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The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village is the first novel by British-born Australian doctor and author, Joanna Nell. Peggy Smart has been at Jacaranda Retirement Village since Ted died four years ago. She’s quite happy sharing her little unit with Basil, her ageing Shih Tzu, but hasn’t made any real friends. And she would like to get to know the handsome Brian Cornell a bit better: nights without Ted to cuddle her can be a bit lonely.
Might he ever be interested in someone as dull as Peggy? “I’m a seventy-nine-year-old widow with a broken arm and a body like day-old rice pudding. It’s time to face facts. I’m past it.” Peggy tries to be independent: the last thing she wants is for her (interfering) son and daughter to put her away; but she is a bit forgetful sometimes, and her waterworks problems make it difficult to enjoy everything she’d like to do.
Things are changing at Jacaranda, though: a new doctor might just sort out Peggy’s bladder, and Brian seems to be noticing her. Until, that is, Angie Valentine turns up. Angie’s a blast from Peggy’s past: gorgeous (still, at nearly eighty!) and stylish, she has the heads of the few males at Jacaranda turning. Peggy watches Angie captivating everyone at Jacaranda, and feels ready to give up. But Angie has other plans. Soon, in the mirror, “Instead of a pensioner camouflaged in fifty shades of beige, she saw an elegant, mature woman with a figure.”
What a charming tale Nell gives the reader! The plot is not as predictable as it might first seem, and Nell manages to include plenty of humour, both in the dialogue and the antics of her characters: pricing a Karaoke machine, swimming laps, hosting a Fashion Parade, crashing a birthday party, hair and clothing makeovers, clinic visits, and the sabotage, with laced brownies, of a certain (Basil-adverse) residents’ committee vote, all present the reader with laugh-out loud moments.
None of Nell’s characters is wholly good or bad: all have human flaws as well as virtues, but Peggy is the star of the show. She is truly a delight, but she’s also the reason that this novel should not be read in the quiet carriage on public transport. Peggy’s little errors: her malapropisms, her mixed metaphors, her mangling of common expressions, her (unintentional) double entendres, and misheard words, will have the reader exploding into laughter. Sometimes they are very subtle (Dave’s knee deconstruction op), other times, glaringly obvious (Angie’s Louis Carthorse-style chairs), but definitely worth watching out for.
Readers of a certain vintage will doubtless identify with Peggy’s issues and worries (Nell captures the senior mindset perfectly), while those a generation younger will appreciate the situation from David and Jenny’s perspective. Nell highlights the dilemma, for our ageing population, of balancing safety with independence, comfort and indulgence with the discipline of exercise and health, medication with more wholistic treatment. This is a brilliant debut novel, and Nell’s further works will be eagerly anticipated.