‘Lola’s Secret’ is the latest novel from bestselling international author Monica McInerney. It is a sequel to Monica’s 2003 release ‘The Alphabet Sister’s’ and is set in the searing heat of Christmas in the Clare Valley region of South Australia. This is a charming, witty novel in which Monica’s assured writing sparkles and which, when you reach the end, will leave you feeling like you’ve been given a huge, warm hug.
Lola Quinlan, the central character, is brilliantly observed and immensely enjoyable to read. She’s certainly not your usual eighty-four-year-old woman; dressing flamboyantly, preferring a G&T to a cup of tea and spending her spare time surfing the internet. She also doesn’t hold back when dishing out advice to her family members – advice which her squabbling granddaughters Carrie and Bett seek constantly.
In addition to the usual issues and dramas experienced among families, Lola and her family are also trying to come to terms with the death of her third granddaughter, Anna, the person who Lola always turns to for help in her own hour of need.
As Christmas looms, Lola encourages her extended family to head off and leave her ‘home alone’ in the sweltering heat at the Valley View Motel. But her protestations that she will be perfectly fine on her own are not strictly true. In secret, she uses her time on the internet at the local charity shop she volunteers at, to advertise a Christmas break at the motel. The bookings she receives are not entirely straightforward however and as Christmas gets closer, Lola, her family and her intended guests come to realise that Christmas really is a time for families to be together – whatever emotional obstacles or distances have to be overcome to get there.
Monica McInerney deals with a number of themes in ‘Lola’s Secret’ – grief, sibling rivalry, depression, ageing, motherhood and empty-nest syndrome. Her dialogue is witty and touching in equal measures, her characters are richly drawn and the plot moves smoothly and assuredly between Lola and her family and the lives of the guests who are intending to travel to her motel.
It is only towards the latter stages of the novel that we are introduced to Alex, a man who Lola once loved and hasn’t seen or heard of for many, many years. This is a wonderful, and unexpected, sub-plot and pulls the entire novel together to a moving and satisfying conclusion.
Ideally, this is a novel to be read sitting out on a verandah, sipping a G&T and overlooking the stunning Clare Valley vineyards. If that’s a little too far to travel, curl up on the sofa, pour a glass of red and escape to the heat of an Australian Christmas while the rain lashes at the windows and the wind howls outside.
Some novels are simply very special. This is one of those novels.
I spoke to Monica about her writing career and about ‘Lola’s Secret’.
‘Lola’s Secret’ is the sequel to your previous best-selling novel ‘The Alphabet Sisters’. What was is like revisiting your previous characters?
It was great fun. I wrote ‘The Alphabet Sisters’ in 2003, but the family at the centre of it, the Quinlans, has always stayed in my mind, especially Lola, the elderly, eccentric Irish grandmother. As a reader, I often wonder after I’ve finished a book where the characters might be in five or ten years time, how their lives might have changed. Writing ‘Lola’s Secret’ allowed me to find out what had been happening to the Quinlans – the only catch being I had to write the book before I could read it!
How long does it take to write a novel like ‘Lola’s Secret’?
I usually take more than a year to write each of my books, but ‘Lola’s Secret’ took just over six months from idea to final edit. I had the idea out of the blue while I was in Australia on a book tour last October for my previous novel ‘At Home with the Templetons’. A missed flight meant I unexpectedly found myself in a motel in the Clare Valley of South Australia, my home town and the setting for ‘The Alphabet Sisters’. I went to sleep thinking about that book and the Quinlan family, and woke up at 5 am with the entire plot of ‘Lola’s Secret’ in my head. When I got back home to Dublin a fortnight later, I immediately started writing it, working seven days a week. It seemed to pour out of me. I also developed insomnia midway through the writing, which proved very helpful deadline-wise – I was able to get up and write during the night as well as the day.
Apart from unscheduled stopovers in motels, where do you get your ideas and inspiration?!
From every person I meet. I write family comedy-dramas and the wonderful thing is every person I talk to has a unique treasure trove of family memories and experiences. I’ve never met a person who hasn’t had one extraordinary story to tell from their family history, be it an adventurous ancestor, a dark secret, wonderful times or moments of great sadness.
Lola is such a brilliantly observed character – is she entirely fictional, or based on a real person?!
On behalf of Lola, thank you very much! I really loved writing Lola’s scenes and dialogue – she’s so much fun, so forthright, loyal and loving, but also, as an 84 year old, fearless with her opinions. I didn’t know my own grandmother Maude, my mother’s mother, but I grew up hearing many stories about her – she was very social, a bit eccentric and apparently also threw great poker parties. I’m sure she was the starting point for Lola, and also a way for me to invent my own fictional ideal grandmother. I’d love to have a real Lola in my life.
Coming from a large family yourself, are you naturally drawn to writing about family drama?
I know that all my books spring from my own family background. I’m the middle of seven and there was always so much going on in our house – comedy, drama, lively arguments, lots of laughter, constant visitors, teenage angst, broken hearts, just so much noise and action alongside the good times and sad times that fill everyone’s lives. We grew up in a rambling house in a small country town where we knew everybody and everybody knew us, so we were also able to roam free. We made our own entertainment, put on plays and concerts, produced an annual family magazine, spent hours playing on the roof of our house, had a menagerie of animals and generally ran amok. I like to include that sense of fun and adventure in my books too.
What three words would you use to describe your style of writing?
Which other authors do you admire and which book would you most love to have written?
I admire every author, because I know how difficult it is to write a book and fight through the despair and self-doubt that comes alongside the great writing days. I’d love to have written the Harry Potter novels, not for the fame or sales, but because it’s so clear how much fun JK Rowling had letting her imagination run wild.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m re-reading ‘Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha’ by Roddy Doyle and loving it as much as I did the first time I read it, nearly 20 years ago.
What can we look forward to next from you?
I’m a quarter way into my next novel, which features a blended family, a step-brother and two step-sisters. I’m very interested in how different those relationships can be compared to a ‘traditional’ family, and especially how family members who have not grown up together cope in the wake of a tragedy.
Monica McInerney grew up in a family of seven children in the Clare Valley wine region of South Australia. She has worked in children’s television, arts marketing, the music industry, public relations and book publishing, and lived all aroundAustralia, and in Ireland and England. She is the author of eight previous novels, including, most recently, At Home with the Templetons, Those Faraday Girls andFamily Baggage. Those Faraday Girls was the winner of the General Fiction Book of the Year at the 200 Australian Book Industry Awards. Lola’s Secret is the sequel to The Alphabet Sisters. Monica and her Irish husband currently live in Dublin.
‘Lola’s Secret’ is published by Pan MacMillan.