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Sorrow and Bliss

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Martha Friel just turned forty. Once, she worked at Vogue and planned to write a novel. Now, she creates internet content. She used to live in a pied-à-terre in Paris. Now she lives in a gated community in Oxford, the only person she knows without a PhD, a baby or both, in a house she hates but cannot bear to leave. But she must leave, now that her husband Patrick'the kind who cooks, throws her birthday parties, who loves her and has only ever wanted her to be happy'has just moved out.

Because there's something wrong with Martha, and has been for a long time. When she was seventeen, a little bomb went off in her brain and she was never the same. But countless doctors, endless therapy, every kind of drug later, she still doesn't know what's wrong, why she spends days unable to get out of bed or alienates both strangers and her loved ones with casually cruel remarks.

And she has nowhere to go except her childhood home: a bohemian (dilapidated) townhouse in a romantic (rundown) part of London'to live with her mother, a minorly important sculptor (and major drinker) and her father, a famous poet (though unpublished) and try to survive without the devoted, potty-mouthed sister who made all the chaos bearable back then, and is now too busy or too fed up to deal with her.

But maybe, by starting over, Martha will get to write a better ending for herself'and she'll find out that she's not quite finished after all.

352 pages, Hardcover

First published September 2, 2020

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About the author

Meg Mason

3 books1,118 followers
Meg Mason began her career at the Financial Times and The Times of London. Her work has since appeared in The Sunday Times, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sunday Telegraph. She has written humour for The New Yorker and Sunday STYLE, was a GQ columnist for five years and a regular contributor to Vogue, marie claire, and ELLE.

Her first book Say It Again in a Nice Voice (HarperCollins), a memoir of early motherhood, was published in 2012. Her novel You Be Mother (HarperCollins) followed in 2017. She lives in Sydney.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 6,438 reviews
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,921 reviews290k followers
May 18, 2022
“Everything is broken and messed up and completely fine. That is what life is. It's only the ratios that change. usually on their own.”

It's not often that books this charming and irreverently funny are also as sad, moving and hard-hitting. Eleanor Oliphant is one that did it for me. Queenie is another. Sorrow and Bliss is the latest addition to the short list of "books that make me feel like laughing and crying in equal measure". I admit this list needs a catchier title.

Sorrow and Bliss is, essentially, about mental illness, the debilitating and relationship-destroying effect it can have on a person's life, and the importance of a correct diagnosis and treatment plan. It felt like a healing balm after I had such a negative reaction to the widely-loved Bewilderment. From now on, I may just refer commenters to this book instead of trying to explain my problem with the neurotypical Theo's anti-label, anti-diagnosis stance for his clearly neurodivergent son. This quote sums it up:
"But the thing about labels is, they're useful when they're right because," I carried on through her attempt at interruption, "because then you don't give yourself the wrong ones, like difficult or insane, or psychotic or a bad wife."

I really do know how it feels to feel like you're just failing at being human and how wonderful and liberating it is to find answers.

But also, this book is a love story. A sweet, tender, rips-your-heart-out-of-your-chest love story. The book opens with Martha's husband Patrick leaving her two days after her fortieth birthday. The story then takes us back to the beginning, to their first meeting when Martha was fourteen and through all the ups and downs that came after. It got to a point where I was desperately reading towards what I knew was coming, heartbroken, hoping things would-- could --resolve in a way that didn't leave me destroyed.

I felt deeply invested in these characters in a way I haven't felt for a while. A combination of heart-tugging sadness, humour and short, punchy chapters made it impossible to put down.
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,285 reviews640 followers
December 30, 2021
What I enjoyed most about Meg Mason’s “Sorrow and Bliss” is that she portrayed mental illness in its complicated and realistic light.

In “Sorrow and Bliss”, the main character, Martha, is a true queen of self-sabotaging. She possesses awareness though. She understands she’s messing up, and she knows there is something wrong with her. Something happened to her when she turned seventeen; she can’t explain it other than it’s like a bomb went off in her brain. Basically she’s a healthy and happy person; yet, at times she’s a miserable mess, and she just can’t pull herself out of it. She’s seen doctors and psychiatrists, all prescribing different meds, all with the caution of NOT getting pregnant while taking these meds.

This is a character driven story of a woman who has loving family and friends who support her. What is special in this novel is how author Mason shows the tenacles that mental illness imbeds in families. It’s not just the sufferer who is impacted, it’s all the loved ones as well. And the exhaustion that family and friends suffer while trying to support and understand. Another special quality of the story is that Mason creates Martha realistically. Martha is funny, although her humor is a bit acerbic and sarcastic. Martha is very tight with her sister Ingrid, and their dialogues are hilarious, generally in a biting way. Martha’s significant other, Patrick, is also a funny guy. How they view the world is clever and witty.

Mason never names Martha’s illness. Martha does eventually end up being diagnosed, but Mason chooses to NOT share that information with the reader. After reading the novel, I immediately googled the book and everything about it, trying to ascertain if I missed something. No, she did it purposefully, and I have to say I like it. It took a while for my dust to settle, but I realized that Mason’s point is that mental illness can be something that cannot be pigeonholed. Plus, I believe we all suffer through different bouts of it through life. Why must everything be classified? Not everyone requires the help of medication, and Mason shows how meds aren’t the answer to all our ills.

I like the realistic portrayal of a life journey in mental illness. I love the impact Mason shows that the illness affects so many people. At times I wanted to shake Martha and say, “snap out of it!”. But that just shows how good this book is. I got involved in Martha’s life. I was frustrated with Martha. I wept for Martha (a lot). I rooted for her and her happiness. I wanted her as a friend, and then I didn’t want her as a friend. The complicated lives of those afflicted and those who love the afflicted is beautifully portrayed here.
Profile Image for PattyMacDotComma.
1,365 reviews785 followers
February 18, 2021
“But apparently I just exist in terms of my relationship to other people now
. . .
Days later, Ingrid . . . sent a photo of her hand, holding a Starbucks cup. Instead of asking her name, the person who took her order had just written LADY WITH PRAM.”

Martha’s sister, Ingrid, is a new mother. Martha is the troubled, funny, smart, clever, tortured young woman who doesn’t know who she is, and it’s been her sister who has helped her retain some sense of self. So it’s ironic that Ingrid is feeling a loss of identity. Later, after more children…

“. . .she sent the eggplant emoji, the cherries and the open scissors. She said Hamish is non-figuratively getting the snip.”

This is not a funny book, but it has lots of funny bits, clever repartee and flirting. It also has cringing awkwardness and poignant tenderness. Sorrow and bliss.

Great title for what is now one of my favourite books. Martha and Ingrid are daughters of artistic parents. Father is an unpublished poet who works in his study, while Mother repurposes found objects in her studio/shed (DO NOT DISTURB) and fires off cruel comments at everybody.

Mother’s sister, Winsome and her husband are the rich members of the family who host family functions, parties, celebrations, and Christmas, which everyone is expected to attend. They also support Martha’s family. “Family” extends to Patrick, a boarding-school friend of one of their kids.

We learn in the first sentence of the book that Patrick and Martha marry, but as the memories move back and forth, it is easy to wonder if they will, in fact, ever get together. She is stubborn and difficult. He is shy. She moves between fiery and morose. He seems pretty even-tempered.

It’s no secret that she’s suffering from something and finds solace sitting under her father’s desk at one point. It reminded me of the famous photo of Caroline Kennedy sitting under JFK’s desk, except Martha was considerably older. She sometimes sits under her own.

It also reminded me of Temple Grandin saying how much comfort a squeeze crate gives to some autistic people. She built her own. Kind of a hug-machine. Maybe it helps with that sense of “feeling at loose ends”. I never thought of it that way.

“As soon as I got home, I went upstairs and got into the space under my desk and sat still like a small animal that instinctively knows it’s dying. I stayed there for days, coming down for food and the bathroom, and eventually just the bathroom.”

Watching Martha cope, work, live, have affairs, weep, and cause her family terrible worry is a lot more entertaining than seems possible. It is not a preachy-teachy book. But it does show how humans are connected to each other in spite of themselves. What you say matters.

Of course, we hear only Martha’s side of the story. She is the one who introduces us to everyone and how they impact her and her life. She’s devoted to Ingrid and knows her well.

“Before the end of the party, I knew she was going to marry him because although he was beside her all night, he did not challenge her on a single point of an anecdote while she was telling it, even though my sister’s anecdotes are always a three-way combination of hyperbole, lies and factual inaccuracy.”

Her family and friends move between patient sympathy and frustrated annoyance, when they scold and lecture her about taking their feelings into account. Is she just putting it on for attention? Her symptoms are so varied and the doctors’ assorted medications just make her feel awful.

“I didn’t get up then, or the next day. I stopped leaving the apartment. In the daytime, I could not make the rooms dark enough. It sliced through the curtains, found cracks under the pillows and T-shirts I put over my head and hurt my eyes even when, trying to sleep, I covered them with my hands.”

Her condition is never named. The author just uses a long dash to indicate a blank, rather than specify something. It will remind readers of other works that deal with various mental conditions: bi-polar, depression, schizophrenia, and the like. But this disclaimer at the very end of the book is important.

“This is a work of fiction. The nature and combination of medical symptoms described are not consistent with any actual mental illness.

Yes, it’s a work of fiction, but by golly, it’s real, and it’s now a favourite of mine. Do not be put off by the darkness. She is smart, funny, and determined, but most importantly, she accepts that she is loved.

Thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins for the preview copy from which I've quoted, so quotes may have changed in the final publication.

You can listen to a great interview with the author on the Words and Nerds podcast here:
Profile Image for Nicole.
370 reviews12.6k followers
October 15, 2022
To bardzo dojrzała i niewygodna powieść. Historia, w której depresja i niezadowolenie odgrywają główne role, bo praktycznie tylko z nich składa się główna bohaterka.
Przeczytałam ją tak naprawdę na dwa razy. Po pierwszych 140 stronach nie chciało mi się do niej wracać i zostawiłam ją na 3 tygodnie. Nie do końca wiem czemu, ale wydaje mi się, że stylistycznie coś mi nie zagrało (w pełni subiektywne, nie umiem tego wytłumaczyć).
Polecam czytelnikom 20+
Profile Image for Vanessa.
459 reviews281 followers
January 24, 2021
I was expecting this to be another run of the mill story about a depressed woman, instead I got a searingly honest view of a woman Martha who experiences the tumultuous effects of a undiagnosed then diagnosed mental health illness, seeing her navigate her emotional ups and downs was a bleak insight into such an insidious disease, her condition making for complicated relationships with everyone around her. Although this book discusses the heaviness of depression it’s also lightened with many many funny moments. It’s brilliant in its ability to speak honestly about a difficult subject matter, but also showing the amusing in between moments, her relationships with her loved ones especially with her unwaveringly supportive sister is dark comedy gold, those were my favourite parts of this book and thankfully many of those moments and conversations between the sisters were littered throughout this book that it added a form of relief and a distraction to how much I was disliking Martha! As much as I enjoyed this book despite its subject matter I think I need to pick something lighter for my next read, open to suggestions!
Profile Image for Larry H.
2,440 reviews29.4k followers
November 30, 2021
This is a book that had been on my TBR for a while. I’d seen a few 5-star reviews from Bookstagram friends, and the general average rating on both Goodreads and Amazon is above 4 stars, so when my friend Lindsay said that she also had this one her list, I suggested a buddy read.

The best part? The discussion with her about the book. Sometimes a book just rubs you the wrong way and if this hadn’t been a buddy read I would have DNF’d this. (While I was reading this I kept hoping Lindsay wasn’t loving it, lol. She was not, BTW.)

As a person with depression, I am always in great support of books that highlight mental illness. But while this book demonstrated the highs and lows that occur, the way mental illness can erode personal relationships, and the way people around you just tell you to get better, I felt like it also made the main character, Martha, seem really unlikeable and unsympathetic. Mental illness doesn't make you a bad person, period.

The book said Martha was diagnosed with “____” rather than anything real, and proceeded to use “___” frequently. I guess I might understand the rationale, but it frustrated me. And then the kicker was this ending note: “The medical symptoms described in the novel are not consistent with a genuine mental illness. The portrayal of treatment, medication, and doctors’ advice is wholly fictional.” Wait, what?

Anyway, you know I don’t often write negative reviews and I have a tremendous amount of respect for anyone who writes. Sometimes books just don’t click for you—obviously lots of people have loved this one. So on to the next!!
Profile Image for Beverly.
773 reviews265 followers
July 22, 2021
I went back and forth between 3 and 4 stars. This is a quick read and an interesting character study of a woman with an undiagnosed mental illness who is funny and smart and really mean to the people who love her most. It was kind of hard to be on her side. She, Martha, has just turned forty and has just separated from Patrick, her sweet, gentle husband. He has loved her since he was fourteen. She must be breathtakingly beautiful, because Patrick puts up with a lot.

I'm her defense, she is ill with depression and she had a horrible childhood with an alcoholic mother. Against her is the fact that her dad was always there for her and her sister, Ingrid, loves her with her whole heart. Martha is very selfish, violent, and demanding. She thinks she is special, although her writing career is rather pedestrian. Even though her family is poor, her mother's sister has always supported them. Martha has never been without family support or friend support for that matter. One of her friends loaned her his apartment in France for four years. It is hard for me to feel too sorry for her.

Grappling with mental illness is shown here very well. Even her beloved sister, Ingrid, has not known how Martha struggles. Besides all her other character deficits, she is extremely reserved and does not confide easily.
The most charming bits in the book are about Ingrid's little boys who also love their "Aunt Marfa".
Profile Image for Andrea.
743 reviews31 followers
December 18, 2020
You know how sometimes a book comes along at just the right time? Well, for me this bizarre year of 2020 was exactly the right time to read a book like Sorrow and Bliss. I adored it; every single page of it. Reflecting on it for a few days now, I think the reason it has had such an impact on me is that it is the most unconventional story of hope, at such an unconventional time. Other readers may not see it that way, but that's ok - it's a very personal thing.

Martha and her younger sister Ingrid have the kind of close relationship others might envy. Growing up as the offspring of two creative parents, they've had to lean on each other a lot. While their immediate family is somewhat dysfunctional, when you expand it out to include Aunt Winsome and her tribe, it takes on a more familiar air. As the story progresses through Martha's childhood, we get to see the extended family together at Christmas a number of times, including the first time that Patrick comes along. He's basically an abandoned boarding school friend of cousin Oliver, unwanted by his own father out in Hong Kong. Shy, but polite and agreeable, it becomes a tradition for Patrick to be there on Christmas Day. Three years younger than Martha, she is unaware that he has fallen in love with her.

When Martha turns 17 she begins to struggle with her mental health. She sees many doctors and tries different medications, and sometimes she's good but at other times she can descend to the depths of despair. Those who love her are very protective and supportive, and this generally doesn't waver, over many years. It bothers her a little that her condition isn't named. "I’m not good at being a person. I seem to find it more difficult to be alive than other people" she tells a psychiatrist at one point. Not everyone will be able to empathise with her, but if like me you love this character, you will definitely sympathise.

Early on, Martha had been told it would be dangerous to the foetus if she were to get pregnant while on the medication. She's too young to really think of questioning this, and then it's repeated by numerous doctors over the years, so she protects herself from the perceived danger in becoming a mother, by convincing herself that she doesn't want children. She basically thinks of babies as her kryptonite, causing problems in her short-lived first marriage and then later in her marriage to Patrick (especially as Ingrid has turned out to be hyper-fertile!).

It takes Martha and Patrick a long time to get together, but when they do it's such a relief. You think - she's going to be ok now. Their marriage is good, but is it strong enough to withstand Martha's destructive thoughts and actions? When Martha finally seems to have found a psychiatrist who might be able to give her the answers she's looking for, the bonds of even her strongest relationships begin to crumble.

There have been comparisons made with Phoebe Waller-Bridge's tragi-comic Fleabag character and series, and for good reason. I actually pictured Martha as PWB/Fleabag in my mind. Love them both. Martha has a similar sharp, dark wit and keen eye for observation. I was laughing along with her, laughing at herself, even while shedding a tear for her pain. Actually, her sister Ingrid has the same sense of humour, but as the story is told in the first-person, it's Martha's head that we are in, sharing both her funniest and darkest thoughts. I hope I haven't made this sound gloomy, because it's really not a bad place to be for a few days.

As Meg Mason has stated at the end of the book, and has gone to great pains to reiterate in her promotional engagements, "The medical symptoms described in the novel are not consistent with a genuine mental illness. The portrayal of treatment, medication and doctors’ advice is wholly fictional." This might frustrate some readers who need to put a name on it. For me it didn't matter that much. I was satisfied that Martha was eventually given a label to try out, even if she didn't disclose it to me.

Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Jennifer ~ TarHeelReader.
2,053 reviews30k followers
May 31, 2022
It took me way too long to read this book. I had a feeling I would love it. The title Sorrow and Bliss could not be more apropos. The main character, Martha, is the center of this deeply personal share of her life, juggling her mental health beginning as a teenager.

The writing pulled me in immediately. It’s sincere and brutally honest. I have many favorite attributes of books, but sincerity… authenticity in a character’s story… I’m guaranteed to love it when it’s a smoothly written, interesting narrative. I saw myself in Martha in many ways, even if I’ve not walked in all the same shoes as her, I’ve shared some, and it made me feel as if I had shared them all because her story is so insightful. Empathy and perspective is another big reason why I read.

There was more sorrow here than bliss, but the most rewarding part was finding Martha’s bliss. I felt like I needed to help her look back on her life and discover those moments when she was happiest. And guess what? Through that lens, it made me do the same reflection on my life.

It bugged me at first when Martha’s mental illness wasn’t named and was called “blank” (I put the book down for over 24 hours. I was mad!), but then I read an article about why the author wrote it that way. I needed there to be a reason. My professional life is spent advocating for individuals and their needs, pushing past labels that don’t define them, and I appreciated the need to check my feelings. I picked it back up and read through the end.

Meg Mason delivered a conclusion for Martha that made the rocky journey getting there so satisfying. Maybe in a way different than I expected but satisfying nonetheless.

Sorrow and Bliss is definitely a worthy Women’s Prize contender. And if they’ve announced who won, please don’t tell me. I’m trying to read a few more from the list before I find out. 😂

I received a gifted copy.

Many of my reviews can also be found on my blog: www.jennifertarheelreader.com and instagram: www.instagram.com/tarheelreader
Profile Image for Jaclyn.
Author 43 books548 followers
April 21, 2021
Damn I loved this – make sure it’s on your wishlist (Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason). It’s an anti-love love story. Mason has managed to configure a novel about women’s mental health and self-sabotage and instead of using high literary stylings as Moshfegh or Broder would she’s utilised romance novel tropes and just turned it all on its head making for very accessible and downright delightful reading and yet she’s still kept some of the pathos and darkness. Wildly impressive and so damn satisfying to read. It ultimately filled me with hope which is really saying something given the week I’ve had.
Profile Image for leah.
255 reviews1,770 followers
September 30, 2022
While Sorrow and Bliss essentially does fit into the tradition of ‘sad girl novels’, it contains a certain quality which makes it a little different from the rest. 

Perhaps it’s because it feels more mature – our protagonist, Martha, has just turned 40 and has also recently separated from her husband, Patrick, which we find out right at the start of the novel. This spurs Martha on to detail how she ended up at this current point in her life, her story moving back and forth but largely orbiting around her mental health struggles, which she states began when a ‘bomb went off in her brain’ at 17. 

Maybe it’s because despite the dark subject matter, one of the most appropriate adjectives to describe this book would be ‘funny’ – thanks to Martha’s dry, sarcastic humour, the witty and contemporary social observations, and the great cast of characters who all shine in their own right. It could be because amidst it all, this book contains a tender love story which I definitely didn’t expect going in. Or perhaps, Sorrow and Bliss feels different because it contains one of the most painfully raw depictions of mental illness that I have ever read. 

Sorrow and Bliss is an absolute feat of a character study. Martha is such a compelling narrator; she self-sabotages and constantly lashes out, but she is also incredibly funny, tender, and loving. It is through Martha’s complexities that Mason is able to convey the pure reality and destruction of mental illness, the importance of correct diagnosis, and how mental illness can tear through an entire family, its effects rippling from the individual out to everyone else. 

For a book about mental illness, Sorrow and Bliss contains a particularly interesting creative choice – Martha’s diagnosis is never explicitly named. This omission seems to hold the most important messages of the novel – how dangerous misdiagnosis can be, and also a comment on society’s obsession with labels. It’s easy to imagine some readers becoming frustrated at not knowing Martha’s diagnosis, but Mason employs this technique to give those readers a peek into how it feels to be mentally ill and the pain of not knowing – not knowing what’s wrong with you, not knowing why you’re like this, not knowing if it will ever get better.  

While labels are obviously important and life-saving for some, not giving Martha a label in this instance offers her an element of freedom, she is able to be a full person, she is able to simply be Martha, instead of just being reduced to ‘a mentally ill woman’. It’s a reminder that mental illness is only a part of who you are, it is not who you are. 

I can’t remember the last time a book emotionally resonated with me so deeply and on such a personal level. We all need a book to make us feel like this to remind us why we read. I’d implore you to pick it up if you haven’t yet.
Profile Image for Meike.
1,445 reviews2,179 followers
April 27, 2022
Now Shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2022
Mason explores a very painful and difficult topic: How do you determine whether a person's behavior can be ascribed to their mental illness or whether it must be ascribed to them simply behaving badly, on their own agency? And she does pull that off in a narrative told from the perspective of the person suffering from an unspecified mental condition: Martha has known that something is wrong since she was a teenager, but it takes years until she is diagnosed correctly - but does that improve her health? And who is to blame for her two failed marriages, her illness or her personality? Not only do the people around her struggle to answer that question and thus to find a way to treat her right, she herself is unsure - and not to be able to trust your own mind is a terrifying thought.

We meet Martha after her second husband has left her shortly after her 40th birthday - and right from the start, she seems like a difficult, troubled, and sad person. Slowly, we get to learn about her backstory and her suffering, how she has wronged the people around her and how she has been wronged by them. Necessarily, Martha must remain an unreliable narrator, which is only one of the many reasons we as readers have a hard time judging. And for all those now longing to comment that judging a mentally ill person is not right: Please spare me, I happen to know how Martha's husband must have felt, and I know what it means for caretakers to be told that their feelings of sadness, anger and helplessness are not valid. In fact, they are very valid.

Martha's tone as a narrator is very sardonic, which underlines her (limited, but nonetheless existent) ability to self-reflect and her intelligence. The humor always has a melancholic undertone, but it also helps with the effective portrayal of supporting characters like Martha's sister Ingrid or her alcoholic mother. This cast would make a fun movie by Sofia Coppola.

A wonderful discovery - thanks, Women's Prize!
Profile Image for Anne Bogel.
Author 6 books50.5k followers
June 1, 2021
Think Where'd You Go Bernadette meets Fleabag, with a dash of Bridget Jones’s Diary thrown in.

Ever since "a bomb went off in her brain" when she was a teenager, 40-year-old Martha has been coping with an unnamed mental illness. She can be cutting and rude, and completely lacks a filter, wreaking emotional havoc on those around her. Avoiding a heavy tone, Mason explores the nuances of severe mental illness, providing an interior perspective of how it might feel to live within its grasp.

While Mason's subject matter is often bleak, I found her inner narrative to be often hilarious. I also appreciated the hopeful ending.

The charming cover doesn't indicate some of the triggering content inside, so be mindful when you pick this one up.
Profile Image for Trudie.
515 reviews547 followers
March 31, 2021
This travelled a disappointing trajectory from delightfully Flagbag-esque to an almost unbearable trudge through scenes of marital misery.

( I could / should add more explanation here but I am coming to realise I don't review particularly fairly novels dealing with relationships/marriage/babies and general domestic malaise so I will leave things as is )

Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,714 reviews1,144 followers
May 27, 2022
Now winner of the 2022 British Book Awards Best Novel Prize and shortlisted for the 2022 Women's Prize

I saw shame and hope and grief, guilt and love, sorrow and bliss, kitchens, sisters and mothers, joy, fear, rain, Christmas, gardens, sex and sleep and presence and absence, the parties, Patrick’s goodness. My striking unlikeability and attention-seeking punctuation.

I could see what I had now. Everything people want in books, a home, money, to not be alone, all there in the shadow of the one thing I didn’t have. Even the person, a man who wrote speeches about me, and gave things up for me, who sat beside the bed for hours while I was crying or unconscious, who said he’s never change his mind about me and stayed even after he knew I was lying to him, who only hurt me as much as I deserved, who put oil in the car and would never have left me if I hadn’t told him to.

Claire Fuller (Costa Novel award winning and Women’s Prize shortlisted author of “Unsettled Ground”) starts her brief put accurate review of this novel with a line I can only borrow

“If The Bell Jar and Flea Bag had a child = Sorrow and Bliss”

If pushed I would probably go for:

Ottessa Moshfegh with Ostensible Motivation

And the other thing that is most notable about this book is that were one to have a book group on it (or even to discuss it on Goodreads) the one part of the book that simply has to be discussed is not a plot twist, a narrative style, a set piece scene or a character arc (although I should stress that the book scores strongly on all of these but one word or more specifically one non-word, to be precise: “-- --"

The book is narrated (we later find, in what is not really a spoiler, in the form of a written journal) by Martha Friel – starting on her 40th birthday in 2018 but ranging back to when she was 16 (and first met her future husband Patrick – then an effectively orphaned school friend of her younger cousin) and forwards into the aftermath of her birthday.

Martha is the daughter of an obscure poet (now more a wanabee poet) father and a more successful installation sculptor (of minor importance despite her alcoholism) mother – her humorous sister Ingrid is married with a series of young children. Martha writes a humorous food column for Waitrose, while Patrick (who loved Martha from when he was 13) is an intensive care consultant – the two living on a bland Executive estate in Oxford (where they twice yearly roll forwards a rental contract: a sign of the lack of permanence which underlies their marriage).

Martha’s life though is defined from an incident when she was 17 when a “bomb went off in her brain” and some form of never pinned down but variously diagnosed mental illness blighted her life and her relations with others.

Through her words we read of: her complex but vital, tender but fiery relationship with Ingrid (see PPPS); her disastrous and annulled first marriage; her eventual marriage to the patient Patrick and the difficulties the two of them go through; her ambivalent certainty (the phrase is mine and the oxymoron deliberate) about her desire to have children of her own.

All of this is written in a prose which is deliberately prosaic and non-novelistic. The author has said “If a character sits down, Martha says ‘he sat down.’ Not ‘he collapsed onto the well-worn, velvet sofa, riven with anxiety, as a sharp wind forced its way through the peeling window frames like ice cold fingers’”.

But for everything the novel lacks in (unnatural) linguistic invention, it gains in emotional intensity. This is novel and a narrator that are shaded both light and dark and that are at times frustrating and even downright annoying (towards the book’s end many of the very characters closest to her – mother, sister, husband – find themselves almost forced to give up on Martha, and the reader can feel like they were at the same place some time before the author); but on many other occasions wryly observant and also deeply moving.

A key part of the novel is when Martha self refers to a psychologist and suddenly receives a diagnosis which although initially very reluctant to accept (due to its connotations among the general public) Martha realises makes sense of much of her life (and even in turns out some of her family history).

The diagnosis though (and its withholding from the reader) is the crucial word of the book and this is added to by a disclaimer at the book’s end about the inconsistency of the medical symptoms with any genuine mental illness. I believe this decision was a valid one – the author seems (from interviews) to have not set out to write the book she ended producing and been concerned about both the comedy in the book and the way in which she had deliberately blended conditions. She has also said she did not want either her character or the novel to be labelled as the book about X (something she acknowledges is ironical as Martha herself “quests for a label”).

However it does mean that the effect of the not-naming causes us to question our preconceptions about the novel (is this really an empathetic novel about mental illness as it is often portrayed, or really a darkly humorous one about dysfunction induced by soceital and familial expectations of females). But perhaps this nicely (if I think inadvertently) mirrors how the actual (in the novel) naming of the condition causes Martha to question her preconceptions about her life and even the wisdom of conceptions (and conception!).

Overall I am conflicted over this book – but it is definitely a memorable one and would I think be a good prize list addition or book club choice largely due to the conflict it induces in a reader.

PS: one additional comment. There is I think a writing error in this book - a NZ born, Australian born author who has lived in England should know better than to have a purely English character refer to "the median line" on a road.

PPS Paul has pointed out to me that the latest edition has an interview with the author where she says I did get every single British and Irish person I could lay my hands on to read it beforehand, because I have such a horror of [writing] jackhammer when it should be a pneumatic drill. I had people just going through finding those for me, which I was so grateful for because I was worried that it wouldn't ring true.. Unfortunately (my observation) they missed one.

PPPS In the shortlist videos the author revealed that Ingrid was originally meant to be revealed at the end as a figment of Martha’s imagination - a kind of alternative life Martha imagined for herself if the “bomb” had not gone off in her brain …. But she felt that Ingrid as a presence in Martha’s life and ad a positive character in the novel was needed to give the book more lightness.
Profile Image for Chelsea (chelseadolling reads).
1,471 reviews19.1k followers
August 4, 2022
I do not know how I feel!!!!! I found this to be incredibly well-written and I enjoyed the process of reading this book, but I still just.... don't think I liked it very much??? This journey I am taking into adult general fiction / adult literary fiction has been a wild ride. I'm still trying to figure out what I do and don't like and I think that I have learned that I don't love books written as short little vignettes. I definitely prefer a more concrete story line, and this book did not have that, so I struggled lol. This was not!!! a bad book, it just wasn't quite right for me.

CW: severe depression, death of a loved one, suicidal ideation, divorce, childbirth (on page), miscarriage, domestic abuse, self harm, fatphobia
Profile Image for Susan.
760 reviews13 followers
March 29, 2021
I think it was fairly well written but SO depressing. Can't go along with all the 4 and 5 star ratings, maybe this book just wasn't for me. The fact that the author didn't even specify what the actual diagnosis turned out to be, instead opting to put in a blank line (_____) whenever it was mentioned or even thought about - well that was annoying and frustrating.
Profile Image for Angus (Just Angus).
224 reviews462 followers
December 28, 2020
If this was the last book I ever read I think I would die happy. This honestly blew me away. So heartwarming yet heartbreaking at the same time. I don't know how but this book made me feel every single emotion at once.
Profile Image for Bianca.
1,010 reviews868 followers
October 17, 2020
3.5 - 4

This novel has been promoted in Australia as "humorous and heartwrenching, for those who loved Fleabag and Normal People". When I spotted the newly added library audiobook I jumped at the opportunity to listen to it.

I kept waiting, and waiting, and waiting for the humour to make an appearance. It never did. I was expecting irreverence, some shocking behaviours and observations, a la Fleabag, those never occurred. I got annoyed with myself for (partially) falling for the marketing. While the novel itself is readable, the writing was, for the most part, flat and, occasionally, jumpy. I wondered if it was intentional, since the narrator, Martha suffers from an undisclosed mental/mood/personality disorder - which remains unnamed. Speaking of the disorder, I both admired and got annoyed that it was kept a mystery. The wanna-be doctor in me needs diagnosis, even though I understood that Mason didn't want to put the spotlight on a particular disease, but on being misdiagnosed and the suffering that affects not only the patient but everyone close.

The last quarter picked up the pace and my dopamine levels surged. The resolution was satisfying.

In conclusion, I wanted to love Sorrow and Bliss more than I did. I don't regret the time spent in its company.
Profile Image for Claire Fuller.
Author 11 books1,931 followers
June 20, 2021
If The Bell Jar and Flea Bag had a child = Sorrow and Bliss. Full of genuinely funny asides and dialogue cut through with some serious mental health issues. Sometimes the two extremes mixed in a swirling, heady, tragic delight. Only occasionally did everyone seem just a little too witty and maybe the mental health challenges were resolved a little too easily by the end. Really though the witty tragedy, the sorrow and the bliss win out. Recommended.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,357 reviews2,287 followers
March 23, 2022
A moving, riotous, bleak and yet ultimately hopeful novel that deals with big topics - mental illness, families, love, forgiveness - in an unsentimental and nuanced way. I loved Martha, the narrator, for her sardonic voice and her sometimes unconscionable behaviour, something which makes her feel utterly real rather than a mere authorial device to tackle the book's issues. It's a rare writer who can manage so much darkness with such an ability to not wallow in banal corniness or descend to the maudlin, and to keep us on board with a spiky and difficult lead. Here the jaunty and incorrigible Ingrid adds just the right touch of coarse humour, though she too is more complicated than many novels manage. And following Martha's journey is both involving and emotional - lots of love for this one from me and my top pick of the 2022 Women's Prize longlist.
Profile Image for Emily M.
255 reviews
May 16, 2022
3.5 stars. It does what it does very well, I just wish it had done something else.

There’s a view among many people I admire here on Goodreads that literary and non-literary books are a false distinction; books are well-written or not, regardless of their genre. I like the democratic impulse of this argument, but I don’t agree. I DO think some excellent books are unfairly pigeonholed because of subject matter, but to me Sorrow and Bliss exemplified that there is a difference, in what a literary book sets out to achieve. Or maybe just in what it can get away with.

To be clear. This was a good book. I’m almost exclusively a reader of literary fiction and I enjoyed it, didn’t feel stupid, found the writing supple and clever, the story unsentimental and important. I ignored several literary books I was meant to be reading to read this instead.

This is a story of a woman with an undiagnosed mental illness, and a comedy about marital breakdown. It features a cast of recognizably British middle-class eccentrics, although the writer is actually from New Zealand. The protagonist has a developed voice, her sister has some great lines, supporting characters are well developed, there’s a nice twist, a slightly experimental approach to the mental illness, known only as “__”. I laughed out loud a few times and finished it in a day and a half.

Then at the end I was annoyed, because it was not literary. What I mean is, it decided to spell everything out too much. It went on for 15% longer than necessary, just to dot every i and cross every t. Character motivations that had been bubbling along nicely for 300 pages suddenly had to be explained. Everyone needed their denouement. And it occurred to me that literary fiction, in all its different forms of realism or non-realism, is just a genre of its own, and what defines it is letting the reader figure some things out for herself. It is about letting there be some mess, some plausible deniability some what was that supposed to mean?. I don’t know why I’m writing in italics. Only that this has happened to me again and again in a range of genres: a book is alluring, entertaining, addictive, raises interesting issues, is imaginative, has voice, is well-written and THEN insists on clobbering the reader over the head at the end. And I just wish it wouldn’t. And I accept this works for a lot of readers, but it does not work for me.

Endnote: Before anyone brings up Ursula K. LeGuin or similar, she’s clearly literary. Literary includes things pigeonholed in genre. Literary, in the definition that perhaps only I hold, means that it asks more questions than it answers, and it hints at the author’s own conclusions, but doesn’t enforce them.
Profile Image for Tatiana.
1,379 reviews11.7k followers
May 15, 2022
Read it in a day.

At first, I found this story exceedingly reminiscent of My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, both of which I had mixed feeling about. Sorrow and Bliss is also about a woman struggling with her mental health. But even though this felt familiar, British humor never fails to suck me in. (I don't know how exactly an Australian author managed this.) Depressing wit remains my catnip, and this book was both funny and tremendously sad. Eventually this novel morphed into a love story, and then an examination of what we are once we are liberated of our mental health struggles. Martha's narrative voice worked wonders for me and even made me forget that I generally don't care about books that have as many children and pregnancies in them as Sorrow and Bliss does.

I am off reading Meg Mason's only other novel.
Profile Image for Brandice.
798 reviews
February 25, 2022
Sorrow and Bliss is the story of Martha, a 40 year old woman who moves back in with her parents after her husband, Patrick, leaves their executive home. He’s reached his breaking point dealing with Martha’s behavior after trying to be a steady, supportive presence for several years.

Martha suffers from mental illness (unspecified) and has several highs and lows. She’s seen countless doctors and therapists but hasn’t ever been able to find the helpful answers she is seeking.

The story flips back and forth between the past — how Martha and Patrick met, Martha’s earlier memories, and attempts to manage her feelings, and now — where Martha is still trying to manage her feelings and cope without Patrick in her day to day life.

While I felt for the things Martha was going through, I found her actions frustrating at times too. I recognize the need to find answers and seek clarity, but I really felt for her family who tried to be supportive while this emotional rollercoaster also wore on them. Though Sorrow and Bliss is a fictional story, I appreciate the seemingly realistic portrayal from Meg Mason in dealing with a mental illness, from both the patient and the support side. It’s a pretty heavy story, but there are some moments of humor and I enjoyed Martha’s relationship with her dad and her sister, Ingrid.
Profile Image for nastya .
400 reviews211 followers
April 27, 2022
Now shortlisted for the Women's Prize! I'm glad!

Martha is 40, her editor, who’s bossing her around, is in their early 20s, she has no career, her husband just left, she moved back with her parents and she lost all her girlfriends to motherhood. She’s also been depressed since her teenage years.

I know, I know, another novel about the middle age crisis, how creative! A story about a self-destructive woman, who had so many opportunities and great people in her life, fucking it up, that we keep reading about over and over and over again in our literary fiction of the last 10 years? Sounds like a big pity party for a gorgeous obnoxious woman who always has a place to go and people to help her with money, and friends who suddenly provide her with apartments in France with no rent, to live there and find herself? (Even writing this gives me My year of rest and relaxation flashbacks, yeesh. Although there're no humans in that book.)

But… WRONG! I mean, not wrong, but also it all comes down to the author’s voice. We, humans, after all, recycle limited amounts of stories, we aren’t that special. But, and a big “but”! It’s all about the voice. And gosh darn it, it was perfect for me!

She’s self-aware, self-deprecating and witty (both the writer and the protagonist).

When I told Peregrine I was writing a book that was constantly turning into a love story set in an ugly house, he said, “First novels are autobiography and wish fulfillment. Evidently, one’s got to push all one’s disappointments and unmet desires through the pipes before one can write anything useful.”

(alas this is not a debut)

That was the root of the giant misunderstanding that was us getting married: the fact that he thought I was so uninhibited, fun, a skinny person interested in fashion, an attender of magazine parties, and I thought he had a sense of humor and didn’t take immense amounts of cocaine.

This book is about living with crippling depression and unspecified misdiagnosed mental illness and also an autopsy of a precious, deeply romantic beautiful failed marriage.

PATRICK TEXTED ME. It was still the day after Ingrid’s wedding, the afternoon.
“Do you like old movies?”
“No. Nobody does.”
“Do you want to see one with me tonight?”
He said he would pick me up at 7:10ish. “Do you want to know which one?”
I said, “They are all the same one. I will come outside at 7:09ish.”
There was a bar at the cinema. The film started but we never went in. At midnight, a man with a mop said, sorry guys.

(I mean, how is it not crazy romantic??)

That is when I began to think of Patrick as the cure. By the end of our marriage, I saw him as the cause.

I swear, this book was doing witchery, because how else would you explain the perfect pacing, where the scenes I wanted to spend more time in, suddenly, slowed down and scenes that I wanted to be done with, sped up?

Thank you women's prize in literature for nominating this gem and putting it on my radar. It won't win. But I had a lot of fun with it.

I stayed there and read so many spines, then one by one I started taking books off, building a pile in my left arm. My selection criteria was threefold. Books by women or suitably sensitive/depressive men who had made up their own lives. Any book I had lied about reading, except Proust because even with everything I had done I did not deserve to suffer that much. Books with promising titles, that I could reach without having to stand on a chair.

By summer I had read four and a half pages of Ulysses and all of Lee Child. Patrick took me out to dinner to celebrate. I told him the shit James Joyces turned out to be all of them. During dessert, he gave me a library card. He said it was a present to go with the £144 worth of Jack Reachers he had already given me.
I got out one book. An Ian McEwan that I thought was a novel and put it in a drawer when I realized it was short stories. I called Ingrid and told her I had accidentally invested in two characters who would be dead in sixteen pages. She said seriously. “Who has the time?”
Profile Image for Joana da Silva.
232 reviews426 followers
August 12, 2022
This book, oh my god, this book. I bought it on a whim months ago because the story seemed interesting and I was into reading about despair, then proceeded to leave it gathering digital dust on my Kobo until now. I hate people who say things like 'I read it before the hype', 'I knew about it first', blablabla, but I am quite proud of having been one of the people who bought this book before the hype because it makes me feel better about my instincts that so often lead me to the shittiest books on earth.
That aside, this book is a MUST READ and I will hold on to it for life. All of the characters are so well constructed, and the relationships have real depth and complexities. I hadn't been able to really step into a character's shoes so easily like this in a long time. This book captivates in a beautiful way the struggle of mental illnesses, the importance of a diagnosis, and what it can do to the people around. GO AND READ THIS BOOK!
August 2, 2022
Martha Friel is having a tough time. She has decided to divorce her husband, Patrick who seems to deeply love her and has always been there for her. The issue is that Martha is mentally ill. She knows this and has known it since she was 17. It affects how she can participate in the world. She is very close with her family, especially her sister Ingrid. They have their moments, but it is so clear how much they both love each other. Even though Martha gets sick, and appears to suffer from severe depression, she is still supported and loved.

This book is really good because it is honest. It looks at a person trying to figure out how to navigate life with a chronic mental illness. I think the author purposefully does not name her diagnosis since anyone dealing with a chronic mental illness is likely to have many of the same issues and troubles as Martha. Also, mental illness tends to have overlapping diagnosis. I think what is important is that Martha knows she is ill and she does have insight into this. She is remorseful since she knows this effects not just her, but her entire family. Yet, Martha’s Mom does confront her. She tells her that not everything is about her suffering. Her suffering has made her husband and everyone else in the family have to adjust and cater to her moods. She needs to grow up and accept some responsibility. She needs to think about some of her actions and what that will do to those closest to her. Her mother is an alcoholic and has finally gotten help herself, so she knows what she is talking about, and knows she, too behaved the same way many times.

I just think the book really covers Martha’s difficulties and ways she is trying to cope, while also giving a great look at how each person she is close to also feels and has suffered. Yet, Martha is loved and she does know this. That is extremely important for anyone suffering from a chronic illness. There is hope there. I really good book overall.
Profile Image for Sarah.
1,161 reviews35 followers
March 2, 2021
1.5 rounded up

There was way more sorrow than bliss in this novel for my liking. I'd venture that readers who enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine would find something to enjoy here, as Mason employs a similar writing style to tell Martha's story, but both books rubbed me up the wrong way in their portrayal of mental illness and the use of humour in the storytelling - perhaps in both instances it's a brand of humour that just doesn't work for me or maybe it's the combination of the two that just doesn't work for my reading sensibilities. Sorrow and Bliss read as much less literary than I was expecting, too, which was disappointing. Maybe this would make a good book club read, but suffice to say it wasn't for me.

Thank you Netgalley and Orion Publishing Group for the advance copy, which was provided in exchange for an honest review.
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