In Small Joys of Real Life, the debut novel by Allee Richards, main character Eva is coming to terms with some big changes in her life. Though she’s moderately successful in her acting career, she’s never felt as passionate about it as she feels perhaps she should. When she confides this information to Pat, a friend of a friend with whom she shares a fleeting attraction, he tells her: “You can’t live your life saying you’ll get around to doing something you know will make you happy. You just have to do it.” While these sage words have a big impact on Allee, it is Pat’s suicide not longer after their hook up that will have the biggest impact of all.
Discovering that she is pregnant with Pat’s child, Small Joys of Real Life is the story of Eva’s pregnancy, and the choices she makes as it runs its course. Sectioned into months, the reader follows Eva through the process of grieving Pat (a man she didn’t really know but feels connected to nonetheless) and coming to terms with the way her life is about to change.
Interspersed throughout the book are confessional sections in which Eva addresses Pat directly as ‘you’, and tells him things as if he can still hear her; in a sense, she has a relationship with the idea of him, and gets to know him more through looking at his social media footprint.
Despite the fact that Eva didn’t actually know Pat very well, he is a very present character off the page. Richards also maintains a sense throughout the novel of a missed connection between Eva and Pat. One that could have turned into a significant relationship.
Richards writes characters exceptionally well. Eva is a protagonist unlike any that I have encountered in Australian fiction before – she’s both sympathetic and not. Her behaviour towards others, particularly a man named Fergus whom she uses repeatedly for sex, but harbours indifference towards as a person, can be deeply manipulative.
At the same time, she maintains an extremely relatable inner monologue throughout the book where she appears to be aware that some of her behaviour is wrong. For example, she feels a deep sense of guilt towards Travis, who is both the ex-boyfriend of one of Eva’s friends, and Pat’s oldest friend. Eva feels compelled to stay connected to Travis, but also struggles with telling him that Pat is the father of her child. She works hard to continue seeing Travis even though he is no longer dating Renee because of this guilt. Richards doesn’t feel the need to explain Eva’s thought processes or the complexity of her feelings, but rather lets Eva’s actions speak to her mental state, resulting in a novel that is both understated and moving.
Small Joys of Real Life has received a lot of hype on social media in the last month or so, particularly as it was launched during lockdown. So, if you’ve been seeing it all over your feed lately and were thinking of checking it out, I recommend that you do.
However, don’t be fooled by the pastel exterior, and the use of the word ‘joy’ in its title. Small Joys is more about ‘real life’ and all of its highs and lows, and certainly doesn’t belong in the quirky uplit genre. If you enjoyed The Performance by Claire Thomas, or Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, then this is something like a mix of those two books. Perhaps it’s just the coincidence of the death of a father named Pat, but the book also had me thinking about Offspring at times.
It’s hard to think of accurate comparisons, because quite frankly, I’ve never read anything like it.