Title: How to Be Second Best
Author: Jessica Dettman
Published: January 1st 2019
Publisher: Harper Collins Books Australia
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: 4.5 stars
A hilarious and heart-warming debut that captures the dramas, delights and delirium of modern parenting. This is Marian Keyes meets Allison Pearson, with a dash of Caitlin Moran.
Going from one child to two is never all that easy for a family, but when Emma’s husband simultaneously fathers a third child three doors up the street, things get very tricky, very fast.
No longer is it enough for Emma to be the best wife and mother – now she’s trying to be the best ex-wife, and the best part-time parent to her ex’s love child, and that’s before she even thinks about adding a new bloke to the mix.
Set in an upwardly mobile, ultra-competitive suburb, this is a funny, biting, heartwarming modern comedy that looks at the roles we play, how we compete, and what happens when we dare to strive for second-best.
Jessica Dettman is a debut author with a fresh and nuanced signature style. Coming from a background as a senior editor for two major Australian publishing houses has put Dettman in good standing to produce her first full length novel. How to Be Second Best is a commercial women’s fiction title, with domestic noir elements and comedic timing that extends on Dettman’s popular blog, Life With Gusto.
Described a ‘hilarious’ and ‘heartwarming’, How to Be Second Best provides an insider’s view on the triumphs and tragedies of modern parenthood. Situated in the here and now, it is a humorous and scathing insight into one woman’s world, which is turned upside down when her husband announces he has a child with another woman – that is the same age as their youngest. This is a highly complicated and emotional situation for all parties involved. Emma’s husband Troy decides he must support his new family and he leaves Emma, their newborn and young son Tim for his pilates instructor girlfriend. What emerges is a strange parenting arrangement whereby Emma does the majority of the child minding. How to Be Second Best tracks Emma’s life three years after the pivotal revelation that Troy has another family to support. Emma is a breaking point, and after years of being taken advantage of, she decides to take matters into her own hands.The plan backfires – with interesting results!
As a cover lover, the visual presentation of this book via the front cover won me over. The image of an imperfect sweet cake with one piece cut out grabbed my attention. There is plenty that this cover can signify. It reminds us that relationships and life aren’t always sweet. Life and cakes can be imperfect. Sometimes, we have so many fingers in our pie/cake, that it is impossible to be the very best at everything. In today’s busy society, many of us strive to be the perfect parent, wife, friend, employee and woman. The expectations we have of ourselves is quite ridiculous! It is no wonder many of us eventually buckle under the pressure. Emma does in quite speculator fashion in How to Be Second Best.
It is best to begin this review with a response to Emma, as she is the central character of this compelling and affectionate tale. Emma – I felt so, so sorry for her from the very beginning of the novel. When she discovered the devastating news that her husband has another family and he was choosing them over her, my heart sank for poor Emma. But Emma rises above it all and manages to succeed in her role as a nurturing co-parent. Rather than rejecting the half sibling of her own children, Emma respectfully embraces the child as one of her own. I found this completely admirable. I had the cheer squad out for Emma. I hoped that she would find satisfaction in her life, love and career. But, I did get frustrated by Emma’s willingness to accept all the things Troy and Helen said to her. They also treated her appallingly. I wanted to shake her and say, this is not okay! Emma did get under my skin in this sense, but I do feel this is always a sign of good characterisation skills. If an author can get you to care so deeply about the mistreatment of their characters, they have won you over!
Dettman’s solid characterisation extends to all the protagonists featured in her debut. Troy was a piece of work and I disliked him immensely. I badly wanted karma to bite him back (which it does). Helen, his new love, was truly awful and Dettman does an excellent job of bringing this domestic villain to life, warts and all! The children in this novel are presented with plenty of realism – it is obvious that Dettman is a parent herself. The love interests of this novel add plenty to the unfolding tale and I liked Emma’s tussle of emotions involving these two men. Rounding off the novel nicely is Emma’s family. Emma’s sister was a great force to be reckoned with. Hints at the loss of Emma’s mother provides some background and understanding to how Emma deals with issues in her life. I can understand completely the need to stick to routine and remain complacent about the natural order of things, even though it seemed like Emma was being taken advantage of – big time! I also loved the insightful touches in to the world of editing and publishing, thanks to Emma’s career. The characters that are drawn from Emma’s professional life are incredibly authentic, obviously inspired heavily by Dettman’s years of experience as an editor in the publishing world. It was great to see the process of getting a book to its finished product, thanks to Emma’s escapades!
Emma’s situation provides an excellent social commentary on modern parenting, motherhood and life as a woman in today’s high pressured world. The underlying message, that it is okay to only give half, not all of yourself to everyone and everything, was a good one to take on board. Emma’s experiences give brevity and reassurance to many mothers and women out there who are struggling to gain the upper hand. How to Be Second Best for me personally was more a life affirming read than a comedy. Sure there were funny moments, but on the whole, the subliminal messages I got from Emma’s story was far more significant than the comedic moments.
A lesson on learning to stop, to breathe and to ensure that you don’t put the world’s responsibilities on your single shoulders defines this introspective glimpse at present day parenting, relationships and life in general. I was happy to hear that while pitching this novel to her publisher, Dettman has another in book in the works. I am looking forward to another Jessica Dettman book with eager eyes. How to Be Second Best comes with a big seal of approval from this reader.
How to Be Second Best by Jessica Dettman was published on 1st January 2019 by Harper Collins Books Australia. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of How to Be Second Best, Jessica Dettman, visit here.
*Thanks extended to Harper Collins Books Australia for providing a free copy of this book for review purposes.
How to Be Second Best is book #17 of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge
I am offering 1 lucky reader an opportunity to win a copy of How to Be Second Best, by Jessica Dettman. Simply subscribe by email to my blog and leave a comment below on this post to be entered into this great competition! Good luck!
*Competition open to Australian postal addresses only. Closes Wednesday 20th February 2019, 11pm (WST).