Postcards From Berlin – Margaret Leroy
Little, Brown and Company/2003
By – Sheri de Grom
I’m drawn into the story immediately by the author’s exquisite descriptions. Catriona Lydgate and her husband invite Christmas carolers into their London home for refreshments. She and her husband, Richard, entertain with ease.
Catriona’s shame and her mystery are set up immediately. A gentleman, Fergal, is one of the carolers and ‘Cat’ hasn’t met him before. He strikes up a conversation with her and although Cat wants to continue talking with Fergal, she’s afraid he knows something about her that she’s worked hard to keep hidden.
. . .Pg14[“I know you,” he says suddenly. “Don’t I?”
I laugh politely. “I don’t think so.”]
. . .Pg15[But I’m upset and he knows it. He tries to carry on. He tells me a bit about his work: He’s a journalist, he says. And he asks what I’m painting now and where my ideas come from. But the mood is spoiled, it can’t be restored or recovered. As soon as he decently can, he leaves me. All evening I feel trouble.]
Daisy, Cat’s only child and Richard’s youngest daughter, has been ill for weeks with a mysterious flu. They’ve muddled through the holidays. The first day after Christmas break, Daisy is so ill that she cannot return to school.
The older daughter, Sinead, is a teen and lives with Richard and Cat permanently. Sinead is Richard’s daughter by his first marriage with Sarah. She’s a terrific big sister but Daisy’s being sick all the time is getting really old, really fast.
Cat is tired of being the only caregiver for Daisy. Richard acts and has said as much that she’s babying Daisy and that at eight years of age, Daisy should be able to swallow her medicine and get well.
Richard begins to stay late at the office and when he does come home, it’s never in time for dinner.
. . .Pg30[I want Richard to hold me. Suddenly I hate the way we’ve let our love leak away through a hundred little cracks, like this morning, the irritation, the disagreements over Calpol; and my fantasy about Fergal O’Conner embarrasses and shames me. Stupid to think such things, when I love and need Richard so much.]. . .
Daisy doesn’t want anything to eat. Not one bite of anything. She retches over the slightest sip of broth or tiny taste of her favorite pudding. Daisy constantly whines that she’s ill, she’s sick, she doesn’t feel good, and her bones ache.
Cat takes Daisy to their general practitioner and he tells Cat that Daisy is in the lowest percentile for her weight for her age. Daisy will be categorized ‘failure to thrive’ if she doesn’t gain weight and Cat will be reported to the authorities.
Cat is frantic. She tells the doctor she’s tried everything to get Daisy to eat. The doctor wants to refer Cat to a nutritionist and she becomes outraged. Cat shouts at the doctor, she knows how to feed her own child. She’s not going to let someone else tell her how.
At about the same time that Daisy becomes ill, Cat begins receiving postcards from Berlin. She doesn’t want anyone to know of her past. No one. The postcards add to Cat’s growing paranoia that her every move is being watched.
Catriona’s character is flawed enough that, as a reader, I started scrutinizing her intentions. Margaret Leroy carefully laid out the interactions of mother and child, Cat and Richard, and Cat and her own mother. Is Cat guilty?
Cat takes Daisy to every doctor possible. She has to have referrals and this is difficult with socialized medicine in England. Cat resorts to taking Daisy to a recommended kinesiologist—and his recommendations work for a while. They are just too difficult to keep up.
Richard is tired of all the doctors. Cat is never available to anyone, no one except Daisy. Sinead is increasingly uncommunicative, hurt by Cat’s obsession with her step-sister’s health. The life Cat carefully built for herself is folding around her.
Cat doesn’t have any additional ideas for getting help for Daisy. The existing doctors have come to a consensus for a diagnosis. They believe Daisy is a victim of Munchausen’s by Proxy. Even Richard has doubts about Cat’s ability to parent.
Richard refuses to talk with Cat about Daisy and he wants to accept what the doctors say. Cat wants to get an attorney and fight the doctors in case they try to remove Daisy from the home but Richard is adamant about going along with the system.
The doctors continue to find nothing wrong with Daisy. She continues complaining of pain and nausea and refuses to eat. The specialists, including a psychiatrist, interpret Cat’s concern as being overprotective and believe Daisy’s illness is psychological.
Cat’s concern for her daughter is used against her and her life is filled with her own dangerous secrets. The postcards from Berlin have the power to destroy her and the daughter she loves. Cat will do anything to keep her past a secret.
Postcards From Berlin by Margaret Leroy is an excellent book club choice. The morality issues alone are debatable for hours and open to endless interpretation.
I recommend this novel without reservation.
Note: Margaret Leroy is an author I’ve selected to read her back-list. I’ve read and previously reviewed The Soldier’s Wife.