Book Review: The Secret Life Of Shirley Sullivan by Lisa Ireland

The Secret Life Of Shirley Sullivan…

About the Book:

The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan is a charming, nostalgic and heart-warming story for women of any age – and it all begins when 79-year-old Shirley kidnaps her husband from his nursing home for one final adventure . . .

When Shirley Sullivan signs her 83-year-old husband, Frank, out of the Sunset Lodge Nursing Home, she has no intention of bringing him back.

For fifty-seven years the couple has shared love, happiness and heartbreak. And while Frank may not know who his wife is these days, he knows he wants to go home. Back to the beach where they met in the early 1960s . . .

So Shirley enacts an elaborate plan to evade the authorities – and their furious daughter, Fiona – to give Frank the holiday he’d always dreamed of.

And, in doing so, perhaps Shirley can make amends for a lifelong guilty secret . . .

My Thoughts:

This was such a wonderful story, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Themes of aged care and the way in which our society equates aged with infirm are deeply explored throughout this latest release by Lisa Ireland. Alongside the contemporary story, we get a glimpse into the way in which the domestic lives of Australian women have changed over the decades since the 1950s. This novel is a must read for anyone with an interest in sociology and contemporary society.

Shirley was a quite a character but I have to admit, I kind of liked 79-year-old Shirley a tiny bit more than younger Shirley. The risk of spoiling a key plot point gags me on elaboration here, but suffice to say, as time went on, her intentions became more selfish and she appeared to me to be benefiting quite a bit at the expense of the people she loved the most. The era certainly made this situation a difficult one to navigate but as time marched into the twenty first century, her actions to me became less about protecting others and more about having it all. One person in particular, who I’ll refrain from naming (#nospoilers), I felt particular empathy for and outrage on their behalf. Frank, on the other hand, was very much a man of his generation and while this frustrated me at times, I also had to concede that he was simply just conforming to what he knew and the way that men were ‘supposed’ to be – particularly church going men. Shirley respected and understood that, but I do think at times that if she’d just pushed him a little harder to challenge the status quo instead of simply stroking his ego with her gratitude, a better life might have been possible for all.

Shirley’s journey from the nursing home to her destination was fraught with stress and at times even disaster, but it was also sprinkled with diamond dust in the form of the occasional lucid moment from Frank. Lisa Ireland really digs deep into Alzheimer’s in this story and she casts a very compassionate and realistic gaze onto the disease. The ‘Sherbies’ were an unexpectedly delightful addition and went a long way in showing that our attitudes towards aged people can sometimes come about as we age ourselves; maybe within that middle life period where we may have children of our own and may feel as though elderly parents and grandparents may be better off in care – because it suits our lifestyles best. I truly loved how Shirley maximised the benefits of the activities on offer at the aged care community centre to equip herself for her grand escape plan. A glorious irony there!

Structurally, this novel unfolds well. The chapters alternate between the Shirley of today and the Shirley of yesterday, spanning from the beginning of her relationship with Frank right up to the incident that results in him being admitted into aged care. There are a lot of issues about marriage and domesticity explored, particularly around a wife’s agency over her own body and reproductive rights. Shirley’s story would be a familiar one for many older women, I’d wager, and it makes me extremely grateful for the movement through the 1970s that saw a change come about for women as the keepers of their own bodies. There’s also an extra issue explored as an offshoot to this: miscarriage and still birth and the way in which our treatment and handling of this has evolved. Shirley really was dealt a poor hand here and her experiences would resonate with many. They’ll also really tug hard on your heartstrings.

There is a lot of ground covered within this novel but Lisa Ireland pulls it all off (and together) with the precision of an experienced novelist. This is a meaningful and heartfelt story that will appeal to people of many generations.


Thanks is extended to Penguin Random House Australia for providing me with a copy of The Secret Life Of Shirley Sullivan for review.

About the Author:

After working for many years as a teacher (and a brief stint as a professional organiser – before Marie Kondo made it cool), Lisa Ireland is now a full-time writer.
A few years ago, her husband convinced her to leave their much-loved Melbourne home to take up residence on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula. Now she can’t imagine living anywhere else. When she’s not writing, Lisa can be found running (okay, shuffling) along the nearby river track, drinking coffee at her favourite cafes or perusing the shelves of her local bookstore.
She loves eating but not cooking, is an Olympic-class coffee drinker, and (most importantly) minion to a rather large dog.
The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan is Lisa’s sixth novel.

The Secret Life Of Shirley Sullivan
Published by Penguin Random House Australia
Released 28th April 2020

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