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29 by Adena Halpern
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Jun 26, 10

Read in May, 2010 — I own a copy

29: a novel is the third chicklit-style offering from Adena Halpern, an author with significant experience writing across a range of notable publications including Marie Claire, and The New York Times. While her newest novel draws on a familiar trope that has seen widespread coverage in both film and fiction, and suffers from an annoying-to-Google title that when placed in the right-hand side of the header makes the reader constantly think that they’re stuck on page 29, it’s nonetheless a worthwhile, if light, read that may well find itself being passed between various family members. (My copy, which the lovely Simon and Schuster sent me to review, is about to wing its way to my Grandmother’s).

29 is a do-over novel that attempts to answer main character Ellie’s contemplations about what life might be like could she have a second take at it. Ellie is a young-at-heart grandmother who seems to identify a lot more with her twenty-something fashion designer granddaughter Lucy than she does with her middle-aged daughter Barbara, and after looking longingly at her granddaughter as she blows out the candles on her birthday cake, it’s little surprise that she wishes to have what Lucy has–if only for a day.

The next morning a groggy Ellie wakes up to find that there are changes afoot. Her breasts, rather than migrating south for the winter, are perkily jutting from her chest. Her cloudy eyesight is as clear as a good quality diamond. Ellie’s mind is as sharp as ever, and she quickly catches on that her wish might well have come true. Ellie is initially unnerved by the transformation, and her first act is to dash out of the house to buy another birthday cake in order to make a wish and return things to normal.

However, it doesn’t take long for Ellie to realise that perhaps she has been given this opportunity for a reason. Always the fashionista, she quickly settles in to her new body, and makes note of the fact that she is no longer overlooked as she goes about her daily business–instead, people not only notice her, but seem to revel in her youth and beauty. By the time she returns home, she’s determined to make the most of her fleeting youth–particularly given that it’s likely to slip away from her, Cinderella-like, at the end of the night.

Ellie returns home to find her granddaughter Lucy waiting for her, and after some hilarious banter, it’s established that young Ellie is indeed old Ellie, if somewhat transformed. The two plan an itinerary designed to rectify some of the old regrets that Ellie has held about her life. However, Ellie’s bossy daughter Barbara and nervy best friend Frida have cottoned on that something is not quite right with the Ellie they know and love, and are determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. What follows is a hilarious farce complete with Benny Hill chase scenes and all sorts of glorious repartee that will have the reader grinning knowingly.

For all its amusing anecdotes, though, 29: a novel is really a novel about responsibility and custom. While Ellie desperately wants what she sees as the freedom and frivolity of Lucy’s life, she quickly realises that Lucy’s life is constrained by a whole new set of social norms and other factors that she finds difficult to navigate. Her realisation that she is a ‘woman of her time’ is quite sobering: each of her goals and desires for both herself and for Lucy are driven by the values by which she was raised, and which she eventually realises are impossible to escape. Ellie does come away from her day as a twenty-nine year old with all sorts of new experiences, but she also comes away with a heightened understanding of the challenges faced by her daughter and granddaughter, and a new appreciation for the life she has built with her late husband Howard.

While 29: a novel is a largely carefree read, Halpern does an admirable job of drawing the relationships between the different women, and in teasing out their motivations and struggles. There are bits where the book doesn’t quite ring true–the continued efforts to contrast Ellie’s past life as a stunning fashionista with her invisibility in old age becomes a little patronising at times, for example–but overall this is a fun little novel that offers quite a bit of food for thought.
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