Book Review | My Hundred Lovers by Susan Johnson

My Hundred Lovers Review Paige's PagesTITLE: My Hundred Lovers
: Susan Johnson
: Allen & Unwin
DATE: June 2012
GENRE: Adult Fiction
: 280

During the daily grind, we rarely pause to appreciate the small joys that life has to offer. My Hundred Lovers by Susan Johnson is literary fiction that celebrates these pleasures. At the age of 50, protagonist Deborah looks back on 100 moments from her lifetime of sensual exploration. These moments include everything from erotic encounters to the memory of her mother’s red fingernails. All prove how a woman’s head, heart, and body make one perfectly imperfect whole. This is a book about the raw beauty of life and love without cliché.

“Can a body, confined to the modest compass of an ordinary skin, tell you everything? … I am an ordinary citizen of the sated world and nothing exceptional has ever happened to me, save the commonplace and extraordinary fact that, like you, I was born, I was born, I was born.”

The story begins with Deborah’s conception in 1959 in Sydney, Australia. Johnson invites readers on an intimate journey through Deborah’s life, divided between her hometown in Sydney, and beautiful France. We accompany her through childhood, sexual awakening, adulthood, mental breakdown, marriage, motherhood, and beyond.

The chapters are numbered one to 100, each dedicated to a love as the novel’s title suggests. Deborah’s story unravels in a collection of memories, without sticking to chronological order. As each moment stands alone as a poignant vignette, you have the option to savour My Hundred Lovers a chapter at a time. Personally, I wouldn’t have the willpower to put the book down. Johnson’s writing became my air until I finished the final word.

As Deborah admits, nothing exceptional happens to her, but her intense engagement with life results in an intensely sensory reader experience. Each of Deborah’s 100 moments evokes an ordinary experience that most people will instantly empathise with, and unveils a world of beauty we are usually too busy to see. Deborah’s memory of freshly baked croissants, her wonderment over something insignificant, strikes me as inspiring and beautiful:

And then there is the croissant. Such a brief, perishing object! So full of life, yet as evanescent as the most fragile butterfly, dead by day’s end, its flowering over within hours. Le feuilletage, layer upon layer of pastry animated by yeast, alive with butter, rolled and folded as carefully as an old-fashioned handwritten letter.

My Hundred Lovers has an unusual narrative style. Although Deborah is our first person narrator for much of the novel, some chapters shift to third person. Whilst we are inside Deborah’s head, we are immersed in her world. In contrast, the third person sections are much more detached. I experienced that this combination of intimacy and distance helped me to stay reflective as a self-aware reader; instead of getting lost in her story, Deborah’s experiences triggered my own self-reflection.

Deborah’s story is often confronting, Johnson’s commitment to brutal honesty means that My Hundred Lovers contains explicit sex scenes and challenging themes. For this reason, it is recommended only for adult readers. However, these scenes and themes always develop plot and character, and are handled with nostalgic tenderness.

My Hundred Lovers is also a love affair with language. Readers who appreciate beautiful writing will swoon over this book. I could sense that every sentence was deliberately placed to form a tight and compelling narrative. The writing has a unique, lyrical rhythm. Johnson always finds a way to articulate even the most complicated sensations, avoiding the typical clichés. This book reawakened my love of language.

Johnson wanted to write about a woman’s life through her body. The result is a book that celebrates the raw beauty of life, however insignificant or imperfect. My Hundred Lovers makes the ordinary extraordinary. We get to explore a woman’s head, heart, and body, and in the process ourselves.

This review was originally published in The Australia Times Books Magazine Volume 4 Issue 4.

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