Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
Reviewed by August Cosentino
“What people are ashamed of makes a good story,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. He may not have been speaking explicitly about depression, but Meg Mason’s latest, “Sorrow and Bliss” is testament to that simple truth.
This lovable, heartbreaking, and frequently LOL-funny novel begins just after Martha’s 40th birthday party, when she and her husband Patrick drive home without speaking. What’s with these two? Over the course of 300 pages, we find out.
Flashback to Martha’s childhood. Her father who is called the “male Sylvia Plath” is a poet who hasn’t produced in years. Her mother Celia is an alcoholic who creates sculpture nobody really likes and wears kaftans to disguise her girth. Her Aunt Winnie is a frustrated pianist who throws an elaborate Christmas luncheon at her flat in Belgravia.
It is at one of these luncheons that Martha meets quiet, solid Patrick, a schoolmate of a cousin, who becomes the man she will marry. Patrick will bear the brunt of her dark, destructive moods that begin when she turns 17 and govern every waking minute of her life, and their marriage.
But fear not, constant reader. Mason’s powers of description are prodigious and often deadpan, side-splitting funny. It’s as if Oscar Wilde got hold of “The Bell Jar” and rewrote it his way.
Of an elderly friend Martha meets in Paris: “We would meet at a restaurant, Peregrine preferring one that had just lost a Michelin star because in Paris it was the only guarantee of attentive service.”
When she attempts to write the story of her depression: “that scene and every other scene seemed to vibrate with brilliance and humor as I typed them. The next day they read like the work of a fifteen-year-old with encouraging parents.”
These are not even the best lines (just my favorites). And they are counter-poised next to some of the most graphic, borderline disturbing descriptions of black moods (screaming, throwing things at her husband) I have read. If you know someone who suffers from manic depression (I do), you may shudder (I did).
The central question driving the plot: will Patrick continue to put up with her moods even though they threaten his own mental well-being? You find yourself speed-reading to find out the answer.
Suffice to say that once you begin reading “Sorrow and Bliss” you will need to cancel your plans for at least three consecutive evenings, because you will have little desire to do anything else but devour it.