Pages Menu
Abbey's Bookshop
Plain engish Foundation
Categories Menu

Posted on 4 Jul 2019 in Fiction | 1 comment

JESSICA DETTMANN How to Be Second Best. Reviewed by Ashley Kalagian Blunt

Tags: / / /

Jessica Dettmann’s debut romantic comedy blends the family drama of Liane Moriarty with the humour of Sophie Kinsella.

Emma’s husband Troy loves her. He insists that he loves her, even when Emma discovers Troy’s affair with his Pilates instructor in this peculiar way:

In movies, a woman often finds out her husband has been unfaithful when he calls her by the wrong name in bed. I discovered it when my husband called our baby by the wrong name.

Fans of Jessica Dettmann’s parenting blog, Life With Gusto, will recognise her affectionate, dry humour in her debut novel. How to Be Second Best is a romantic comedy, but with much of the romance replaced by scenes of parenting. Light-hearted and playful on the surface, this is a skilful novel about loss, resilience and the parental struggle to do the best for one’s children.

Living in neighbouring Sydney suburbs, Emma and the Pilates nymph, Helen, both give birth to baby girls within weeks of each other. Caught out amid the exhaustion of sneaking out to look after a second newborn, Troy confesses to Emma, insists that he loves her, and then leaves her to marry Helen.

Troy has a good reason for this, he says. Emma is an experienced mum. She and Troy already have a three-year-old, Tim. But Helen is new to motherhood, and she’s all alone. ‘I’m going to live with Helen because I know you’ll be fine,’ Troy tells Emma. Then he and Helen buy a house up the street from Emma, and she finds herself looking after both babies, and their older brother, for much of the next three years.

The story begins here, as Emma is reaching a crisis point. She and Helen have conflicting parenting styles. Helen feeds her daughter an organic, kale-rich diet and enrols her in ballet, gymnastics, swimming and karate; Emma lets her children eat entire packets of biscuits and believes in unstructured playtime. Still, Emma’s sister and father know that by taking care of Helen’s daughter so often, ferrying her to her many classes and even babysitting while Helen and Troy jet off to Bali, Emma is trying to win Troy back.

Emma reveals her vulnerability when she reads her daughter The Tiger Who Came to Tea, a picture book about a tiger who turns up at a little girl’s house and eats the cupboards bare. The next day the girl’s mum buys a tin of tiger food, in case the tiger returns. But the story’s last page reveals that the tiger never does. Emma has removed this last page from her daughter’s book, as she explains:

She’s three, she doesn’t need to know how shit the world is. She doesn’t need to know what a let-down life can be, that people sometimes just leave and never come back.

Meanwhile, Emma is trying to get back into the dating scene while also working as a freelance editor. She has a wealth of insights about working with authors, drawn from Dettmann’s experience as a former editor for a major publishing house. When Emma catches herself swooning over Adam Cunningham, a handsome author whose book she edited and a fellow parent who is possibly soon-to-be single, she reminds herself:

Fancying an author you work with is usually more about loving their writing than them as a person. Authors are often their best selves on paper, and not so much in real life.

Adam’s son has enrolled in the same school that Emma’s son attends, providing convenient excuses for her to spend time with him. Her relationship with Adam begins to intensify even as the situation with his possibly estranged wife remains uncertain.

With the support of her father and sister, Emma tries to increase her workload to become financially independent from Troy, and free herself from the role of on-call babysitter. But the tightly paced plot draws her back into Helen and Troy’s life. In their ultra-organised house, she discovers:

Troy’s tool box is on a shelf above the washing machine. Beneath it is a little printed label that reads TOOLS.… I resist the temptation to peel the TOOLS sticker off the shelf and place it on their bed. 

Throughout, Dettmann deploys her characteristic humour. Even Emma’s shopping trip is a chance for side tangents that buoy the narrative’s heavier emotional turns, such as this riff:

Toys that were popular when I was little are back, revamped for a new generation of parents trying to buy back some of their own childhood for their offspring. But while the names are similar, it’s as if the toys have had a horrible distorting filter applied: the My Little Ponies aren’t ponies anymore. Now they’re teenage girls with pony heads and drag-queen makeup. They confuse me. Do they live in a paddock at the end of a rainbow or are they equine cyberbullies in tartan miniskirts?

How to Be Second Best combines Liane Moriarty’s family-centric suburban drama with the comedy of Sophie Kinsella, building from Emma’s burgeoning crisis to a warm, rich ending.

Jessica Dettmann How to Be Second Best HarperCollins 2019 PB 368pp $32.99

Ashley Kalagian Blunt is the author of My Name is Revenge, a finalist in the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award. Her writing appears in Griffith Review, Sydney Review of Books, the Australian, the Big Issue, and Kill Your Darlings. Find her at

You can buy How to be Second Best from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

1 Comment