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The Spare Room: A Novel Paperback – February 2, 2010


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Garner (Monkey Grip) employs her signature realism in this stunted novel about the infuriating and eye-opening experience of caring for a terminally ill loved one. Helen prepares a room in her Melbourne home for Nicola, an old friend who travels from Sydney to begin a course of alternative treatment for bowel cancer. The central conflict of the story centers around these treatments: Helen fears they may be doing more harm than good, while Nicola has undying faith in the unorthodox practices of the Theodore Institute (these revolve around vitamin C injections), leading Helen to question her ability to care for someone so deep in denial. Garner paints Nicola's unflinching optimism with a heavy hand, and her grand naïveté is unconvincing, a flaw that's hard to overlook in a novel about a cancer patient. As it wears on, the narrative becomes clouded by litanies of worsening symptoms and platitudes about death, and Helen's bickering about the treatment—while valid—become grating and tiresome. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From The New Yorker

Following a Melbourne-based writer as she cares for a friend dying of cancer, this is the first work of fiction in sixteen years from an Australian writer whose accomplished early novels were overshadowed by the controversial publication, in 1995, of a decidedly post-feminist investigation into a sexual-harassment scandal. Here the author’s aims seem to shift in the course of the novel, which at times seems very close to nonfiction: the Garner-like protagonist, attending a writers’ festival in Sydney, observes, in apparent reference to J. M. Coetzee, how “the big names had scrambled to see the Nobel laureate get his Australian citizenship in a tent.” Nonetheless, the work gains focus from Garner’s characteristically controlled and unsentimental tone: the train station is “a seven-minute walk from my house, twenty if you had cancer.”
Copyright ©2008 Click here to subscribe to The New Yorker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 175 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; First Edition edition (February 2, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312428170
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312428174
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.4 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (92 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #859,997 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Helen Garner was born in 1942 in Geelong, and was educated there and at Melbourne University. She taught in Victorian secondary schools until 1972, when she was dismissed for answering her students' questions about sex, and had to start writing journalism for a living.

Her first novel, Monkey Grip, came out in 1977, won the 1978 National Book Council Award, and was adapted for film in 1981. Since then she has published novels, short stories, essays, and feature journalism. Her screenplay The Last Days of Chez Nous was filmed in 1990. Garner has won many prizes, among them a Walkley Award for her 1993 article about the murder of two-year-old Daniel Valerio. In 1995 she published The First Stone, a controversial account of a Melbourne University sexual harassment case. Joe Cinque's Consolation (2004) was a non-fiction study of two murder trials in Canberra.

In 2006 Helen Garner received the inaugural Melbourne Prize for Literature. Her most recent novel, The Spare Room (2008), won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Fiction, the Queensland Premier's Award for Fiction and the Barbara Jefferis Award, and has been translated into many languages.

Helen Garner lives in Melbourne.

Customer Reviews

You are able to feel sympathy and understanding for both of the main characters.
Julia Flyte
Helen Garner is a wonderful writer with the ability to convey complex human emotion in simple eloquent prose.
LBE
In essence, Helen is taking the anger that Nicola should be feeling and in that way, helping her.
Bingo-Karen Haney

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By sb-lynn TOP 500 REVIEWER on December 25, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The Spare Room is a short novel, and it can easily be read in one sitting. But just because it's short doesn't mean it doesn't pack a big punch - it does.

Summary in a nutshell, no spoilers:

The bulk of the story takes place over a 3 week period of time. Nicola, 65 years old, is near death from cancer and comes to visit her close friend Helen. Nicola is desperate for a cure and goes to a clinic with dubious credentials just because they promise her what no one else will - that they will rid her of the cancer.

Helen wants to help her friend but grows more and more frustrated with Nicola's refusal to face reality, both because she wants Nicola to be able to end her life well and say good-bye, and because Helen is stuck with round-the-clock care of Nicola because of the sick woman's refusal to get real help.

This is a touching, beautiful novel. We not only get to examine the relationship of these two women - one who raised a traditional family and one more bohemian - but we also see how they reflect on their lives and the choices they made. We also become observers of the aging and the existential angst of a generation that thought it would be forever young and vital.

I highly recommend this novel. It is short but not slight, and when you finish, you will feel like you've just read something much longer. I know I had a lot to think about when I turned that last page, as I examined my personal thoughts on my own aging and mortality, and the duty and true meaning of friendship.

The subject matter is serious and somber, yet the story is told with humor and wit.

Brava.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By busymama VINE VOICE on January 28, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I was impressed by how efficient this book was. It is a short novel and it seems almost purposefully so. The brevity of the story seems like a powerful tool for the author. The book spans a timeframe of about 3 weeks. Short, of course, yet also interminably long for the book's main character, Helen, who has willingly offered up her whole self, her whole life for these 3 brief weeks to come to the aid of a dying friend.

Helen begins the story with a resolute and positive attitude, hoping to do anything that she can to help her friend, Nicola, who is dying of cancer. She gives Nicola her spare room, shuttles her to cancer treatments, gets up continually in the night to help with the pain, the dirtied linens, etc. Yet soon, the three weeks begin to seem unbelievably long to her, and she wonders how she'll make it through. It's not just the exhaustion of being up all night with her friend day after day, though that is part of it. It's also the fact that her friend seems unwilling to accept that she is dying and insists upon undergoing treatments that seem to hurt rather than help. The two friends begin to have trouble communicating, and Helen begins to wear and sag under the burden of it all.

The author does a wonderful job of providing a sense of place and lifestyle for Helen before her friend comes to stay. I could really feel her longing for the simplicity and sunlight, the laughter and innocence of her grandchildren she had so recently enjoyed. Nicola's character, too, is strongly drawn....she almost seems like the person we almost wish we could have been. Yet who would want to be her now ?
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Another avid reader on February 8, 2009
Format: Hardcover
A terminally ill woman stays with a friend while undergoing medical treatment. This is the basic story of The Spare Room. Similar themes are the core feature of many chick flicks, the stuff that makes men wince. The Spare Room is not, however, a formulaic portrayal of female friendship. It is a painfully realistic examination of the havoc that disease plays on patients and caretakers. The novel touches on everything from minute details like selecting a rug for the patient's room, to broader issues, such as, accepting the inevitability of death.

Packed into this slim novel is a harsh look at the drastic measures a sick patient will take to rid herself of disease. Her near-delusional rationalization overrides common sense. The charlatans who profit from her desperation are portrayed unapologetically. The Spare Room is as much about medical ethics as it is about love. Author Helen Garner handles hot-button issues with grace and accuracy.

I was fascinated to read about the ways patients are treated in Australia. In some respects, the Australian medical system is better than that available to most Americans. For example, a new patient in a new city is able to schedule a same-day appointment with a specialist. In other aspects, some negative components are found in both countries. Jaded staff simply don't care that patients sit in waiting rooms for hours. Alternative therapies are outrageously expensive. Throughout the novel, one is reminded that the great doctors are those who actually pay attention to their patients.

The Spare Room is a must read for anyone caring for a loved one who has a serious illness.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Schtinky VINE VOICE on January 29, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Helen lives a happy life as a writer, next door to her daughter Eva and perky five-year-old granddaughter Bessie. Until the day she agrees to take fifteen-year friend Nicola into her care for three weeks. Nicola is dying of bowel cancer that has spread to her bones and liver. She's been through chemo, radiation, and surgery; and now Nicola grasps at any straws for a cure. She's heard of the Theodore Institute near Helen, and comes to receive treatments there while staying with Helen.

Upon arrival, Helen notices Nicola is much worse off than she'd been led to believe. They need a wheel chair just to get her out of the airport. Nicola, a "bohemian", her beauty not quite yet faded at sixty-five, becomes more than taxing on sixty-three year old Helen. With bedding and clothes washings, cooking, shopping, driving Nicola to and from the institute, being up all night with Nicola's pain and sweats and shivering, Helen decides she needs help. But when Palliative care is mentioned, Nicola refuses, believing Palliative care is a death knoll, and swearing "she doesn't need a nurse".

Helen is rightfully suspect of The Theodore Institute and the treatments they give her friend: ozone therapy, organic coffee enemas, apricot kernels, and most devastating of all, massive doses of Vitamin C by IV, which constantly leave Nicola weak and disorientated. But Nicola refuses to give them up, insisting they are "curing" her. Nicola, basically, is refusing to recognize her cancer is terminal and incurable.

The story was interesting, certainly enough to keep me reading it all the way through in one sitting. But the writing lacked a certain depth. We get an outsiders view rather than an insiders view, even though Helen tells the story in first-person.
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