Glenice Whitting is the master of character studies. I’ve read both of her novels now (the latest being Something Missing, the first being Pickle to Pie) and if there’s one thing she surpasses almost all other writers in, it’s unravelling the intricacies of people living ordinary lives.
In Something Missing, the two main characters living ordinary lives are Diane and Maggie. Diane is Australian, a hairdresser, has a daughter from her first marriage, is onto her second marriage and is travelling in outback Australia with her family. Maggie is American, an unacknowledged research assistant to her academic husband, mother to two grown daughters and thirty years older than Diane. When they cross paths on their travels in the 1970s and exchange addresses, it’s the start of a decades-long pen pal friendship.
It gets off to a rocky start. Diane is enthusiastic but uneducated and when Maggie returns her first letter full of red pen corrections, she’s a little miffed. But she’s big enough to move past it and is eventually inspired to better herself by enrolling to study at university. We follow Diane through a mostly forward progression as she gains her bachelor’s degree, writes short stories, wins a competition for an unpublished manuscript before finally graduating with a PhD in writing and publishing her first book in her sixties.
At the same time, we go back into Maggie’s past to see how she became who she is, going from a family who value education above almost everything to a student who drops out of college in order to marry, indulging in drinking too much and suffering from occasional domestic abuse (physical and emotional) until her husband’s death finally allows her to focus on herself. But is it too late for both of them?
The book is more than just a tad semi-autobiographical and I know this because I know Glenice. We studied together back in the late 1990s when she was beginning the writing journey that Diane mirrors almost identically. And Glenice has acknowledged in interviews that she herself had and was inspired by her thirty-five year plus pen pal relationship with an American poet in real life. It makes it a little difficult to critique the lack of plot when it is someone’s life. So perhaps I’ll just leave it this: there isn’t much of a plot but then again it’s not that kind of book.
The writing, though, is beautiful and the descriptions scattered throughout are perfect (for lack of a better word). When she describes the lacy patterns the incoming tide makes on the beach at Australia’s Phillip Island, it made me think, “That’s so spot on.” Having been there and seen it and knowing what she was talking about, it was a perfect description. And as someone who generally starts to skip chunks of descriptive text in books where I feel there’s too much, I was never tempted to do that in Something Missing.
I read an interview that said Glenice reworked the original manuscript from literary fiction to more resemble popular fiction in order to get it published but I feel it would have worked even better as literary fiction. Perhaps her publisher didn’t really do her any favours. Because the book is also in desperate need of a thorough edit – it’s full of bad grammar, poor punctuation, misspellings, a huge number of typos and italics that run on for paragraphs longer than they should have. Some of the letters are out of chronological order when all the previous ones have been arranged by date and at one point a character mentions having a computer with Windows 7 nine years before it was released by Microsoft. It’s all quite distracting, especially since the Maggie character is constantly lecturing Diane on the importance of proper English. Since her lectures suffer from the problems she is lecturing about, it really undermines her.
Still there’s much to like about this book and it’s the sort of thing that both English Literature classes and book clubs can have an absolute field day with.
First published on Goodreads 29 March 2017