Joanna Nell – Mrs Winterbottom takes a Gap Year

Hachette, Australia, 2023
Cover design by Christabella Designs
Cover images courtesy of Shutterstock

Joanna Nell is a clever writer, delivering in her Trojan Horse style novels many serous issues about ageing. The seriousness is clothed in humour in her seemingly light stories.

Joanna Nell talks to Barbie about Mrs Winterbottom takes a Gap Year

She shies away from nothing, covering many topics from incontinence to dementia, always in a respectful and compassionate way. She writes of things we will all face in some way or another if we are fortunate to live long enough or to have family and friends who do so.

The story of the Winterbottoms’ retirement is no exception. Mrs (Doctor) Heather Winterbottom and her husband Dr Alan Winterbottom have worked together in general practice for decades and when time comes to retire, they face it in very different ways.

Alan is content to dress in ratty old attire, eat kippers and to sink himself into organic gardening. Heather, on the other hand, is in search of lost youth and hankers after exotic travel., specifically to Greece.

When this major difference cannot be resolved, Heather announces to her family that she is travelling alone to Greece. They are stunned by the news, some thinking she is having some sort of mental breakdown. Egged on by former patient, elderly Esme, who gives her a copy of Homer’s Odyssey, Heather embarks on her own Homeric journey.

In doing so Heather leaves behind the weight of a life of responsibility for everything  –  the welfare of her patients, the happiness of her children and the decision about when to ask the Gees (the Winterbottoms’ inherited and now very elderly domestic staff) to retire.

She is determined not to have a Shirley Valentine experience but to some extent she does when she meets and finds herself disturbingly attracted to retired Greek sea captain Dennis. Not inappropriately, his actual name is Dionysius (Greek god of fertility, wine and pleasure) but he has Anglicised it for the convenience of tourists like Heather and perhaps for many other complex reasons.

Spending time with Dennis on his boat reminds Heather of her youthful love of sailing but also of her love of adventure and of the youthfulness she has missed out on over the years dedicated to family and professional responsibility.

She is certainly tempted with sexual thoughts but in this version of the Shirley Valentine story the physical remains mere conjecture. She eventually learns the details of Dennis’s history and the reason for the PTSD she has discerned.

Ancient Greek history is part of this story as is modern Greek society. Carrying both her Homer and Esme’s ashes, Heather fends off the typical British egg and chips tourist (a la Shirley) and discovers the ancient sites of Greek legend, or at least those promoted as such.

As readers, we are also reminded of the dark events of modern day Greece brought on by the mass movement of people and climate change. Meanwhile the saga of Heather’s marriage also unfolds.

Joanna Nell has a particular talent for endearing her characters to us. The frankness of Heather’s thoughts enables us to know her with what feels like the intimacy of friendship, and those of us of a certain age and gender will immediately sympathise with her and recognise many of her experiences.

The central issue of this novel is the challenge of retirement. It is a big thing for us to work out who we are when separated from our professional lives. Many people struggle unsuccessfully with this stage of life or at least struggle with it for a time before settling on a new persona and stage of being.

Essentially what Jo writes about is change. Her observations of the human condition are perspicacious but kind, humorous but never mocking. We know she is on the side of her book people and so we are too.

The struggles of ordinary life and their importance are reflected in the literary odyssey which is the back-drop to this novel. Heather’s voyage of self-discovery is no less epic for its domestic and contemporary setting.

This is an author who never disappoints. Her gentle intelligence is evident in everything she writes and this latest, for all its charm, is sharp and serious. ‘Heather as in bush’ clings to her professional self in her automatic use of medical terminology and anatomical descriptions of people around her but she does finally rediscover her pre-GP person and finally her own version of home coming and its simple wisdom.

Thank you to Hachette for my review copy and to Jo for our wide ranging tête a tête about another delightful but nonetheless thought-provoking book.