The Mistake I Made
Paula Daly
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The Mistake I Made
Paula Daly
Grove Press
352 pages
September 2016
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Set in the beautiful Lake District of Northwest England, Daly’s latest drama unfolds from the first-person perspective of Roz Toovey, a self-employed physiotherapist and a single mother. Roz has worked hard and tried to achieve a much sought-after work/life balance. After her husband, Winston, walks out on her and leaves her with a sizable credit card debt, Roz must come to terms: she’s now destitute, without a business, and with a small child to support. The love of her young George, and that she’s scraping together a living working fifty hours a week at a local health center, provide little solace for a woman who has basically lost everything and is now at the mercy of Wayne, the clinic’s overbearing and flirtatious manager.

With her self self-assurance gone and her ambition shattered, Roz finds herself without a home. The stress of meeting the rent and the household bills--as well as the loan repayments--all contribute to leading Roz down a path of desperation. Life with Winston has been exchanged for a rented flat and two generous neighbors. Roz knows she should have taken more action--perhaps even declared bankruptcy--but a combination of pride and fear have led her to be unaware of the potential consequences. Choosing denial over reality has also led her to where she is now as she goes back and forth to work each day. Her world is bleak and bitter, a sharp contrast to her home, which is in one of the prettiest places on earth: the villages of Bowness and Hawkshead and the largest natural lake in the country, Windermere.

Everything builds toward the point when life goes off on “a crazy tangent.” At a dinner party held by her sister Petra, Roz is introduced to Nadine and Scott Elias. As Petra fawns over this wealthy, successful couple, Roz feels herself a woman judged, understandably upset and uncomfortable when the talk turns to the demise of her marriage. The casual drunkenness reflects everyone’s agreement that the disintegration of a relationship comes about from “broken promises, broken hearts and broken crockery.”

The arrangement that Roz makes with Scott dominates Daly’s novel, albeit being just one more of a host of bad decisions that will send Roz’s life on a rollercoaster trajectory. Scott knows Roz is in financial trouble--eighteen thousand pounds in debt--and he banks on Roz being more than willing to listen to his business proposition. Ostensibly arriving at her clinic to have his elbow massaged, Scott tells Roz that he has something serious to discuss, a contract that Roz at first thinks is outrageous, considering that he’s married and seems to love his wife.

As unyielding as the tension in the backs of the patients that Roz so carefully sees to, Daly casts her heroine as the unwitting victim of an already chaotic life that counts down like a ticking time bomb. Far from the highly principled and uncomplicated life she had envisioned for herself, Roz rapidly becomes the dithering facilitator, lying again and again and then crashing headfirst into an environment where the allure of fast money is just too attractive. Jettisoning the feelings of shame about what she’s about to do, Roz rationalizes her decision, although in a way that she deems acceptable but is just as damaging to her and George.

Although I frequently sympathized with Roz’s predicament, I was less sympathetic to her obvious culpability. Events get nasty when Scott begins to abuse the good-faith contract. Roz develops a growing sense of unease that what started out as a “business arrangement” is perhaps taking on another significance. When fate plants an obstacle in the way in the shape of Henry Peachey, Nadine’s affable and handsome brother, the chaos accelerates, descending even further into a jumbled nightmare of murder and blackmail, fraud, and sleaze. Roz tries to do the right thing but never thinks of the consequences of her actions, even when she knows on some intuitive level that her senses are compromised. It is the cruelest of ironies, that in trying to free herself from a life enslaved by debt, Roz becomes a new kind of prisoner.

In her chiefly cautionary tale, Daly works to expose the terrible mistakes we could all make if we are by chance unfortunate enough to land ourselves in Roz’s position. Roz’s actions certainly aren’t as shocking Scott's or Wayne's, who wants to get in on the action. Although Daly wraps her story up a little too nicely in the end, she excels at showing how financial desperation can expose the darker, more frantic underbelly of human nature.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2016

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