In her latest novel, Secrets Of A Happy Marriage, Cathy Kelly wants to remind us what makes for a long lasting relationship. Newsflash, women can't read your mind. Men can't either.
You'd be surprised how necessary it is to remind people of this fact when it comes to matters of the heart and when it comes to family life too, Kelly says. But he should know! But she should guess! Well no, they shouldn't. Grow up. The best rule of thumb is to communicate. Tell them.
As Kelly wisely puts it, life is already hard enough. That's certainly the case for the Brannigan's, the multigenerational Irish family who populate the pages of her latest novel.
In the new book Kelly introduces us one by one to the women of the Brannigan family who are, it's fair to say, dramatically unalike. Bess is in her late sixties and has married for the second time, Jojo is the new stepdaughter who cannot handle her grief over the death of her own mother or what she sees as Bess' plan to take her place; and Cari is a fiercely thirty something driven career woman who takes no nonsense from anyone, but is unmoored by the young man who once left her at the alter.
Perhaps they could all get over their issues if left alone to work on them individually, but Bess and her new husband have invited them all to come to County Kerry to celebrate their father's 70th at a picturesque Irish castle. The forecast promises storms.
“Bess is the step mother who comes into the family,” Kelly tells the Voice, “She grew up in a generation where Irish women had to be tough to get anywhere. She once had a reasonably useless husband who went off and left her with a child and she got on with it. That's an experience from one sort of Ireland.”
“Then there's Jojo who runs a successful fashion boutique and comes from a different Ireland, and Cari her younger cousin who works in book publishing. I think I want to be Cari when I grow up, which better happen soon because I'm 51 and a half.”
We all secretly want to be someone like Cari who takes absolutely no crap from anyone and yet still has her insecurities, Kelly thinks. “She's funny and sparky and clever and believes in herself. She's in her 30's and she's from that new generation of the Irish that do believe in themselves and how powerful is that? I love looking at different generations.”
“In Secrets Of A Happy Marriage I wanted people to see that these very different women could still help each other and be a part of each other's lives but they get stuck in the past and can't move on. If you can't let go of all the resentments and the anger and all of those things and deal with them first then there is no going forward. That's a lesson that's never ending.”
JoJo can't let go of the terrible grief over her mother's passing and wants to blame somebody. She chooses to blame her father when he chooses to settle down with that woman (Bess). It's just wrong. It's a return to the wounded child state. I think I write about that every time without really meaning to. To take a look inside yourself, that hardest journey. But if you can't do it there's no hope for you.”
Sometimes in Kelly's stories people look inside themselves and figure it out and move on and sometimes they're not going to do that, and that's life she says.
“I think that's the whole problem between male and female and any gender, it's I wanted him or her to understand and of course they didn't. Because people don't have the mind reading skills but we expect. And we all do it. Even me sitting here. I will still think well how can he not know I'm cross now? It's staggering. So yeah, we need to talk, so lets talk. Get it out in the open.”In Secrets of a Happy Marriage the Brannigan family is coming together for a big birthday party that threatens to make or break them. On the surface it's just a little gathering but underneath its potentially life transforming.
“You go to a family event and you slip back into your role in the family, you know? You become that person again with all that angst. If you're the CEO of some enormous company here you're still the annoying kid you once were, no matter how hard you try.”
In the case of Secrets everyone is coming to a big family event and its all coming to a head and people have to be real. “Then I have that lovely scenario where someone parachutes in and changes the dynamic. That's why its wonderful when you have a family that doesn't want to talk at Thanksgiving or Christmas if they bring in a stranger or a dog. That means there's something else to talk about and nobody fights. Wonderful!”
But for all it's charm Secrets Of A Happy Marriage certainly doesn't shy away from darker topics. “I think the grief of childlessness is absolutely massive in the book and in life. You have a limited amount of time to have children. So what's the answer? You go it alone or in the case of Jojo you are with someone and you are trying to have a baby and then it becomes this all consuming agony?
“And of course then you start seeing babies everywhere and children everywhere and there's this great want. I didn't know it was in me too until one day it was suddenly there. My God it was so powerful. These phenomenal desires that exist in people are just there.”
Kelly hit the headlines recently not just for another eye watering million pound commission but for getting involved in the #MeToo movement. “When I was 20 in my first job, on my first day, I was sexually assaulted by someone in a position of power,” she says.
“It was interesting, I kept that to myself and a very small group pf people who I worked with. I think they saw it though a different prism. This person, this abuser, made it look like a very different prism. So I was shamed and devastated and humiliated and taking tranquilizers and you name it. I was hiding it from everyone. Anyway, jigs and reels, I kept it to myself to forge a career out of the ashes of that.”
Watching the incredible example of people like Rose McGowan and Ronan Farrow inspired her she says. “It was incredible that he went after Weinstein,” she says. “I do think abuse is absolutely bloody everywhere. It's someone in a shop and their boss is at it with them. Or the undocumented cleaner. What's she going to do? There's so much of it.”
When the #MeToo stories were coming out Kelly was about to do an interview about a new book deal she was sitting down in a Dublin hotel. “I was smiling for the camera. Then the journalist showed me the picture of the new Time magazine cover with the arm of the woman who didn't want to be identified but who was telling her story.”
“That happened to me,” Kelly blurted, unexpectedly. The admission just poured out of her. “Not that many people contacted me about it. There was radio silence after that. I don't know if it's because they were uncomfortable and didn't know what to do.”
Regardless of how people responded Kelly believes it is powerful to be able to talk about these complicated issues at last. It ties in with the subject matter she brings to life in her work. “People call me the Queen of Romance and I'm really not,” she laughs. “It'll cheer me up when they stop. People change.”
Secrets Of A Happy Marriage by Cathy Kelly, Grand Central Publishing $14.99.