Janice Wells writes a column (same title as the book) in my local paper, which I occasionally read and usually enjoy. When I saw that this book — a collection of her columns — was for sale, I picked it up on impulse to add to my mom’s Mother’s Day gift bag, thinking it was something she might enjoy.
My mom was more enthusiastic about it than I’d expected, and so of course I had to borrow the book. By coincidence, on the weekend I borrowed it I was away from home, staying in a house owned by none other than Janice Wells, a house my friends and I had rented for the weekend. Though I’ve never met the author, there is something strangely intimate about reading someone’s book while renting their house. It almost felt like I knew too much, and Janice Wells might have to shoot me.
But then, if she was going to start killing off people who knew too much about her, she probably wouldn’t have released this book. It’s a surprisingly intimate little book — breezy and light, with short newspaper-column length chapters and lots of laughs — but it also offers the intimacy of a memoir. It tells the story of a woman’s life after she leaves a twenty-year marriage and strikes out on her own, making do with the housekeeping skills she cultivated during her marriage but far fewer resources with which to exercise those skills. It’s a domestic guide, a book of humour, and a memoir all wrapped into one, well summed up in its subtitle: “Domestic Tales of Starting Over.”
Wells is fond of her “Not-Martha” identity: the house we stayed in has one of those “Martha Doesn’t Live Here” plaques by the door. I have a friend who also has this plaque, and she is one of the best housekeepers I know. I’m pretty sure, from the interior of her summer place, that Janice Wells is another. I don’t think you can get away with one of those “Martha Doesn’t Live Here” messages unless you are enough of a Domestic Goddess that people might begin to mistake you for her. If I put up a sign like that, people would just roll their eyes and say, “Well, duh … obviously Martha doesn’t live here! Martha would need to have this place fumigated before she’d even have lunch here!!”
The message of the plaque — and of Janice Wells’ book — is “Here is a woman with excellent housekeeping skills, who really cares about making a home beautiful and comfortable — but she’s not a freak and she doesn’t get bent out of shape about it. She knows how to laugh at herself.”
I highly recommend Definitely Not Martha Stewart as a light-but-surprisingly-deep summer read for Domestic Goddesses — and the rest of us!