The Persephone Book of Short Stories: What a Lovely Surprise by Penelope Mortimer


Jill, the main character in What a Lovely Surprise; Penelope Mortimer’s portrayal of a middle-class family in 1957, is a housewife and a mother of three children.

Jill is turning 39 years old, and her family is getting ready for her birthday celebrations – a family tradition which had started when their eldest child Louisa was about four years old. The whole idea is to let Jill relax on her birthday without having to do any housework. Jill’s birthday starts with breakfast in bed, followed by presents, a play put up by the children, and finally dinner out with her husband, Paul. It all sounds very sweet and thoughtful.

However, while reading the story, I got the sense this “traditional” birthday celebration is far from Jill’s perfect birthday! It is not that Jill is ungrateful. But this “tradition” has taken the surprise out of her birthday! Also, I realized there is this pressure for Jill to appear pleased in front of her family. After all, each year they go an extra mile to make her day special! I guess that is part of the role of being a mother, pretending to be happy over gifts one really doesn’t want and appearing to be happy when a birthday greeting from your child reads something like “Thirty-nine is not such a very great age to be, think how you’d feel if today you were ninety-three”! 😀

Luckily for Jill, birthdays only come around once a year!

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