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Can sobriety restore the children's love?

There's less drama but plenty of humanity in Roddy Doyle's sequel to 'The Woman Who Walked Into Doors.'

By Yvonne Zipp / January 2, 2007



It's a pity the title "Ordinary People" was already taken. Paula Spencer would have worn it with pride.

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The abused, alcoholic wife from Roddy Doyle's acclaimed 1996 novel "The Woman Who Walked Into Doors" gets a second book named after her, and this time, her name stands alone.

Twelve years after her murderous husband was shot by police, Paula Spencer is still cleaning houses by day and offices at night. But she's now four months and five days into a hard-won sobriety, and is determined to set her life – and her relationship with her children – to rights.

Her oldest, Nicola, has fought her way into middle-class respectability and now mothers her mother – checking up on Paula and giving her appliances.

"How to make a poor woman feel poorer? Buy her a big fridge. Fill that, loser," Paula thinks in her wonderful, wry way, staring at Nicola's present.

But "she's proud to have a daughter who can fling a little money around. The pride takes care of the humiliation, every time. Kills it stone dead."

John-Paul, a recovering heroin addict with two kids, has gotten back in touch after years of silence. His attitude toward Paula isn't exactly the prodigal son returning home – it's more the wary stance of a parole officer faced with a violent offender.

Then there's teenage Jack, Paula's beloved baby, who's the only one who doesn't remember the worst years.

Most heartbreakingly, Leanne, who as a little girl valiantly tried to protect her "mammy" from her dad, now has picked up both her mother's drinking and her dad's abusive ways.

The first novel took its title from Paula's favorite excuse, the one she used to cover up the black eyes and broken fingers her husband shelled out over the course of 17 years, during which she developed a painful type of invisibility: "I could see all these people but they couldn't see me. They could see the hand that held out the money... They could see the mouth that spoke the words. They could see the hair that was being cut. But they couldn't see me. The woman who wasn't there. The woman who had nothing wrong with her. The woman who was fine. The woman who walked into doors."

The unadorned Paula Spencer suits the quieter nature of the new novel. There's no great cathartic scene as in the first, when Paula catches her husband eyeing their daughter Nicola, picks up a frying pan, and literally kicks him out of her life.

Also, by exchanging first-person narrative for third-person, Doyle (who, in 1993, was awarded the Booker prize for the novel "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha") forgoes the literary flash ("Look! A man who can write women!") in favor of precisely observed moments. Like the first book, though, the sequel still unfolds primarily through dialogue and interior monologue.

Over the course of a year, Paula gets a promotion, makes soup, buys Christmas presents, cleans her daughter's room, hangs out with her sisters, discovers the Internet and a fondness for The White Stripes, and tries very, very hard not to drink.

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