Dancing Lessons by Olive Senior

Dancing Lessons

There is so much meat in this book for group discussions that I was rather surprised and disappointed when I could not find any reader’s guide for a book club.
This was a feel-good story, despite the disheartened past of the main character, Gertrude Samphire.

She is a senior in Jamaica, who is looking back on her life which is filled with misunderstandings and irony: her marriage didn’t turn out the way she dreamed, and while she had four children with her husband, they all became estranged and distant from her (both emotionally and physically).

  The eldest daughter, Celia, is the only one who has remained in frequent contact with her mother—but there doesn’t seem to be any tight bond even between them.  Their relationship is one of the major focuses of the novel.  In fact, it is Celia who brings Gertrude to Ellesmere Lodge after her house has been severely damaged by a hurricane.Dancing Lessons

The residence is where we are introduced to many different and funny seniors, who add humor to the text.  It is through some of these interesting characters that Gertrude grows into the person she is at the end.  Choose your preferred resident—there are a number of them who all seem annoying to her and superficial at first—but then certain bonds are actually formed and specific lady friends change in Gertrude’s eyes.  She becomes more sympathetic to them as they all deal with the realities of old age.  She even begins to have a crush on a handsome Mr. Bridges, who certainly leaves a lasting impression on her.

We get to feel the setting of the tropics through Gertrude’s voice by the detailed descriptions from her youth and tough life growing up.

There is a bittersweet (and often times sarcastic) tone in her narrative, which is fitting.  As readers, we want her to overcome insecurities and find a new start to life, no matter what her age.  We sympathize with her when she gets separated from her father and cheer her on when she discovers that she can be a strong, confident and caring woman all at once.
I think this novel is certainly a gem that hasn’t been raved about enough.  The quality of the writing along with the plot of the story drives you to finish the book and leaves you satisfied.

When reading about Gertrude’s present situation, there is such a similarity to Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen because of the whole senior residence issue.  You also get the sense of The Help by Kathryn Stockett, since Gertrude is speaking in first person and recalling days during the time of the Civil Rights Movement.  It even reminds me a little of The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill because the character in that book is also relating her story in older age and looking back on her sad youth and life in captivity.  Even though Gertrude is not a slave, her ancestors surely were and she has also faced a sort of captivity: more emotional than physical—but a captivity nonetheless.

What did you think after reading Dancing Lessons?  Did you like Gertrude’s character?  What are your opinions about Celia and her siblings?  Stay tuned for next month, when I will review Nancy Richler’s The Imposter Bride.

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