#aww2020 · 2020 Reviews · Australian · contemporary fiction · dual time frame · historical fiction

New Release Book Review: The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan by Lisa Ireland

Title: The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivanthe secret life of shirley sullivan small

Author: Lisa Ireland

Published: April 28th 2020

Publisher: Penguin Books Australia

Pages: 352

Genres: Fiction, Contemporary

RRP: $32.99

Rating: 5 stars

‘Elderly. Is that how the world sees me? A helpless little old lady? If only they knew. I allow myself a small smirk.’

When Shirley Sullivan signs her 83-year-old husband, Frank, out of the Sunset Lodge Nursing Home, she has no intention of bringing him back.

For fifty-seven years the couple has shared love, happiness and heartbreak. And while Frank may not know who his wife is these days, he knows he wants to go home. Back to the beach where they met in the early 1960s . . .

So Shirley enacts an elaborate plan to evade the authorities – and their furious daughter, Fiona – to give Frank the holiday he’d always dreamed of.

And, in doing so, perhaps Shirley can make amends for a lifelong guilty secret . . .


‘It’s funny how ageing changes a person’s perspective on life. When you realise there are fewer years in front of you than behind, it becomes easier to filter out all the trivialities and concentrate on what really matters.’

A beautiful and moving tribute to love, family, relationships and ageing is bestowed on the pages of Lisa Ireland’s new novel. The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan is equal parts heartwarming, heartbreaking and poignant. What an unforgettable journey this novel presented from start to the finish.

Questions of ageing are placed at the forefront of The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan. The title character, Shirley Sullivan, is an enterprising eighty plus woman. Upset by the current living arrangements of her husband Frank in a nursing home has resulted in a carefully laid out plan to rescue her husband from the clutches of the home. Setting off on a life changing road trip, Shirley recounts her years with Frank. From their first meeting, to their courtship, marriage and life as a family unit, this couple has lived one full life together. Through the ups and downs of life, Shirley and Frank’s love has weathered many storms, the biggest one being Frank’s illness. Shirley knows that she owes it to Frank to make one last trip to a very special place and in doing so, Shirley hopes to makes amends for past mistakes. But with the authorities, nursing home and daughter Fiona hot on their tail, it remains to be seen if this endearing couple can make it to their final holiday destination.

The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan is a road trip book with a difference. It combines an engrossing life story with a social history of Australia’s not too distant past, along with a close look at a long standing marriage. Inspiring, celebratory, moving and meaningful, Lisa Ireland’s latest will be sure to earn her some new fans.

I have to admit that I was having a bad day when I picked up The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan to read. Everything was annoying me and I longed for something that could sweep me away from all the things that were getting under my skin. Lisa Ireland’s latest succeeded in bolstering my spirits. It picked me up when I needed it the most and it improved my mindset. So thank you to Lisa Ireland for this truly heartwarming novel.

The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan is relayed in a dual timeline format. We meet title character Shirley Sullivan in the present day and we are acquainted with her again in the past. We follow Shirley’s life as a single gal, just prior to her fateful first meeting with Frank and we follow along their poignant journey as they move from courtship, to marriage and the years after. Lisa Ireland recounts a full and involving set of events. At many times I felt like an interloper in this relationship. Ireland very delicately backtracks from the past to the present, with careful interchanges. I enjoyed these gentle timeline waves.

Within the back story of Shirley and Frank’s relationship we are presented with a nostalgic picture of Australia’s past. Traversing the 1960s, 1970s and beyond, Ireland does an excellent job of providing the reader with a snapshot of life during these decades in our past. From courting practices, to employment expectations for women, marriage, social expectations, contraception, birth and the rise of the women’s movement, Ireland’s world building was impressive. It was nice to take a trip down memory lane and experience what my mother, as well as grandmother faced. I appreciated the opportunity to link my own family’s experiences to the characters in this book.

In addition, I was also able to reflect on my own family’s experiences with dementia, which recently came to end last year when my grandmother passed away. I was able to directly link Frank Sullivan’s circumstances to the last years of my grandmother’s life. Ireland touches on this topic with insight, sensitivity and grace. Ireland doesn’t shy way from the tough times, which I admired.  I could fully understand Shirley’s feelings and why she was so motivated to emancipate Frank from the nursing home.

There is a rather explosive twist and heartbreaking secret that comes to light a fair way into this novel. I was oblivious to this revelation until it hit me, smack bang in the face! It was a shock, but a good one and it helped elevate this novel to another level for me. It represented yet another poignant layer to this beautiful novel. I apologise if I cannot reveal any more to you on the details of this dramatic twist, but I would be sure to deliver a whopping spoiler. Suffice to say, it is well worth your time to pick up this novel.

The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan features a plethora of themes, topics and thoughts in general that I would be happy to talk about until the cows come home! The strong focus on female relationships and friendships is a dominant theme in this novel. Duty, self-sacrifice, expectation, faith and morality all play a significant role in The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan. Ageing is explored in a way that makes us see that our twilight years can deliver unexpected situations, but also opportunities to take the bull by the horns and experience life. The road trip aspect was a sheer delight and the scenic route covered by the leads cemented my resolve to retrace Shirley and Frank’s footsteps in the future. Finally, the end left me quite bereft. I’m not sure what to make of it and I am unsure if I am ready to say goodbye to dear Shirley and Frank just yet.

In The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan, Lisa Ireland has excelled in bringing her readership a novel that is truly her own. Lisa Ireland she has definitely found her calling in the life lit genre with the help of this superb novel. Passionate, well told, unforgettable and enticing, it made me want a Shirley Sullivan by my side when I retire!

The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan by Lisa Ireland was published on April 28th 2020 by Penguin Books Australia. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.

To learn more about the author of The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan, Lisa Ireland, visit here.

*I wish to thank Penguin Books Australia for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.

The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan is book #59 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge


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