I’ve enjoyed the majority of the Reese Witherspoon book club recommendations I’ve read, so I ended up picking up The Cactus with little plot knowledge. I also saw the comparisons to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I think those comparisons actually hurt this novel – for the first third, it felt like a weak copy of Eleanor, as if a publisher had decided to release this novel because it also had prickly and distant narrator. The thing is, though, that Susan is much colder and less charming than Eleanor. Even as Eleanor was interpreting things in the completely wrong way, there was humor and as a reader, it was easy to at least understand her misguided perspective. Susan simply seems rigid and controlled.
As the novel begins, Susan is dealing with two big life events. Her mother has recently died, and she is pregnant. Given her mother’s age, Susan mostly attempts to shrug off the death, and focus on doing what needs taken care of, but Susan and her brother Edward have never gotten along. The funeral and follow on reception is a disaster as her unemployed brother gets drunk and makes inappropriate comments to their family. When the terms of the will are released, Susan is thrown even more for a loop as she believes it proves that her mother was mentally unwell and that her brother took advantage.
Susan has had an orderly arrangement with a man of a similar disposition to her and the pregnancy takes her by surprise – neither of them wanted anything more. Even more surprising is her decision to keep the child, though Susan has very unrealistic expectations of motherhood and her ability to continue to control her life and external events.
It isn’t until Susan interacts regularly with her upstairs neighbor, a mother of two children under three, and her brother’s friend Rob that the novel picks up or gets more interesting. Fortunately, it doesn’t go the same route as Eleanor as far as explaining Susan’s personality, but Edward’s and Susan’s difficult childhood and their relationships with their parents does explain their rather disparate personalities and how they coped by going in opposite directions.
Once it gets more into relationships, I enjoyed the novel more and did understand Susan but it took a while to get interesting, and for someone are looking for a second Eleanor Oliphant, it will be a bit of disappointment. On its own, though, once the first third is past, it’s actually a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.