New Release Book Review: How to be Second Best by Jessica Dettmann

How to be Second Best…

About the Book:

A hilarious and heart-warming debut that captures the dramas, delights and delirium of modern parenting. This is Marian Keyes meets Allison Pearson, with a dash of Caitlin Moran.

Going from one child to two is never all that easy for a family, but when Emma’s husband simultaneously fathers a third child three doors up the street, things get very tricky, very fast.

No longer is it enough for Emma to be the best wife and mother – now she’s trying to be the best ex-wife, and the best part-time parent to her ex’s love child, and that’s before she even thinks about adding a new bloke to the mix.

Set in an upwardly mobile, ultra-competitive suburb, this is a funny, biting, heartwarming modern comedy that looks at the roles we play, how we compete, and what happens when we dare to strive for second-best.

My Thoughts:

I don’t read a whole lot of comedy. I can mainly attribute this to the ‘chick-lit’ wave, a term that I particularly hate and a sub-genre that seems particularly saturated with un-funny, over the top antics by women whose main goals always seems to be romance oriented. So I tend to approach comedy with caution. How to be Second Best by Jessica Dettmann is not un-funny at all, in fact, it’s incredibly enjoyable. I actually really loved it. Emma’s character might not suit every reader, because she is very much a doormat, and a very well used one at that. But while there was certainly an element of exaggeration at play here with regards to Emma, this really worked for me. It wouldn’t have been quite as funny if Emma were just a run of the mill doormat, and without the humour, the point of the story might not have translated with as much impact.

‘It’s agony. This is why people say yes to things because it is against the laws of society and possibly even nature to cause this level of awkwardness.’

See, the thing is, I kind of ‘get’ Emma and where she was coming from. I’ve been a bit of a doormat myself over the years and it’s only since entering my forties that I’m trying my hardest to shrug those tendencies off. I could see, with utter clarity, exactly how Emma had ended up in the situation she was in. And I could empathise with her reluctance to extricate herself, even though she really needed to do so. And wow, her ex-husband! What a jerk! Jessica did well with crafting him. His idiocy made for some very funny moments indeed. I pretty much laughed out loud constantly with this novel, such is the way Jessica Dettmann has with words. She’s a terrific writer of sarcasm and wit. Very funny indeed and her sense of humour seems very in tune with mine. But she’s not only all about the laughs. In amongst the humour, Emma holds her own as a woman any one of us could know or even be. I liked Emma, despite her tendency to let people use her. She was a great person, incredibly kind with a lot of love to give. Much of who Emma was seemed tied up in the loss of her mother, that feeling of not knowing if you’re mothering right because your own mother is no longer around to check in with. I felt this added a gravity to Emma’s story that balanced well against all of the humour. Also, just because I don’t want to overlook it, I really enjoyed Emma’s job as a freelance editor and reading about the publishing world from that perspective. Jessica’s own knowledge of the publishing industry was clearly coming into play here and I appreciated the insight.

‘This is the feeling you get when someone figures out who you are, when they see through who you’ve been desperately trying to present yourself as. I’ve been trying to show him unflappable Emma, tough Emma. Emma, the awesome single mum. In-charge-but-not-bossy Emma. Everybody-loves-Emma Emma. The Emma I was, all those years ago.’

The title of the novel really is a great one, linking in with the whole point of the story (for want of a better phrase). It’s not about being second best in a negative way, like you’re not as good as someone else. It’s more about not overwhelming yourself with trying to always be the best to the point where you burst apart at the seems. It’s about scaling back, just a little, and settling for the second best of your own efforts. At least sometimes. Because there are always times when near enough is good enough. I think that’s an incredibly insightful point to a story, to be honest, particularly today where so many of us are so busy yet still insisting on putting ourselves under the microscope, competing with ourselves, each other, and even people we don’t know. How to be Second Best is a lesson in taking a breath and slowing down, focusing inward instead of outward. It’s a terrific novel and I recommend it highly.

‘Stop trying to be the best and do your best at everything. I know Mum always told you and Laura that it’s important to do your best, but I’ve always thought doing your best all the time is a bit of a tiring proposition. Maybe try doing your second best for a bit.’


Thanks is extended to HarperCollins Publishers Australia for providing me with a copy of How to be Second Best for review.

About the Author:

Jessica Dettmann is a Sydney-based writer and performer. Her blog, Life With Gusto, turns a sharp but affectionate eye on modern parenthood. She has performed her work several times at Giant Dwarf’s Story Club, and has appeared on their podcast. After a decade working as an editor for Random House Australia and HarperCollins publishers she made the transition to writing after two small children rendered her housebound. She once appeared as the City of Sydney Christmas Angel and sat on top of the Town Hall in a frock that reached the street.

How to be Second Best
Published by HarperCollins Publishers Australia
Released December 2018

8 thoughts on “New Release Book Review: How to be Second Best by Jessica Dettmann

  1. Oh, how delightful! Honestly, I would have picked this one up based on the title and cover alone – GORGEOUS design, hats off to the marketing team at Harper Collins! But the story sounds so wonderful, a compelling premise and a real-to-life complex female lead who *isn’t* a closet psychopath or hiding a dark secret. Thanks Theresa, I’ll be keeping an eye out for this one!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: #BookBingo – Round 3 | Theresa Smith Writes

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