Novels that feature ‘more mature women’ (read those in their 60’s and 70’s and above) are rare (often because that demographic is ‘invisible’ in real life), so it’s lovely to read a story with the key protagonists at this stage in their lives, all experiencing different aspects of the relentless march of time. Trish Bolton has created a beautiful story in her debut novel Whenever You’re Ready (Allen and Unwin 2024), a tale that brims with heart, warmth, wit, tenderness, compassion and the knowing wisdom that comes with each passing year.

This is no saccharine sweet story of knitting grandmothers, however. As in other novels that have examined the lives of aging women (The Weekend by Charlotte Wood being one example), Bolton presents these women as three-dimensional, complex characters who might have a sting in their tail, a revenge fantasy, a long-held secret, a guilty pleasure, or an unconventional lifestyle. Bolton demonstrates that a person is usually just an older version of their younger selves, and that only real effort turns years into wisdom.

Claire, Lizzie and Alice have been lifelong best friends but, in the prologue (so not a spoiler), the only section from Claire’s point of view, she dies, and her two best friends are left to deal with the emotional fallout. Losing a dear friend at any age is difficult but years of knowing another person, their foibles and strengths, their dreams and disappointments, somehow makes their passing even harder.

Especially when that death reveals hidden secrets.

Told from the perspective of Alice, Lizzie and Lizzie’s adult daughter Margot, the narrative is at first slightly puzzling as we work out who is who and how everyone in the story is connected – there are a lot of characters. But once we understand that, we become invested in the lives of all three women and the people they love. Lizzie has already suffered one terrible tragedy in her life – perhaps the worst tragedy – and has never really moved on, despite filling her life with work and friends and family. Her daughter Margot is of the generation that Instagrams the perfect life she has curated with her two young children, but gradually begins to realise that everything is not as it seems. Alice is the maverick, the aging actress, the life model, the former famous and charismatic weather presenter who has had to adjust her work commitments as she ages and is offered less work, and a different kind of work (incontinence pad or retirement living residence advert, anyone?) She hasn’t always been honest, especially with herself, and finds it difficult to admit she’s in straightened circumstances.

But Alice is not the only one with secrets in her life, and as the narrative unfolds, it becomes obvious that Claire – and others – have kept secrets for many years; secrets that once revealed, will change how everyone feels about everyone else.

I love these lines: ‘Outside, the lights of the city glittered against a dark sky. The streets were hectic with people, everyone with a secret they’d kept, a lie they’d told, a heartache they’d caused, a promise they’d broken’, which I believe sum up the story beautifully.

The characters are delightfully complex, each with their own interesting take on the world. Men do not take a lead, although they do impact the story enormously. The book focusses on themes of friendship, aging, death and loss, guilt, ambition, betrayal, family violence, loyalty and compassion. There is more than one deep sadness in this story, but also plenty of light-hearted and joyful moments. Bolton’s humour is biting, unexpected, witty and clever.

The book felt a little rushed at the end to me, but perhaps that was because I was not yet ready to leave this story; I would have liked more time with this group of feisty women.

Filled with the minutiae of daily life (dog-walking, cups of tea, gardening) and punctuated by the larger events of relationship dynamics and practical survival (in a world where over 50’s women are a growing group of homeless because they have no safety net), the book balances the two extremes well, with a story that is easy to read, warm and companionable, but still manages to surprise with unexpected developments, and to explore current social issues. Bolton assures us that new beginnings are possible, and that age doesn’t have to limit our dreams, our pleasures, or our relationships.