. He said he had no choice but he wouldn’t elaborate. And that’s a large part of the trouble. Nick has shut down – he’s basically no longer talking to Angela about anything. They’re like two ships passing in the night. She’s convinced he doesn’t love her anymore and suspects he may even be having a long-distance affair with a genealogist in Ireland. The kids aren’t doing well either. Victoria had an affair with a personality at the radio, and lost her job because of it while he got promoted, which doesn’t seem right. Genevieve is so far away, and works such long hours, that they’ve almost lost touch with her. Lindy is like a ship adrift and has had to move back home, along with crates filled with supplies for her latest bust of a business idea. And Angela has been having horrific headaches she can’t explain. Their whole family seems to be falling apart at the seams.
While sitting at the computer on December 1st, trying to figure out how to compose a cheery Christmas letter out of their mess of a life, Angela decides it might help to vent a little within the privacy of the computer. Maybe if she gets it all off her chest then she can write what she needs to send out. So she writes everything she’s really thinking about each member of the family – the really awful stuff she would never tell anyone. And it does make her feel a bit better, although she’s horrified at some of the things she’s said – and at how bad it really is. She’s been brutally honest with herself about each person. Unfortunately she’s still stuck when she has to get off of the computer, so she leaves the “letter” in her email folder and decides the letter will just have to be a bit late this year.
If you’re thinking big mistake right now, you’re on the right track. Murphy’s Law says…well, you know. When he gets on the computer later that day, Nick sees that the traditional December 1st email is still in the folder, knows what a stickler Angela is for it getting out on time, reasons that she probably didn’t realize it hadn’t been sent, and decides to be helpful, so he sends it for her (without reading it).
And that letter which was never meant to be seen by anyone becomes a small Christmas cherry bomb going off in over 100 email accounts across Australia and the world. It becomes a pretty big nuclear stink bomb going off in their Station household when Angela finds out what Nick did, and when Nick and each member of the family read what Angela wrote about them.
Things were already rocky at home. Now all the skeletons are out in the open. Can they survive the fallout of this brutally honest letter? Will it drive Nick and Angela further apart? What about Angela’s kids? Every person wants to think their mom thinks the best of them. How will they feel when their mom points out all of their flaws and the bad things happening in their lives (that they’d prefer no one knew) to their far flung friends and family?
Angela is a woman trying to do everything for everyone, and they’ve all come to depend on that as if it’s supposed to be that way. When this novel begins, she has reached her breaking point, and she doesn’t understand why. Her husband has also hit his breaking point. He’s tried his whole life to fulfill what his parents expected of him even when climate change threw him a curve ball that no one could catch. He took it personally, as if it meant he wasn’t good enough – and he couldn’t seem to talk about it with the only person who counted. Their children, grown and not so grown, are also going through personal crises that are life changing. And they’re all faced not only with the public airing of all of this but with a potential tragedy that I won’t disclose because of spoilers. It will test them to the core, especially given how fragile things already are, and they will either find themselves as a family or fall completely apart.
I got caught up in Hello from the Gillespies immediately. I’m not going to say I couldn’t put it down because this is a 624 page novel, so I kind of had to, but I didn’t want to at all. I can see why Monica McInerney’s novels are bestsellers and why she’s won awards because her writing flows like butter, her characters seem like friends I’ve always known, and I found myself wondering why I’d never traveled to Australia. I also could relate only too well to how easily even a good marriage can get side tracked by things beyond the partners’ control, patterns that emerge when people are stressed beyond their ability to cope. If you like novels about family and relationships then I’m recommending this one. I think it’s a perfect read for the holidays – or to cuddle up by a warm fire with when the temps drop like they’re doing right now.
Hello from the Gillespies was published in the U.S. on November 4, 2014, in the UK on November 6, 2014, and in Australia on September 24, 2014, so no matter where you live in the world you can buy it now from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks).
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