Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss may make you weep. This is your reminder to grab some tissues.
Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss may also make you laugh uncontrollably. This is your reminder to read/listen to it alone so you don’t seem like a madman.
What’s the story?
Meet Meg Mason’s Martha — a woman who knows that there’s something wrong with her. She just doesn’t know what (not for now, anyway). The reader meets her at her 40th birthday party in Oxford. She’s a British columnist that writes about all things food.
Soon after, her husband, Patrick, leaves her. Martha moves back to her parent’s house in London. The book is her reflection upon her past life — her battles with mental illness and what ultimately made her marriage fall apart.
It begins at 17, when “a little bomb” went off in Martha’s brain. Since then, she’s consulted doctor after doctor, with each diagnosis different and each result the same. Her depression is soul-crushing. She seeks small, dark holes for months on end.
“Normal people say, I can’t imagine feeling so bad I’d actually want to die. I do not try and explain that it isn’t that you want to die. It is that you know you are not supposed to be alive, feeling a tiredness that powders your bones, a tiredness with so much fear. The unnatural fact of living is something you must eventually fix.”
The entire story’s major characters are Martha’s immediate family:
there’s her poet father, Furges,
her alcoholic moderately-famous sculptor mom, Celia,
her charmingly funny sister, Ingrid
her aunt, Winsome, her husband, Rowland, and their children
her husband, Patrick.
There’s an ex-husband and a good friend and a doctor here and there — but mostly it’s Martha and her family. ‘
The story is full of punches, humor, and a literal Fleabag vibe. Meg Mason’s writing is brilliant and makes you feel connected to Martha, no matter how much you dislike her. Other characters — like Patrick, Celia, Winsome — are also explored enough to be memorable.
After Patrick and Martha’s separation, Mason directs the conversation to structure around marital problems and mental illness. Often it was one complementing the other and the lens the reader had was always Martha.
“Martha,” he said afterwards, lying next to me. “Everything is broken and messed up and completely fine. That is what life is. It’s only the ratios that change. Usually on their own. As soon as you think that’s it, it’s going to be like this forever, they change again.” That is what life was, and how it continued for three years after that. The ratios changing on their own, broken, completely fine, a holiday, a leaking pipe, new sheets, happy birthday, a technician between nine and three, a bird flew into the window, I want to die, please, I can’t breathe, I think it’s a lunch thing, I love you, I can’t do this anymore, both of us thinking it would be like that forever.”
Later, Martha finds her correct diagnosis. The best (and the worst) part? The disease is never named. It’s just referred to as “–” in the entire Sorrow and Bliss.
It adds to the story and also makes an important argument: The name of the illness is insignificant. The “correct” label/diagnosis isn’t important. What is crucial, noticeable, (and the only thing that matters) is the clarity, understanding, and peace a correct diagnosis gives to Martha.
“Martha, why did you label every single box Miscellaneous?”
Sorrow and Bliss answers your pressing questions after reading this summary:
- Is it too late for Martha to get a correct diagnosis?
- Can she ever be “cured” after all this?
- Will she and Patrick get back together?
- Why did it take so long for Martha to get a correct diagnosis for her condition?
What are the themes and writing styles?
Meg Mason is a writer that can make you feel stuff. Guaranteed. She’s funny, original, smart, and there are so many “wowza” moments in her writing, you just can’t keep the book down.
Each character is explored as a “real” person that feels less and less fictional. Patrick, especially, is a character that is unusual and deeply interesting: a man who has suffered from a neglected childhood, married to his childhood crush, and remains vivid, complex throughout.
Martha’s mind is devastating and witty and charming and disturbing all at the same time. Not naming the illness, not making it an “issues” novel is a step in the right direction — making the reader see the illness only through Martha’s experiences, and not any preconceived notions.
Here’s a piece of Martha’s mind that I found concerning and hilarious at the same time (how??):
“As a child, watching the news or listening to it on the radio with my father I thought, when they said “the body was discovered by a man walking his dog,” that it was always the same man. I still imagine him, putting his walking shoes on at the door, finding the leash, the familiar dread as he clips it onto the dog’s collar, but still setting out, regardless, in the hope that, today, there won’t be a body. But twenty minutes later, God, there it is.”
All good things come to an end. Apart from this being the primary flaw with Sorrow and Bliss, some things may be a dealbreaker for some readers:
Despite this being a book about mental health, the pretty cover gives no trigger warning. If a reader prone to depression or other mental illness picks this up, it may cause more harm than joy.
Martha’s character is not only unlikeable (although relatable), it is also a big-ol’-barrel of privilege. A benefactor sponsors Martha’s two years trip to Paris, her aunt’s house in London, her great job at Vogue — a lifestyle much of the population can’t relate to. Clare Chambers describes it as: “Patrick Melrose meets Fleabag. Brilliant.”
That says enough, right?
Some ponderings in the book, although limited in number, may feel forced and engineered. There’s also the fact that in the end, Martha’s issues resolve a little too quickly and a little too soon. Sorrow and Bliss lacks the nuance to show that recovery is a messy and long road.
For some readers, it may also be tiring to see a romantic structure fiddled around Martha’s mental illness.
There are some books that make-you-forget-you’re-reading, ya know? Sorrow and Bliss did that for me.
The thing I loved most about Meg Mason’s writing is the originality and power to elicit emotion. Some things truly made me LOL and other things made me a little sappy-weepy. Martha’s inner dialogue came at me like a strong wind on a hot day — some of the musings were a total slap on the face.
“An observer to my marriage would think I have made no effort to be a good or better wife. Or, seeing me that night, that I must have set out to be this way and achieved it after years of concentrated effort. They could not tell that for most of my adult life and all of my marriage I have been trying to become the opposite of myself.”
I personally loved two characters the best: Ingrid, the sister, and Winsome, the aunt. Ingrid never failed to bring a laugh out of me. Winsome — when seen beyond the lens of her sister — is a character that is truly so, so interesting. If there’s a separate book about her, I’d read it.
“My perception of Winsome belonged to my mother—I thought of her as old, punctilious, someone without an interior life or worthwhile passions. That was the first time I saw her for myself. Winsome was an adult, someone who took care, who loved order and beauty and labored to create it as a gift to other people. She lifted her eyes to the ceiling and smiled. She was still wearing her wet apron.”
Like every other reader of Sorrow and Bliss on the planet, I felt sorry for Patrick and wanted to give him a bear hug.
Purchase this book.