First Day of the Rest of My Life

G.Y.L.T. B.I.T.L. (get your life together before it’s too late) might be one of the acronyms Madeline O’Shea uses with her clients as their life coach, but she finds it hard to follow her own advice.  Cathy Lamb’s The First Day of the Rest of My Life may sound like a fluffy narrative, but Lamb likes to let you get comfortable enjoying the quirky characters, and then wallop you with their terrifying secrets.

The O’Shea girls, Madeleine and Annie, have survived a horrific childhood with their abusive stepfather, to become privately dysfunctional but publicly normal. Annie is a vet, with military training in explosives, which she uses to rectify animal abuse; Madeleine is a popular motivational speaker and successful counselor, with a penchant for using her mother’s clichéd advice on her clients. A blackmail letter with pornographic pictures from their past threatens to reveal their terrible childhood abuse, and a reporter has uncovered new information not only about their childhood but also about the grandparents who raised them. Madeleine’s grandmother, a famous children’s author and illustrator, suffers from dementia; her ramblings hint at escape from Nazi Europe, with her picture stories of black swans a metaphor for wartime terrors that she has kept secret from her grandchildren.

Lamb offers some comic relief to the awful descriptions of child abuse, the vengeful courtroom scene, the assorted health attacks on the family – cancer, brain tumor, dementia, heart attack – with scenes from their mother’s pink lady beauty salon and exaggerated depictions of Madeleine’s clients, who throw glitter at her and dress her up in a Cats costume as part of their therapy. Madeleine’s advice is tough love, with blatant attacks on mostly women’s inability to stand up for themselves. Her magazine articles offer solutions, giving Lamb the opportunity to speak from her soapbox about society’s ills.

But be prepared to invest in some tissues, tears, gasps, and sighs. Before the predictable happy ending, the story vacillates between outright misery and familial loyalties. In a heavy-handed portrayal of emotions and history, Lamb focuses on two unbearable topics – child pornography and the Holocaust – one might have been enough.

Julia’s Chocolates

The cover of the book shows a wedding dress hanging in a tree, but the title, Julia’s Chocolates, seduced me with chocolate – the reason I bought the book five years ago.  It’s been sitting on my shelf, waiting; I could never dispose of a book that promises chocolate – but I’d forgotten about it until a friend told me she was about to read another of Cathy Lamb’s stories.

Although Lamb delivers the promised chocolate, it’s with an intense dose of abused women and the camaradarie of unconditional friendship.   Julia Bennett escapes from her rich boyfriend on the day they are to be married, leaving behind his demeaning remarks about her appearance, and with a black eye added to his other physical abuse.  She finds a haven at her Aunt Lydia’s egg farm, hiding out with the chickens and the pigs and the toilet bowl planters in the front yard – hoping her boyfriend will not find her to seek revenge.

Through the feisty Lydia’s weekly group meetings, Julia meets a few of the local women who have their own problems.  Although Julia’s abusive past threatens to ruin her present and future life, Lamb offers many sides to abuse (some not always so obvious) through the other women in the group:  Katie, who has her own housekeeping business and four children, and supports her drunken slob of a husband; Lara, who’s bored of being the pastor’s wife and secretly wants to be an artist; Caroline, who can see into the future, especially when something dire is about to happen.  Lydia picks weekly topics that are humorous as well as affirming, and becomes the catalyst that helps the young women assert themselves.  And, of course, there’s the chocolate – and a handsome lawyer who happens to have a weekend house nearby and becomes Julia’s new love interest.

Chocolate is Julia’s savior.  She eats and bakes with chocolate for therapy, and to promote good feelings in others.  Eventually, chocolate develops into a business that saves the town, as well as Julia – but not before the horrible boyfriend reappears and tries to exact his revenge.

Lamb wraps the story with everyone living happily ever after – with each woman finding her true self, after cleansing herself of negative male influences that have kept her from fulfilling her destiny.   The cover flap connects the story to The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood – a good comparison – women coming together to support each other through the miseries and having a good time and some fun as a distraction from reality. Lamb has published three books since this one – all with themes that include women:

  • The Last Time I Was Me ( a career woman – angry and making life changes)
  • Henry’s Sisters (caring for an ailing mother, a demented grandmother, and a brother who is mentally handicapped)
  • Such a Pretty Face (a woman whose life changes more than physically after bariatric surgery).

But, her latest, has the most appeal for me – The First Day of the Rest of My Life.

Looking forward to reading it, while eating some good chocolate.