Female characters


Marianne is Joy’s best friend. She is absent for the course of the novel having taken up a year long teaching post in America. It is clear that she is an important support for Joy and has helped her through the immediate aftermath of Michael's death. She regularly writes to Joy, and continues to provide encouragement and advice.

She is portrayed as an almost spiritual presence in the novel: Joy repeatedly addresses her with a prayer like appeal:

What will I do while I’m lasting, Marianne? What will I do?

This makes it clear that Joy misses Marianne. She cannot ask these questions in person and is left isolated without her friend. It seems that she looks to Ellen to provide the support Marianne normally would. But Ellen is not equipped to fill this role.

Ellen Holmes

Ellen is Marianne’s mother. She is a caring, maternal woman with white hair and specs. After Michael’s death, she finds Joy sedated to hell in the kitchen after which her whole face melted. This suggests how clearly Ellen cares for Joy and shows Ellen’s capacity for deep compassion. But it also implies that Ellen is overwhelmed by Joy's condition.

Ellen does not really understand what Joy is going through or the problems she faces. She bakes and cooks, forcing Joy to eat her food even though she does not want it. Joy reflects that:

Ellen makes things because it is how she cares.

Yet, fulfilling a daughterly role becomes a strain for Joy. Joy hides her eating disorder and cannot refuse what Ellen offers. Ellen seems completely unaware that Joy has a problem with food. Ellen’s constant offering of food-as-solace becomes suffocating. It seems that Joy is supporting Ellen rather than the other way round. Joy says:

I want someone strong enough to catch me when I fall and that’s not Ellen.


Myra is Joy’s older sister by 23 years. She is an alcoholic and has mistreated Joy as a girl. Joy tells us:

I’ve been afraid of Myra ever since I remember.

Myra had been pregnant at the same time as Joy’s mother. We learn that:

Myra’s baby died. I didn’t. Maybe that was why she hit me so much.

It is clear that the violence that Joy suffered from her sister has had a lasting impact on Joy. She notes that:

Myra left marks. None of them show.

This suggests Joy is aware that Myra's abuse has had a lasting emotional effect on her. Myra's visit terrifies her. There is a hint that Myra would like to help and bond with Joy. But instead she gets drunk, emotional and abusive.

The next morning the rims of her eyes went shiny. as she repeats I’m your sister.. To Joy however, Myra is a stranger:

A woman with grey hair offers me a bottle

Joy does not have any concept of a close family connection with her. Through silence she rejects Myra and she notes that she Just couldn’t get my mouth round sister.