I have to go.
I love you. Tell Ella and Willa I love them too. And take care of Louis.
If you need help, ask Fay, she’ll know what to do.
Please don’t try to find me.
There is something about the way that Virginia Macgregor writes characters that makes me fall in love with each and every one of them. Her writing style is effortless and her novels are a joy to read; a real breath of fresh air despite tackling some really hard issues. This is the second novel of hers that I’ve had the pleasure to read through NetGalley, and I can honestly say she’s quickly becoming one of my favourite authors to read.
The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells follows a few different characters but it all focuses on the return of Norah Wells, a mother of two, after she disappeared from their lives six years ago. On entering their lives, everything that she once knew has changed, and she changes the lives of everyone else around her. Her husband Adam has called in the help of Fay and she is now his girlfriend, living in Norah’s place and acting as mum to the youngest daughter, Willa, who doesn’t remember Norah at all. Ella, the eldest daughter, however, has been holding out for her mother’s return, even starting up a twitter campaign with an active following. She refuses to call Fay “mum” and won’t let her touch the room that her mother once resided in. But once her mother explains her reasons for leaving Ella starts to doubt her wishes really bought her the outcome that she wanted. This novel starts with the promises of a happy ending, but shows that really family is a lot more complicated than it would seem.
The novel is set over the space of a week, after Norah returns to the 77 Willoughby Street, with an epilogue of five months later. I love that it’s split into days and morning, afternoon and evening, with each of these split between the different characters; Norah, Adam, Fay, Ella and Willa. Macgregor is incredibly talented when it comes to writing different characters. Although she writes in the third person, each chapter has a distinctive voice. My favourite is probably Willa’s chapter. This adorable little girl just fills me with so much joy. She spends a lot of her chapters confused, because of the sudden appearance of this new woman that Ella keeps calling mum, but she juxtaposes this with a love of life and excitement for her impending birthday. She’s so full of love for everyone. No matter what. She even asks Adam if the new woman can stay because Ella loves her if it’s Auntie Norah from the pictures.
Ella is a wonderful character. She reads so naturally off the page. She’s a teenager and Macgregor captures that so perfectly, even down to her relationship with boyfriend Sai that her dad doesn’t approve of. The reactions of Ella to everything that happens with her mum’s return, and her love for her little sister are so well written that I was instantly drawn into her. I wanted to sit down and talk her into listening to Norah about her reasons for leaving; and if I couldn’t do that I’d at least follow her on twitter. She’s funny and unpredictable but also incredibly determined when she sets her mind on something; like winning the 10k race or getting her mother to leave.
Fay and Norah are definitely characters I enjoyed reading about, if only for the fact that they’re complete opposites of each other. Fay is very orderly and clean whereas Norah is more spontaneous. Fay is shown to be a more controlled mother, worrying about Ella’s grades, whereas Norah remembers when she was Ella’s mother and would take her out of school so that they could go to the science museum or on other such days out, as that was a different kind of education they wouldn’t teach her at school. I think that the balance that Macgregor keeps between the two is incredible. It would be very easy to turn around and claim that one or the other is the antagonist in this novel, but they’ve been crafted so masterfully that both have pros and cons in terms of being mothers and lovers to Adam.
Adam is a very interesting character to me. He suffers panic/anxiety attacks, for which Fay tells him that the best way to recover is to think of a safe place. But this, to him, is Norah and that in turn makes him panic more because he remembers that she left and she didn’t tell him really why. He is caught between the love of the mother who left and the mother who stayed, both of whom he loves in very different ways. Despite his panic attacks, Adam is an incredibly strong father figure, laying out rules for the girls. However this is only because he’s grown to be the man he is with the help of Fay, after Norah left.
The weaving between the present tense and remembering the past really brings this novel to life. The things they remember aren’t necessarily extravagant events, but little things like Ella and Norah both remembering their running races at sports day, and Willa remembering Mrs Fox so well. Between this and Fay recalling how she tried to find Norah, it’s a beautifully structured story. The plot twists are beautifully developed and there is something so charming about the ending as well. It’s satisfying without feeling too contrived or unbelievable.
Overall this novel is full of intrigue and there are definitely some moments where I had to sit and cry for a while, but this was such a lovely read. One, I have to admit, that I read in one sitting. I laid in bed and couldn’t put this book down, literally. It’s such a lovely story that’s heartwarming and heart wrenching and everything in between. It’s one story that I will revisit as I grow up and I think that every time I will take something new from it; be it about being a good daughter, a good mother, a good wife, or even about how to treat animals.
Please pick up a copy of this book on January 14th (a week today!) and support such a lovely author, who writes incredible books like this!!
Total pages – 480
Total read time – 4 hours
Rating /10 – 9
Recommend – Yes