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The Gingerbread Woman
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30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on 17 March 2002
"The Gingerbread Woman" clearly demonstrates Jennifer Johnston's experience as a consummate storyteller. She deals compassionately with the difficult themes of death and disease, weaving a surprisingly fast paced (very little actually happens) and compelling narrative. The characters are carefully crafted and though the reader may not like either of the main characters in their often self-indulgent pity and grief, Johnston nonetheless makes their lives both accessible and commanding of the reader's attention.
This would be a great book for any book club to discuss, as there are plenty of moral questions raised. Set in Ireland and New York, the novel provides a careful commentary on the question of adultery and lust and raises the idea of the responsibilities of terrorists. Both difficult concepts are dealt with sympathetically by Johnston, leaving the reader with no easy answers.
The narrative is very clever, with the novelist within the novel exploring her past whilst coming to terms with her present. Johnson's description of the past and the passionate love affair is wonderfully evocative and maintains the reader's interest.
The end of the novel is a little frustrating; another book club debate could revolve around when the reader guesses the outcome! And I was also a little dissatisfied with the moral message of adultery leading to heartache and ultimately punishment for the protagonist. Nonetheless this is a beautifully written book; I read it in one sitting and thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. Having never encountered Johnson before I will certainly search out her other novels as both her style and her themes provide the reader with food for thought, an element sadly lacking in a number of recent best sellers.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
I've had Jennifer Johnston's early novels on my shelves for years - since they were first published in the early 1970s in fact - but it was this book which set me re-reading those stories, and buying some more recent ones. The plot of The Gingerbread Woman is simple: two people with tragic back-stories meet by chance and, without realising it, set each other on the road to at least partial recovery. The treacheries that cause their separate unhappiness are quite different, but the processes of adjustment which the protagonists have to go through are touchingly similar. The moral is that time is a great - but not complete - healer. A lovely book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 31 December 2012
A short, beautifully formed novel about two damaged people who, against the odds and in an unlikely way, begin to heal themselves in each other's company.

Clara, a journalist and lecturer on Irish literature, has returned to her home in rural Southern Ireland following the collapse of a love affair in New York. She has undergone a traumatic operation (that we soon learn was connected with what happened while she was in the USA), and is slowly trying to face life again, while feeling it may be impossible. Lar (Laurence), a maths teacher, is visiting Southern Ireland to escape his home in the north and his memories of the tragedy that has destroyed his life - his artist wife Caitlin and his baby daughter were blown up in an IRA attack. Clara meets Lar while out walking, and on impulse invites him to stay for a few days in her cottage. A strange friendship develops between them, as they talk about their lives and relationships. Meanwhile, Clara is also writing a 'novel' telling the story of her time in New York, and while she is working, Lar is taking long walks, trying to reconcile himself to what has happened to him and work out how to continue to live. Finally, both characters have to say goodbye to the 'psychic retreat' in which they have placed themselves and face the real world again.

This is a beautifully written novel. Johnston's descriptions of Ireland are wonderful, and so are her observations of family relationships, such as Clara's difficult but warm relationship with her ultra-domestic mother and her friendship with the doctor who knows her secret, and Lar's troubled but loving relationship with his parents, and his flashbacks to life with Caitlin. Clara's time in New York is recounted in vivid detail (though I would have liked to know a little more about her past life and relationships in order to understand why she fell so impulsively for her lover in New York), and Johnston manages to make the denouement both heartbreaking and funny. Most cheering, there is a sense at the end of the novel that though things have not been simply resolved, both characters will survive and despite their unhappiness may still get a lot out of life. Clara may have lost the chance for one sort of life but seems to be discovering herself as a novelist, and Lar is finally reconciling himself to the horrible tragedy of his wife's death. This message of hope, which seems much stronger to me than when I last read this book eleven years ago, makes a moving conclusion to a well-told tale. I'm looking forward to re-reading more Jennifer Johnston soon, and have several volumes on my shelves.
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on 24 November 2011
Jennifer Johnston has said that in a hundred years she hopes that people will say of her that she accurately and truthfully depicted the lives on Protestants in twentieth-century Ireland. She has fashioned a long and successful career exploring the Irish protestant experience. Often, she focuses exclusively on the south of the country and of the rather peculiar position that those not of the Catholic faith occupy within it. Once an all-powerful and dominant minority, now vaguely anachronistic and often completely forgotten. In the Gingerbread Woman she adds a further dimension by introducing a character from the north and thus brings to the fore the troubled relationship between the two parts of the country. Clara lives in Dublin and is Protestant so perhaps one might assume that she would have some sympathy for the plight of her co-religionists in the north. Not so, she has neither interest nor empathy for anyone there, she describes the people as suffering from the 'disease of hatred' and, whilst she clearly feels for Lar as he tells her of the loss of his wife and child following a terrorist bomb, she does not want to know details nor does she offer much consolation. Between Clara and Lar there is a good deal of mutual mistrust and yet, paradoxically perhaps, this brings them together. Both are absorbed, submerged even, in their own worlds and their own problems and yet, they come together primarily because it is convenient and in each other they find an anchor of some kind secured to which they can more safely continue their morbid introspections and then tentative forays back into the outside world.

At no point does either character particularly reach out to the other either physically or emotionally and yet somehow their friendship is cathartic to both. In the hands of a less able writer this would have been a relatively simple love story but Johnston is much too skilled and too knowing for that. Instead she depicts a much more commonplace and less substantial but at the same time more realistic and far more intriguing relationship as her characters bump up against each other confusedly without ever really finding a particular connection. Having spent some time in each other's company they find the strength to move on, Lar back to the north and Clara into the world of the novel she is writing.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 7 November 2000
This book, set in Dublin, is the story of Clara and Lar, two people who are trying to deal with their sad, tragic pasts.
Lar has tried to run away from his past and the death of his wife and child in a car crash. Clara, on the other hand, tries to deal with her horrible past, a tragic relationship, by writing a book about it, entitled 'The Gingerbread Woman' (hence the title).
These two characters meet by chance, at Killiney Hill, and develop a special friendship.
Johnston looks at various themes in the book, such as; how tragedy effects people, the ways in which people deal tragedy, communication, relationships and love.
The author also skilfully gives the audience a deep insight into her realistic characters. One of the most original ways in which she does this is, of course, through Clara's novel.
This use of meta-fiction is extremely effective because as well as giving the reader an insight into Clara's character, it makes the book ever more interesting by giving it two plots.
The book is extremely sad, but it does offer hope in the end, as the characters begin to rise out of the depression of their pasts, and look to the future.
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on 26 August 2011
I really understood the parental relationalship and it helped me to see my mother in a new light. the book was well written and well constructed and I thought it ended well without being forseen. The book has encouraged me to buy other titles by the same author.
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on 27 September 2014
absolutely wonderful book.Couldn't put it down.I have enjoyed all this writer's work and this is one of her best.In excellent condition.THANKS
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 20 July 2011
Written in a succession of short sentances for those with attention span problems, I found this a trite, unbelievable and shallow novel. It's about a woman who, despite having been deceived and heartbroken by an adulteror in the states, (would you not question why he'd never taken you back to his place? Or given you his phone number?); returns to her home in Ireland and takes in a total stranger she meets on a walk. Yeah right.
His character is a bit more believable than hers, but for me the only believable character in the whole book is the dog. I liked the dog - it was the only thing that didn't pander completely to stereotype, including the interfering / caring (depending on how you look at it) mother, and the lonely old doctor looking to cohort with a patient many years younger than himself.
The representations of Mac start up chimes throughout the book really annoyed me too. What was that about? Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge Mac fan, but it certainly didn't make me like this book any more.
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on 12 April 2015
Wife's choice - thinks it is good.
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