There was a fair chance I would have put aside Sorrow and Bliss, cranky for it being another of those novels on a young woman discontent with her life whilst turning out to be rather successful and popular. Having no reason to complain at all. Sorrow and Bliss’ main person Martha however soon turned out to have ample reason to complain.
The novel starts at the party thrown for Martha’s 40th birthday. The party that will lead to a separation from husband Patrick. From that moment on Mason takes us along in Martha’s life and explains to her readers how things came about. To start with Martha’s parents. Both artists, both with insufficient income to provide a living, a mother who emotionally neglects her daughters. Martha’s aunt is the one who financially supports the family. The difficult family bonds are clear from the start: independence, gratitude (or not), obligations … far from easy.
In adolescence Martha starts to suffer from depression. Psychoanalysts and psychiatrists are consulted, medicine described. Depression does not go away however. Martha being the main character we are only told the story from her perspective. We are therefore presented with a woman who is gloomy, who stumbles from one temporary job to another, who is totally dependent on her family for her survival.
Martha and Patrick separating is the break point in the novel. From that moment on Martha has to face life on her own, which does not go smoothly at all. Martha indulges in grief and does not notice that she has started to cross her family’s (quite generous) boundaries. Even her sister with whom she is almost symbiotically connected informs her that enough is enough. A visit to a new psychiatrist comes with a shocking revelation.
Previous psychiatrists were never inclined to put a diagnosis to Martha’s depression. This one listens to Martha and right away informs her he suspects ‘……’ (Mason has chosen not to reveal the diagnosis in order to not draw attention to it). If this diagnosis had been given at an early stage Martha would have been treated properly and, not unimportantly, could have tried to have children. Something all the other psychiatrists advised against. Martha’s mother turns out to have suspected all the time, large part of her family and herself suffering from the same disorder. Martha rightly blames her mother for keeping her silence all this time and shuts her out of her life. I cannot really blame her.
Sorrow and Bliss is kind of a coming of age novel in which the protagonists starts the process at a riper age. Forty not being the age you normally associate with a coming of age novel. The novel does follow the pattern however: problem, problem, problem, awareness, even more awareness and a slow but certain growth (helped by medication in this case) on the road to actual maturity including mending relationships with the other grown-ups in your world. And might I say, Mason does a pretty good job.
Sorrow and Bliss is structured sturdily, written fluently and works it way steadily to the essential moments in the protagonist’s life. The moment she starts growing up she is actually capable of hearing what her family and friends are trying to tell her. She finally learns how to listen. The positive and strong sides of Martha are literally put into words by her family and husband. The fact that she is one of those people who will always be the centre at a party, that she is a hell of a good writer. They all hope that mature Martha will finally come to see her own strength. Martha herself realises she has to take small steps and take things slowly.
My fear that Martha would be a spoiled princess turned out to be groundless. Mason wrote a convincing novel that shows how a disorder can totally influence one’s life, even more so when the disorder has not been diagnosed. Martha turned out to be a vulnerable heroine, one I could only sympathise with. I sometimes felt sorry for her suffering family, Mason however makes it abundantly clear Martha deserves our sympathy.