Forthcoming in 2018: Girls at the Piano

Girls at the Piano is a literary romp through the history of the piano, viewed from the perspective of some historical and fictional women who sat at the instrument over the course of its history. The book also traces my own ambivalent relationship to the instrument and investigates the mystery of my musical grandmother Alice, who gave up a blossoming professional life in music in Scotland to migrate to Australia in 1921. Allen & Unwin will publish the book in early 2018.

Airmail: Women of Letters (2015)

I am proud to have an essay in the international Airmail: Women of Letters anthology, the third collection from the successful Women of Letters events series. My letter, to ‘the person I misjudged’, is addressed to my grandmother Alice – whose story forms a large part of Girls at the Piano. I first read the essay at the Housing Works Bookstore in New York in 2013.

The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement (2008)

“This tender, funny and sometimes achingly painful book is not a book about death. It is a book about life. And, above all, a book about love.” – Lily Brett

“A quite remarkable memoir from an unusually talented Australian writer” – Stephanie Dowrick

“This book is both profound and universal. It is a truly remarkable piece of writing, which should be read by everyone who wants to understand the mysteries of love and death.” – Sydney Morning Herald

Single at 32, married at 33, and widowed at 34.

A young professional woman finally meets the man she wants to spend the rest of her life with, only to discover that he is terminally ill. After her beloved John’s death from cancer, Virginia was faced with addressing the chronic rising damp problem in the house they had shared and, over her first year as a young widow, her house had to dry from the inside out – and so did Virginia. The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement is a wry and touching love story that plays with the parallels between our homes and ourselves.

Read the first chapter

Reviews: Sydney Morning HeraldThe Agemarie claire (pick of the month), Sun-HeraldGood ReadingAustralian Bookseller & Publisher,Australian Women’s Weekly

Book clubs / reading groups: Here are some useful questions to assist bookclub discussions.

Now available as an e-book!

Here’s an academic article considering memoirs of bereavement, focusing on my Young Widows Book and When It Rains by Maggie McKellar, written by University of Sydney professor Bernadette Brennan.

33 Replies to “Books”

  1. Hi Virginia,
    I’m looking forward to reading your book. I really like the title. I’m also looking forward to reading The Mother’s Group. I was always too scared to join one. I’m interested to hear that you worked with Lily Brett – she’s one of my favourite authors. It’s been a pleasure exploring your website.

    1. Hi Melita,
      What a lovely message! Thank you so much for visiting my website and for letting me know your thoughts. I’d be delighted if you wrote again after reading one or both books and shared your response.

  2. Hi Virginia,
    I finished the Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement and found it an extremely satisfying and rewarding read. I am so glad you bought the Bill Henson photograph and I loved you description of it. I admire how have managed to express both the epic and the everyday experience of love, grief and loss. I very much liked that the book was unsentimental, tender and truthful. I’m sure John is very proud.

    I look forward to your next book. Thank you.

    I look forward to your next book
    Melita recently posted..The raw and the refined

    1. Hi Melita,
      Thank you so much for writing and letting me know you enjoyed reading it. I am always astounded when people take the trouble to contact me after reading the book. Unsentimental, tender and truthful – what a compliment. Thank you.

  3. Dear Virginia,
    I just finished your book in one sitting. In fact I climbed up onto the roof to finish it and have some privacy to get through what I knew was coming.My beautiful Tom died at the end of November last year of renal cancer that metastisised into his bones starting in his pelvis and then moving greedily elsewhere. He was only 52. I having been reading in crazy spurts whatever I can find in the library in the bereavement and cancer sections. I feel like a dog with a bone sometimes but much as it can be upsetting, it helps. The personal accounts seem to be the most helpful because of that strange sense of a shared journey and destination. Thankyou for writing your story. I hope that the writing helped you to make some sense of what happened. To read of your travails with all that comes with the cruelty of bone cancer and to know somebody else felt the same level of distress as I did trying to deal with and witness hideous pain has resonated with me. I also remember too well learning how to negotiate the world pushing someone in a wheelchair who felt every small bump. The shock, despair and then fury at how so little infrastructure allows you to do this easily. At my own ignorance and previous thoughts of how “funky” a public place looked. Now I see outrageously thoughtless landscaping that can make what is already difficult so much more difficult. I felt like I was living in a strange parallel universe where so much was monumental and yet most people around me just went on having normal lives oblivious. But as I thought that, I knew that statistically there was probably some other poor sucker in as much turmoil and pain as us in the same same supermarket or wherever I was. I live a very different reality now. I am early on in the “after” journey. I think a feeling of bewilderment as to what just happened in the last 17 months is the prevailing feeling at the moment. I will make it but as you well know, its just not easy. Tom was a truly wonderful, very unique individual and just way too young. And our love, as powerful as any tectonic event in nature, just had no chance against the relentless invasion of the cancer cells. We couldn’t save him. I watched and heard his last breath. I’m transported to that moment when I least expect it. I read your account of what happened at the end for you sitting on the roof in the late afternoon sun in Goulburn tears pouring down my face as I felt for you as you experienced something so profound. Something I don’t think I was prepared for. Too little life experience and too little useful information from those who worked at the hospice in Kogarah. I sometimes think that in the future I should try to help get some better information out there for people dealing with the end. At the end you are so busy just taking care of their needs you have no time to chase the detailed information you need. You assume the doctors and nurses will tell you what you need to know. It doesn’t often happen. You have to ask lots of questions at a time when you struggle to think straight. Must go, things to do. Again, many thanks. Perina

    1. Dear Perina,
      My heart goes out to you for your recent loss. I think you are quite extraordinary for being able to read my book so early on in your own grieving. (And to get on to a roof to do so!) I was not able to read anything longer than a pamphlet for a very long time. It’s uncanny to read of how similar some of your Tom’s and my John’s pain was, and of your struggle trying to help him and stay sane at the same time.
      I agree that as a carer at that end of life stage it’s almost impossible to think about the lack of resources or help, let alone try to find them. I wonder if going through community nursing and/or the palliative care network might be the best way to reach people like us at that profound time. Ultimately though it’s as you say – you’re never prepared for the end, even when you feel it approaching.
      I wish you strength and health as you grieve for Tom. Something that helped me at my darkest moments was to remember that John did not want me to succumb to despair. He wanted me to live for us both, to live a rich and full life.
      With warmest wishes,

  4. Hi there Virginia!

    Long time, no speak… I am sitting in our caravan down the South Coast with my dear old friend Cath P, sharing book recommendations between us. Both The Mother’s Group and The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement came up and have been highly recommended by Cath. I am heading to the Book Shop tomorrow to buy one or both of them. I am so sorry to hear of the road your life took at the young age of 34. Hope you are doing ok. Life is very unfair sometimes.

    Cath wants to let you know that she was recommended Fiona’s book, tracked down an advance copy and read it in less than 24 hours and LOVED it. Then she discovered that Fiona lived only a few streets away from her and that YOU were her agent! A small world heh? Cath even reviewed it for the Manly Daily a few weeks ago and gave it 5 stars….Well done lady…

    Maybe one of these days our paths will cross again. Take lots of care.

    1. Hi Jenny – so great to hear from you, and fantastic to discover the small world coincidences that connect us so many years later. I love it. Especially the part about Cath’s 5-star review – which I heard about from an excited Fiona, of course! Now I can share that I know the reviewer. Hilarious. I do hope you enjoy the book(s), Fiona’s novel is doing fantastically well and has a long shelf life ahead of it. Enjoy your holiday, a week down the South Coast would do me wonders right about now. Stay well and I hope to see you again one of these days. –Virginia

  5. Hi Virginia,

    I’ve just started your book and love it so far, but I have to take it a bit at a time. I am so blessed to have not lost my husband but I have two close friends who have. Both were in their 30s with children under 5. The insights you give about your feelings, the music you listened to, the smell of the dying flowers in vases make me realise how it mush have been for them. I am really looking forward to slowly unravelling the rest of the book.

    Rebecca xo

    1. Hi Rebecca, thank you for reading my book and for letting me know. It is very difficult to watch a friend go through a loss of that kind, to come face to face with life’s often senseless cruelty. I hope the book remains meaningful for you as you read the rest of it. ~Virginia

  6. Hi Virginia,

    The excitement of having you reply!! I just finished your book, and I loved it. Although I struggled to get through the few pages where you describe John’s final day, I’ve managed to make myself presentable to pick me kids up from school. My biggest gasp moment though? I have 3 children…Ruby, Alice and Finn. To find that you and I had chosen two of the same names really floored me for no apparent reason. You just can’t buy taste like that! Thanks for sharing such a fantastic journey.

    Rebecca xo

    1. Ah, Rebecca, thank YOU for reading and responding so honestly. That is quite a coincidence with the names Alice and Finn, I’m so glad you told me! With my warmest wishes, Virginia

  7. Hi Virginia,
    Just a short note to say I have just finished your wonderful and very helpful book for the second time. I read it the first time when it originally came out and filed it away for future reference as I knew I would be needing it.

    I have just finished reading it for the second time. It only took a couple of days.

    Why read it twice…it’s a great book for starters, the first time you could say I was getting myself prepared for the loss of my beloved Husband Max. I knew his passing was coming, we both did, but unfortunately only God really knows the date we leave this world.

    Unfortunately his date was September 3rd 2012, 14 long or short weeks ago.

    So I decided to read it again. once again I was totally absorbed. It was bringing back very vivid memories. It made me laugh, it made me cry, but it really helped me to remember the little things I had put away in my brain and never wanted to bring back. But I knew instinctively I really needed to re live them.

    So THANK YOU! Your loss really helped me to come to terms with mine.

    I have been keeping a daily diary and tried to find other books on grief and how people have dealt with it. But there are not many around….. maybe with some help in time I can transcribe my scattered thoughts into a helpful book. Who knows!

    I was looking on your website to see if you are ok?

    I see you are living in New York, how are you? You have no information about you and I was worried for you. Sorry to intrude into your life? You may not want to share…. but I guess we never get over the loss, we just find a way to cope.

    I hope you are happy and content, and I am sure your Husband and mine are having a nice glass of the best red in Heaven.

    Thanks Again.
    Val Tanner

    1. Dear Val,
      I am so sorry to hear about the recent loss of your husband Max. While I’m always moved to hear from people who have read my memoir, it is particularly affecting to hear from widows and widowers who have found my writing helpful. Thank you for letting me know. I know exactly what you mean about detailed and vivid memories — sometimes it feels too painful to remember them, because of the joy and happiness and health that you associate with them. But of course those are precisely the things that your Max and my John wanted us to think of when we remember them, not their final stages in their battles against disease. It took me many years to see that and to begin living fully again.
      Thank you for asking how I am. I’m well and I am glad to say I am happy, though John’s death changed my life completely and it took me a long time to figure out what to do with myself. In addition to earning a living like everyone else, I have continued to write, and am close to finishing a new manuscript. The one after that will deal with what happened to me after I moved to New York when I had been widowed for 18 months.
      I will be thinking of you over Christmas and new year. Let’s raise a glass of red to each other in memory of two wonderful men. I am deeply touched to think my book has helped you in some of your darkest moments. I wish you strength and patience with yourself as you grieve, and good health. My warmest wishes to you. –Virginia

  8. Hello Virginia,

    I found “The Young Widow’s Book” through a library search on grief, wanting to be reassured that other people’s grieving has been as exhausting and overwhelming as mine. I have certainly been reassured by your book that the intensity of my emotions (and the way my emotions have taken control of me ) is quite normal.

    There is just one small aspect of your book that I want to comment on. Your visitation by the beautiful butterfly was amazing and very similar to two experiences I have had since my 62 year-old husband died of Alzheimer’s-related complications last November. I knew that Ted was now in a happier place and freed of his anguish but I couldn’t believe that he could be happy if he wasn’t either with me or our teenage boys. So I asked God for a sign while I was out walking the dog. When I came back to our house, I was inside when I looked out the window and two pelicans flew past. I live in Hobart on the Derwent River and even after living here for 15 years, I had never seen one, let alone two pelicans fly past our house. They are just not very common in Tasmania. It seemed like Ted was saying, it’s OK, I am not alone – and I am flying free.

    About six weeks later the boys and I were having a break at a seaside village in Tassie where we always went as a family. I was riding my bicycle and suddenly, two pelicans flew by. Again, something I had never seen before there. Like you with the butterfly, my spirit leapt as I was able to greet Ted . It was such a joy to be reassured once again that he was flying free.

    I just have to accept now that there may not be another visit, but the two I have had have meant so much. I wonder if other people have commented on your butterfly experience.

    Thank you so much for your book, which has helped me not to feel as if I am losing my sanity. It is good to know you have rebuilt your life, with John still a part of it. I am sure you have helped so many people with their grieving.

    Best wishes


    1. Dear Rosina,
      Thank you so much for writing to me, and for reading my book. I’m very touched whenever a reader takes the trouble to let me know that my book helped them, it’s an extraordinary honour. I am sorry for the loss of your husband, but I was very moved to hear of your encounters with the pelicans. If my own feelings about those particular butterflies are any guide, then I suspect that pelicans will always be very important to you.
      I wish you health and much patience with yourself as you grieve. –Virginia

  9. Hi Virginia –
    I just finished your widow book & needed to thank you for sharing your story. My husband, of 3 years, died of a brain tumor in November 2012 at the age of 42 (I was 37). Like you, I never knew him without the tumor. He actually had his first referral to hospice 9 months after our wedding, then had a stroke as a side effect of treatments, and some how managed to live 2 1/2 more years. Since his death, I have read a lot of cancer widow memoirs, but it’s hard for me to relate to other widows that have non-cancer memories with their spouses. The passage from your book, while you were in the bed store, “I made my bed & now I have to lie in it.” That hit home. When his decline started, it went fast….really fast. He went from as high functioning as he could be given the circumstances to bedridden in 2 months and died within 4 months.

    I just needed to thank you!

    1. Hi Karyn,
      Thank you so much for reading my book and for letting me know. I’m always glad to hear from readers but I’m so sorry for the loss of your husband. He obviously had tremendous willpower to keep going as he did; it’s also a testament to the strength of your relationship I suspect.
      I wish you health and grace and patience as you grieve. It is such an honour to think that my book has been helpful to you.
      With my best wishes — Virginia

  10. I saw your book in a local op shop and thought it might be helpful for my daughter, Zoe, who at the age of 22 was widowed when her husband of 8 short weeks was killed in a motorbike accident. I have just finished reading it and have found it to be most helpful in coping with my own grief and my concerns for her well being. Thank you so much for your words.


    1. Hello Rod. What a harrowing experience for all of you. I am so moved that you would take the trouble to let me know that the book has been helpful to you. My heart goes out to Zoe. It’s a long road ahead for both of you, but she will never need you more than she does now. I wish you strength and grace and patience with your own grief, and with Zoe’s. –Virginia

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