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August book club - The Cactus. Leave your questions and reviews here

(61 Posts)
CariGransnet (GNHQ) Tue 31-Jul-18 10:53:24

As it says on the tin grin - but here's the thread to leave your thoughts on The find out more about the book we have a page HERE

Sarah Haywood Tue 18-Sep-18 10:31:36


Yet another GN excellent read. Susan’s voice is so distinctive and the reasons for her spikiness become apparent through the narrative, making her a sympathetic character despite this. The author has a gift for producing well rounded characters. Even the awful brother and aunt aren’t all bad!
Love the way that Sarah Haywood’s life experiences as lawyer, Brummie and mother are used to bring this well written story to,life. Would like to ask if there is any chance of a sequel? I was sorry to finish this book.

That’s so good to hear; thank you! When writing, I enjoy mixing up fiction and fact, using not only some of my more significant life experiences, such as my legal career and childhood in Birmingham, but also tiny details (for example, Susan’s mum’s car is my own VW Polo). On the subject of a sequel, I would never say never. By the time I finished writing The Cactus, I thought of Susan as a friend – albeit a very awkward and infuriating one. It was hard saying goodbye, and I do miss her. The book finishes as Susan is in the process of opening up her life, and I’d love to explore the impact of motherhood and strong interpersonal relationships in the longer term. At the moment, though, I’m trying to nudge Susan to one side.

Sarah Haywood Tue 18-Sep-18 10:32:23


Well, I've got to the end of this book and thoroughly enjoyed it, so thank you once again, GN, for another excellent read.
I loved the way the characters evolved as the story progressed, especially Susan, and I think that Sarah has demonstrated a good grasp of human nature, frailties and relationships in this book.
I look forward to future novels, and would like to ask Sarah if she has any in the pipeline already?

Many thanks for your kind words. I’m working on my second novel at the moment. It’s lovely to read what you say regarding human nature, frailties and relationships, because those are the things that really interest me. Even the most confident-seeming person has vulnerabilities, and it’s those vulnerabilities that reveal our humanity. The main character in my current novel is very different from Susan, but she, too, has lessons to learn about herself and her relationships.

Sarah Haywood Tue 18-Sep-18 10:32:55


I really loved this book and couldn’t put it down . The well drawn characters carry you through the ups and downs of Susan Green’s life. She has always lived her life with complete control over every aspect. Her job involves facts and figures and she’s not averse to telling others how to do their jobs. She tends to base her assumptions about people on their appearance and is quite dismissive of people who look like they aren’t as educated as her.
When she becomes pregnant she finds that she can’t control things any more. Revelations about her past cause her to re assess the foundations upon which she has lived her whole life.
Pregnancy makes her accept friendships that she would previously reject. . Her upstairs neighbour becomes a helpful friend and Rob the landscaper becomes more than just a friend!
I like the title as it not only covers the fact that Susan grows cactus but also her very prickly personality developed to keep everyone at arms length.
A really excellent debut novel and I’m really looking forward to more from Sarah Haywood.
I’d be interested to know where Sarah got the idea for making her central character so hard to like at first?

Thank you so much. I’m a big fan of character-driven novels, with strong, often first person, central voices. I’ve found that female protagonists are much more likely than male protagonists to be nice, kind and sympathetic from the outset, although I’m pleased to see that that’s changing. ‘You have to get to know her’ is a phrase we’ve probably all used about a friend who hasn’t quite mastered the usual social skills. I wanted to write about a woman to whom the reader would slowly warm, and for whom they would begin to root, over the course of the novel, as she reveals more about herself and her past. Having said that, I didn’t know quite how prickly Susan would be until I started writing her. She very quickly became her own person.

Sarah Haywood Tue 18-Sep-18 10:33:36


This was a page turner for me, so for once I've managed to get it read and reviewed early(ish) in the month. The characters were well drawn, and the story had enough twists and turns to hold my interest throughout. Susan was an entertaining individual, with vague hints in some respects of Eleanor Oliphant. And I like the way the cactus theme runs throughout the book. Susan’s prickly disposition, her references to her adolescent self as a plant to be nurtured, the slow bloom, the little one she’s cultivating, even the author’s acknowledgements at the end, from the seed which was planted and which germinated, grew through the rocky patches and flourished after a little pruning and careful tending!

Susan’s own blossoming into a much more likeable person was shown by small steps and subtle shifts. I wasn’t as convinced by her brother’s rather sudden character change at the time of her baby’s birth, from feckless and self-absorbed deadbeat to a caring and interested brother/uncle, but hey, it all added to a very satisfying happy ending. Oh, and the cover is beautiful.

I could see The Cactus as a mini-series or a one off drama, and would be interested to know whether there’s anything in the pipeline?

Thank you for a very entertaining and absorbing read.

I’m so pleased to hear that you enjoyed The Cactus – thank you! I’ve been told that there are conversations taking place with television people, but I’ve also been told that there’s often a lot of smoke without fire, so nothing at all may come of them. I’d love to see Susan Green on the screen. An American blogger asked me to cast a (so far, entirely imaginary) film version of The Cactus, and I thoroughly enjoyed thinking about who would play each of the characters. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I came up with a British and US version. For the British film I cast Maxine Peake as Susan, mainly because I love her and think she could play absolutely anyone.

Sarah Haywood Tue 18-Sep-18 10:34:18


Thanks again to Gransnet and to Sarah Haywood. Another happy reader here smile
First of all, as others have already said, while you can’t judge a book by its cover, this one certainly deserves a mention: a beautifully produced hardback, a joy to hold and read. I love the blooming cactus artwork and the attractive calligraphy. Well done, Two Roads.
As for the story, I didn’t immediately take to Susan: she comes over, at least initially, as judgemental, intolerant of others’ failings and apparently lacking in any warmth or humour, although I did like her independence and determination. As the story continues however, I was drawn in and, eventually, warmed to her and grew to care that all should turn out well for her.
Overall, I found The Cactus to be a funny and insightful story, well written, imagined and observed. It is also a deep, sometimes dark depiction of sibling rivalry, changes in society’s acceptance of teenage pregnancy/unmarried motherhood and the hopelessness of thinking you can control everything in your life.
The supporting cast is well written too: Kate the neighbour, who had a lot more to her than Susan suspected; Rob the gardener, whose persistence was admirable; the awful Aunt Sylvia; Richard, a male version of Susan.....but for whom I did feel a pang of sympathy, as he was so effortlessly replaced by Rob.
One niggle: others have already commented on the use of the word Mom. It jarred a bit with me too. And, while I was almost persuaded by Mapleleaf’s explanation (Birmingham pronunciation), the first time it was used was by Tom (p.7), a new admin assistant in Susan’s London office....?
Finally, quite a few similarly impressive debut novels have featured in the Gransnet Bookclub of late. Many of them, as with this, arose out of Creative Writing courses.
So...I’d like to ask Sarah what prompted her to decide to quit a legal career and write a novel?
And what impact(s) did her Masters have on her writing?
I'd also quite like to find out how Susan copes with motherhood so hoping there might be a sequel at some point?

Writing a novel was something I’d wanted to do for as long as I can remember, but it didn’t feel possible when I was working full time outside the home. When I had my two sons, I took a career break. I was living in Liverpool and working in Manchester at the time, which wasn’t conducive to looking after very young children. I decided that, before returning to my legal career, I would give writing one serious shot. I completed a one-year Open University creative writing course, then chose an MA which required me to submit a full-length novel. I can’t say that the MA had a significant impact on the style or substance of my writing; I was very fortunate that my tutors and fellow students liked the early chapters that I workshopped and gave positive feedback. The main benefits of the MA course for me were, first, having a deadline, which stopped me prevaricating; and secondly, being in a supportive and encouraging environment which gave me the confidence to persevere. I’m delighted by the number of people who’ve been asking about a sequel. I’m currently working on something unrelated to Susan, but I certainly haven’t ruled it out (see earlier answer)!

Sarah Haywood Tue 18-Sep-18 10:34:46


I have just finished The Cactus and enjoyed it because of the well written characters but felt that I knew what was coming next as Susan was thwarted at every turn.
I would like to know if Sarah keeps cacti or are they simply used as a writing device?

I do have cacti but regret to say that Susan puts me to shame on the plant-tending front. My excuse is that my nurturing skills are used up on kids and cats. I have a Christmas Cactus which has managed to survive over ten years and flowers annually – usually in early November, perversely – but the state of some of my other specimens is rather sorry. My publishers gave me a cactus keyring (a real cactus in a miniature plastic dome) at our first meeting, but, somehow, I’ve managed to kill it off. I need to take lessons from Susan and Rob.

Sarah Haywood Tue 18-Sep-18 10:35:38


I've just finished this book and have to say it was one of the best books I have read in ages. I was so happy with the final outcome.

One question to Sarah though :

Ed was a pretty awful character throughout the book and as a reader I was not convinced he didn't have something to do with the mothers will, however I wonder what made you decide to "turn him around" into being someone quite reasonable, considering how appallingly he had behaved throughout?

I would love to read a sequel perhaps with Susan showing her amateur legal skills fighting for those who have been wronged. I would also love to read more about her as a mother.

I understand what you mean about Edward’s appalling behaviour, but we only ever see him through Susan’s eyes. I’ve never thought of Susan as an archetypal unreliable narrator, but she has her own particular perspective on Edward, their shared past, and life in general. Susan sees her brother as nasty, scheming and self-indulgent. Someone else might see him as lost, wounded and pitiable; someone else again might see him as exciting, anarchic and fun. No two people ever remember the past in exactly the same way – I know my sister and I don’t when we discuss our childhood. I didn’t want the dispute over the will to be black and white. That storyline was inspired by my work for the Legal Services Ombudsman, investigating complaints about lawyers. In cases related to wills, it was often clear that the source of the complainant’s unhappiness was their relationship with an opposing family member or with the person who had written the will. Although each party believed utterly that the other was in the wrong, there was often merit on both sides. Edward hasn’t quite turned around at the end. He isn’t agreeing to sell the house because he thinks that’s the fair and equitable thing to do; it’s simply that his desire to hold on to the house to spite Susan is trumped by his desire to get his hands on his share of the proceeds of sale so he can do his own thing. Self interest still comes first with Edward. Whether or not he and Susan will reignite their squabbling, learn to tolerate each other, or go their own separate ways remains open to question …

Sarah Haywood Tue 18-Sep-18 10:36:21


Hi Happiyogi.
I'm not sure that it has been written as Mom for the American market, but rather that that is the way Mum is pronounced in the Birmingham area? I may be wrong, but I worked with a colleague who was from West Bromwich, and she always said Mom when talking about her Mum.

As some have mentioned, in Birmingham it’s usual to say ‘mom’ instead of ‘mum’. When I was a child, I used both interchangeably (being half Brummie). In my original manuscript, it was only the Brummie characters who said ‘mom’; everyone else said ‘mum’. Enthusiastic last-stage copyediting for consistency resulted in the universal use of ‘mom’, but I’m happy to report that subsequent editions are in line with my original manuscript.

GeminiJen Tue 18-Sep-18 14:35:06

Sarah Thanks so much for your feedback. As a former OU person myself, it was good to know that your Masters proved so beneficial smile Good luck with your next novel. I'll be looking out for it flowers

GeminiJen Tue 18-Sep-18 14:38:01

Thanks too for your explanation of Tom's use of 'Mom' (enthusiastic last-stage copyediting) grin