However much I’ve enjoyed all my Christmas reads – as I always do, and I made some excellent choices this year – I was ready to try something different for my final review of the year. A special treat, just for me, I thought – and then I remembered that I had a copy of Milly Johnson’s latest, The Woman in the Middle, waiting on my kindle, and I really couldn’t think of anything I’d enjoy more. Published by Simon & Schuster on 14th October, this wonderful book is now available as an e-book (on all major platforms), in hardback, and as an audiobook – the paperback will follow on 3rd March. My thanks to the publishers for my reading copy, provided via netgalley – and I can’t believe I left it unopened for as long as I did.
Shay Bastable is the woman in the middle. She is part of the sandwich generation – caring for her parents and her children, supporting her husband Bruce, holding them all together and caring for them as best she can.
Then the arrival of a large orange skip on her mother’s estate sets in motion a cataclysmic series of events which leads to the collapse of Shay’s world. She is forced to put herself first for a change.
But in order to move forward with her present, Shay needs to make sense of her past. And so she returns to the little village she grew up in, to uncover the truth about what happened to her when she was younger. And in doing so, she discovers that sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to find the only way is up.
Along with her constant concerns about her two (apparently) grown up children and their life choices, Shay finds herself carrying all the responsibility for the care of her mother Roberta, living alone with all the signs of advancing dementia. As if that’s not enough, she’s also the only one who visits her father, now unresponsive in a nursing home – and she also has that niggling feeling, however much he may protest, that all is not well with her relationship with husband Bruce. When a skip is delivered and her mother’s neighbours begin to carry out major work on their house, and Shay is unable to do anything to stop it, it’s only the beginning of everything in her life spinning out of control.
I’ve never been the filling in a sandwich like Shay – I only had the concerns about parents, more of a Danish open sandwich really. But I simply adored Shay from the very beginning, and felt so deeply for her as she wrestled with all the problems in her life, identifying with her entirely as she pinned on her brave face and never lost her sense of humour as her world dramatically imploded. The way the author builds empathy for her is entirely exceptional – I found so much I could identify with in her emotions and reactions, and found myself cheering her on every step of the way as she struggled to repair herself by revisiting the issues in her past.
The characterisation took my breath away – not just Shay herself, but her extended family and every individual who plays their part in her story. The portrayal of her mother Roberta brought back vivid memories of my time caring for mum – the living in the past, the distorted memories (the Omar Sharif thread is quite inspired), the grasping for details just beyond reach, the love between them balanced by understandable (and painfully recognisable) irritation over the repetitive obsession with events outside the window. The lone Potterworth’s eclair almost broke me (although mum was always more of a fan of Marks and Spencer) – and anyone with elderly or departed parents will find a multitude of gently moving moments to bring a tear to the eye, but always accompanied by a smile.
But all the family relationships are quite wonderful – the sister with her eye on the inheritance (always “too busy” to share the load), the gloriously abrasive daughter who only returns home when she needs bailing out (yet again), the son whose wedding is fast approaching but gives him little to smile about. And, of course, the hapless and gullible Bruce – coupled with the sometimes illusory nature of friendship, thrown into sharp relief by Shay’s fond memories of the one friend who was always there for her. There was a whole host of minor characters I took to my heart too, none more than the wonderful Dagmara with her wisdom and constant support – we all really need someone like her in our lives.
I loved this whole book beyond measure – it has that perfect balance of wonderful humour and desperate sadness, and a quite perfectly wrought and compelling story as Shay deals with the hand she’s been dealt and revisits her past in search of healing and hope for the future. Milly Johnson’s characters are just so entirely real, people you recognise within your own life, behaving as real people often do – and her writing has the unparalleled ability to touch you at the deepest level, only to find yourself laughing quite uncontrollably a few pages later. And the book’s conclusion? It’s really quite glorious – and really couldn’t have been better, more uplifting and entirely what I wanted it to be, if I’d written it myself.
I just adored everything about this book – without question, one of my books of the year (and, I have to say, of any year…). Go on, treat yourself – I defy you not to love it too.
Praise for The Woman in the Middle:
‘An unputdownable tale of redemption and hard-won wisdom, this is a book that speaks for us all wherever we are in our lives. Milly Johnson always delivers an absolutely cracking read’ Katie Fforde
‘The main characters are wise, loveable and so relatable. The humour is down to earth, the emotions are real and the storyline compelling. No one else writes quite like Milly and, with The Woman in the Middle, she has produced yet another winner’ Jill Mansell
‘This book is delicious. As moreish as a freshly made sandwich, full of your favourite filling. It’s well worth the wait and joyous to bite into’ Jo Thomas
‘Immensely relatable, tender and wise; Milly’s magic sparkles from every page’ Cathy Bramley
About the author
Milly Johnson was born, raised and still lives in Barnsley, South Yorkshire. A Sunday Times bestseller, she is one of the Top 10 Female Fiction authors in the UK with millions of copies of her books sold across the world.
In 2020, she was honoured with the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Outstanding Achievement Award and was a featured author in the Reading Agency’s Quick Reads and World Book Night campaigns.
A writer who champions women and highlights the importance of friendship and community, Milly’s characters are celebrations of the strength of the human spirit. The Woman in the Middle is her nineteenth novel.