Book review

This book will make many women feel the chaotic, confusing and very happy life in it is their own

Lalita Iyer’s memoir shows that breaking off – and away – makes you the happiest.

When a book reads like a sparkling conversation, you know you are in good company. Writer Lalita Iyer’s The Whole Shebang: Sticky Bits of Being a Woman, is the book version of a long chat with a wise(r) and awfully witty friend who’s been there, done that, and lived to tell the tale. How do you make sense of the chaos while living ––or at least trying to live – a largely unfettered life? Let Iyer show you how.

Being nothing but effortlessly blunt, she covers nearly everything that matters: growing pains, body image and the “art of maintenance”, dating, work-life, marriage, parenting, keeping friends, dealing with parents (and in laws!), divorce, going solo, managing your money. The Whole Shebang is pitched as “the little black dress of books for women of books”, and I wouldn’t disagree in principle, except that an LBD is actually pretty boring.

Iyer’s memoir-style handbook is closer to a very forgiving, very flattering, cleverly-tailored empire waist dress bursting with colour that makes you sing every time you wear it. It’s also a lot like the never-fail cocktail that’s got a balance of all the gorgeous fruity flavours, while being deceptively potent. Whether you’re fumbling through your days or not, it’s likely you will find bits of yourself in some of these pages.

Mentioning the unmentionables

It begins with the basics of “womanhood”, as it were. So we’re introduced to a school-going Iyer who met her period at 15, far later than the others in her all-girls convent school – a source of unimaginable embarrassment – which made her desperate for the “assurance that I was ready for bearing children which I never wanted to have. ‘Give me this day my fertile ovaries’ was my prayer.”

Anyone who has ever despaired over finding the right bra or how to do thongs will find great relief and a heightened sense of sisterhood with Iyer concluding that “thongs must be weapons of torture in some parts of the world. If ordinary panties give you a wedge, thongs take it to another level.” Bras get a whole chapter to themselves – as do “things they don’t tell you about sex” and figuring your finances – with the underwired kind highlighted as the chief villain in the twisted game of bra searching and bra wearing, which apparently does not get any easier as you age.

I don’t know many women who can go on about panties and bras with as much elan and wit line after line. Iyer’s got this carefree, deliciously biting way of writing about uncomfortable and unspoken things that is disarming while being utterly inclusive, no matter what your age, body type or gender. After all, as Iyer admits, she is still figuring out her own life as she goes along, so she’s no one to teach anyone “how to be a woman”, but she’s got a thing or two to say about finding an honest version of yourself while navigating high waters and weathering the storms.

It helps that she sees things for what they are, and how they make her feel, without conforming to what one is conditioned to think or believe or behave as women. Having struck out on her own decades ago, gone job-hopping every few years, dating both kinds of men – shampoos and conditioners (read the book to find out what that means!) – finding “the one” later than most others around her and then losing him to find herself while making solo parenting work, gives her story many layers with rough edges, never really treading the conventional line.

The rule: there are no rules

Ever since the personal narrative acquired a great shine, no matter who the writer, just anyone with a story to tell, dozens of memoir-cum-self-helpish books have made it to press (including what they call mommy lit). The Whole Shebang stands out in the crowd, because here is a writer who has a novel perspective, and she tells it with some sparkly writing, rarely missing a beat.

This, for instance, is how Iyer warns the young ones: “Losing your virginity is the most un-memorable detail of your sex life, one that you want erased from your memory as soon as you start getting some real action. No one wants to talk about the first time. It is really bad copy.”

Moving on from the bodily predicaments, I loved reading about Iyer’s food memories and the “art of feeding”, about talking to her eight-year-old son – as well as her parents – about death, about not feeling alone while moving on from her marriage and her easy love for spaces within the many homes she has lived in, about letting her son be and not “curating” his entire childhood.

Not to be missed is Iyer’s very valuable guide to managing the in-laws by, well, not managing them at all. She highlights the perils of doing “the in-law dance” early in a marriage and adding new moves (top tip: stop adding any moves), which is clearly a slippery slope. Setting boundaries and managing expectations, she says very wisely, is key, having not done this herself as she candidly confesses to the looniness of her own equation with her ex-in-laws.

There’s an arc to Iyer’s story which could sound a lot like the story of the woman next door – or even your own – and that’s exactly why it’s thoroughly engrossing. This book is really about an ordinary woman fumbling through an ordinary life – but with extraordinary spunk. Now if all of us had half of it, life could be a lot more fun.

The Whole Shebang: Sticky Bits of Being a Woman, Lalita Iyer, Bloomsbury.

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