“Do you ever look at your life and think you were meant to have more?”
The Mistake I Made by British author Paula Daly explores not the understated ONE mistake, but the multiple epic mistakes made by Roz Toovey, a talented hardworking physiotherapist who, nonetheless, finds herself burdened with debt and making some tough choices.
Roz is a 40-something woman. Separated from her immature husband, she lives in the Lake District, commutes back and forth to a corporate clinic, and frantically juggles the care of George, her troubled nine-year-old son with fifty-hour-a-week work demands. Her harried life is just a breath away from imminent disaster, and shortly after the novel opens that disaster arrives in the form of bailiffs who strip her rented cottage of its contents. This is followed by the arrival of an eviction notice. Roz, who’s swamped with credit card debt racked up by her irresponsible husband who gives her no financial support whatsoever, has nowhere to turn to for help. Thanks to a failed business venture, she’s already tapped out her parents and is loath to appeal to her sister, Petra, for help.
One day at a gathering at Petra’s house where she meets the very wealthy married couple, Nadine and Scott, Roz, blurts out the thought that men should hire professionals for sex rather than poach on other married women. It’s a statement that shocks the guests, but then she’s approached at work by Scott who offers her 4,000 pounds if she spends a night with him, no strings attached.
The plot, of course, evokes the film: Indecent Proposal–aging millionaire offers a married woman a cool mill is she spends the night with him. It’s a film that got a lot of buzz and made a lot of money upon its release in 1993, and that can probably be explained partly by the fantasy elements at play. At the time, a friend of mine told me she’d spend the night with someone for a lot less, and I remembered that comment as the plot unfolds. The film is referenced in the book, but the author turns the film’s romantic nonsense on its head. No Hollywood glitz here; Roz agrees to spend a night with Scott and all of her money problems will be over, right?
It would be easy to say that to agree with Scott’s proposal is the FIRST mistake that Roz made–but that isn’t true. As the book continues, we see that the decision to sleep with Scott is just the latest screw-up in a long history of screw-ups. At first as details unfold, it seemed as though perhaps the author was making Roz an unreliable narrator–rather than the rock solid force she seems to be. Instead Paula Daly gives us a very human character who, after making as series of mistakes and poor decisions, is drowning in debt and sees the proposal of sex-for-money as the lifeline it isn’t.
There were no good options; just one bad option slightly worse than the other. And you know what you should do. Your gut is screaming at you to back up. Reverse. Come clean now and take the hit before things get really out of control. But you don’t, because you are weak. And your habit of taking the less bad option is what got you here in the first place.
The Mistake I Made is a pageturner–partly due to unforeseeable twists and turns of plot, but also due to the author’s narrative style and the very convincing, compelling voice of the Roz. It’s easy to accept that Roz is a real person, and that makes her decisions easy to accept. Here she is describing what is like to be self-employed in an industry in which clients/patients tend to see themselves as customers:
I gave my best emphatic self: listening to patients’ worries, concerns about their lives, their children’s lives, their money worries, their health issues. I gave my best educational self: repeating facts about healing, posture about the links with stress and myofascial pain, facts that I’d been reciting all day, every day, year in year out. And I gave my best in merriment and entertainment, acting as though the patients were funniest, wittiest, most enjoyable people in the world to spend time with. I listened, smiling accordingly, as old men recited tedious jokes, as old women discussed how funny Alan Carr was. At the end of each day I would have to little left for George–so little left for me, in fact–that the most I could do was sit mute and expressionless, until it was time to go to bed.
The Mistake I Made is a well-plotted, gripping distracting read. It veered towards OTT towards the end, but that’s a minor quibble. I really liked Roz, and after the book concluded I asked myself why–after all she does some really questionable things during the course of the novel. Ultimately, in spite of what Roz has done, she convinces us of her untenable position–squeezed between working for a living and being the sole provider for a son who’s beginning to show emotional problems.
The slightly out of focus cover which shows a portrait of a woman’s face. It’s both symbolic and appropriate as Roz loses her balance and her moral compass in her efforts to stay afloat–right and wrong blur and merge. While it’s fairly easy to identify with Roz’s debt dilemma (in other words, it’s fairly easy to imagine getting into this position), the book also makes a strong case for working less, buying less and living a bit more. I liked the author’s style a great deal and will check out her backlist. And on a final note, I’m glad to see an author FINALLY tackling the problem of a character having mounds of cash and no way to spend it without raising eyebrows. That’s the one thing that annoyed me about Breaking Bad. Yes, Walter White eventually turns to money laundering in order to stockpile his millions, but the scenes with Walt paying for his cancer treatment with cash were unreal.