Stella and Margie by Glenna Thomson explores female, familial relationships with poise in a contemporary Australian setting.
Stella and her mother-in-law Margie are two very different women.
Stella is kind, compassionate and just a little chaotic. Margie is prickly, demanding and a stickler for convention. Stella has exciting dreams for the future. Margie has only bitter memories of the past.
When Margie needs help recovering from a major operation, Stella offers her a place to stay. With no other options, Margie returns to the family farm where for decades, until Stella’s arrival, she was the one in charge.
Margie has never made life easy for her daughter-in-law, and that’s not going to change now she’s been made a guest in her former home.
But as the dry summer turns to a beautiful autumn, the two women gradually form an unlikely bond, as the ambitions, secrets, and tragedies that have shaped their lives are slowly uncovered…
Told from both Stella and Margie’s perspectives with alternating chapters, Thomson carries the voices of each woman wonderfully. I found this particularly noticeable with Margie’s chapters, where her inner discourse felt more formal (or old-fashioned) compared to Stella.
However, this meant that I tended to enjoy Stella’s chapters more than Margie’s, simply because I found her voice younger and more relatable to my age.
Thomson’s prose glides the fine line between easy-to-read ‘popular’ fiction and technically-profound literary fiction, with many beautiful moments to underline.
“When he turns to face the room, I see his eyes are large, soft and dark like those of a sooty owl…” (Page 49)
Flocks of bird motifs flit across chapters, following the Ballantine family back in time to uncover secrets and long-lasting pain. The birds themselves are symbolic of freedom, something Margie and Stella have struggled to find in their lives.
Stella seems to have overcome her struggles (with her own mother) by writing a play, ‘I Did My Best’, which acts as metafiction for the relationship Margie has with her family.
Margie’s past and its impact on generations of her family makes up the majority of the novel’s main plot points, from domestic violence to grief and loss to lustful affairs. Like nursing a baby bird back to health, Stella nurses Margie with love and compassion, bringing her back into the Ballantine family.
Despite Stella and Margie being largely about Stella and Margie, I was also intrigued by the disconnect between Margie and her son, Ross. Ross’s contempt for his mother swoops into the plot, adding another element of tension.
The tension between parents and children circles the story like a bird of prey: the anger between Stella and her long-dead mother; the concern Stella has for her daughters; the discomfort between Margie and Ross (and the absent Caroline); the heartache Stella has for Mark; the responsibility and regret Ross (and his father) feel at taking over the Ballantine farm; and even the confronting farm life of impregnating heifers, or pulling a calf from a cow.
While Stella and Margie centers on the reconciliation of these two women, it is really about family. Sometimes the nest is bare and brittle, and sometimes it’s warm with downy feathers.
“I don’t think a child can fully relate to a mother as a regular person… She did her best, like all of us try and do. Anyway, here we are. Thanks to her.” (Page 267)
Thank you to Penguin Random House for sending me a copy of Stella and Margie by Glenna Thomson in exchange for an honest review.