“Her three girls were her world. It was time to let them know.
To sisters Bea, Jeannie and Rose, the death of their beloved childhood nanny is a devastating loss. As the girls grew up, Nanny May had become so much more to them all: confidant, advocate, comforter, friend. In whom will they confide their hopes, fears and failures now she has gone? Especially now each sister needs a mother’s wisdom more than ever…
Martha cannot understand why her daughters are so upset about losing their childhood nanny. Yes, Martha was always in demand as a busy midwife, but that doesn’t mean she loved her own children any less. But why don’t the girls realise that? And has she left it too late to let them know…?”
I’ve had my cursor hovering over this post for the past two days, wondering where to start with this review. I’ve felt such pressure to do the book justice, given the circumstances of its publication, that it has rather crippled me and dried up my creative juices. Does anyone else ever get that? A form of performance anxiety I suppose. In the end, I’ve decided I will just have to approach it as I would any other book review and try to convey my honest opinion, leaving any emotion aside.
I have to admit that, before all the publicity surrounding Emma’s illness last year, she was not an author that had been on my radar and I haven’t read any of her other books. Having finished Letters To My Daughters, I think this is a crying shame because her writing style is warm and charming but also perceptive and beguiling. I’m a huge admirer of a number of Irish writers and I’m ashamed that I haven’t discovered Emma’s work until now. I’m planning on catching up with her back catalogue and I hope that I can contribute something towards giving this book a wide audience in the UK. It certainly deserves it.
This is the story of a family – mother, father and three sisters – growing up in a seaside suburb of Dublin. They are a fairly ordinary family, insofar as any family is ordinary, which of course none of us really are because we all have our own family quirks, anomalies and internal tensions and, whilst these might seem unexciting on the face of things, they are the source of so much fascinating revelations that make up the backbone of great commercial fiction. This family is no different in being very different behind their polite social facade.
Social facades are a big theme in this book. To Martha, the matriarch, what the outside world thinks of her and her family (or, more specifically, the way her family reflects on her) is all consuming, to the detriment of everyone else. Her daughters seem to have been influenced by her behaviour to the point that each of them has acted in a way that panders to an outward perception of how they should behave, rather than being true to themselves. However, the death of their family nanny sets in motion a chain of events that blows their facades apart and is a catalyst for seismic changes in the family structure.
This is a book about the importance of family and relationships and having real love and support in your life. This family, outwardly, seems to have everything you could want but, none of that means anything if your relationships aren’t happy. Being honest with yourself and admitting to yourself and others when things don’t work is a central tenet of the story and the happy ending only comes when everyone stops pretending. It also dwells on the issue of what family bonds are, and do they come from blood or do we find them through love, whatever the source of that love might be. Family is a complicated issue in the modern world and this book explores that subject in an interesting way throughout and over several different story strands.
The characters in this book are all very well drawn and believable. As the eldest of four girls, I was very taken with the relationship between the sisters and how they are all there for each other, no matter what, although there are still things they individually feel they can’t share, due to their own internal hang ups. The relationships were totally authentic to me, reflecting the kind of feelings I have towards my own sisters, to whom I am very close, and this was the part of the book that was most appealing.
Oddly, given she is the hardest character to warm to and understand in the book, Martha is the one is probably most true to herself throughout. She is certainly an extreme personality but the author did a good job of giving her behaviour an emotional grounding that made her slightly more sympathetic than she might have been in less competent hands. I also appreciated the way that everything was not tied up so neat and happy at the conclusion of the book, as life isn’t like that. It is messy and difficult and disappointing and a book that an author wants a reader to believe in should reflect that. This isn’t a fairytale, it’s a slice of life that I savoured to the end.
This book was a warm, easy read that carried me along effortlessly through the pages, buried deep and obliviously as I was in the lives of the protagonists. Given what the author was going through while she wrote it, this is a remarkable feat and added another level of poignancy to the story, which is bittersweet. Despite the ease of reading it, the story was complex and rich and woven through with emotion and is an extremely rewarding read that deserves a wide audience. I hope it gets it.
Letters To My Daughters is out on 28 June and you can buy a copy here.
Thank you to NetGalley and Headline for my copy of this book which I have reviewed honestly and impartially.
About The Author
Letters to my Daughters is the twelfth novel from beloved and bestselling author Emma Hannigan.
Letters to my Daughters spent four weeks at Number One in the Original Fiction bestseller chart in Ireland on publication in 2018. Emma’s novels The Perfect Gift and The Wedding Promise were also Number One bestsellers in Ireland. The Secrets We Share won the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Epic Romantic Novel award. Emma won Woman of the Year in the literature category of the Irish Tatler Women of the Year awards and was shortlisted twice for an Irish Book award. Emma published her bestselling memoir Talk to the Headscarf in 2011, which was updated and extended in 2017 as All to Live For: Fighting Cancer. Finding Hope and was a top ten bestseller in Ireland.
In 2005, Emma discovered that she had the BRCA1 gene mutation which carries an 85 per cent risk of developing breast cancer and a 50 per cent risk of developing ovarian cancer. In 2007 she was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time and her eleven-year battle with cancer began. As an ambassador for Breast Cancer Ireland Emma worked hard to dispel the fears around cancer and spread hope about new treatments. In February 2018 Emma shared with her readers that her dedicated team of doctors had exhausted all avenues in terms of her treatment. In Emma’s final days, she launched a social media campaign #HelpEmmaHelpOthers to raise €100,000 for Breast Cancer Ireland. Two weeks later, shortly before her death, Emma revealed that her target had been reached.
Sadly, Emma passed away on 3 March 2018 at the age of 45.