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March 02 , 2011

What She Had To Do


A secret and desperate choice, made by young Imogene Sayle during the rigors of post-World War II England, triggers shockwaves through three generations of a family. 

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Almost fifty years later Imogene’s daughter Penelope, married and living in California, learns of her mother’s illness and imminent death.  Despite a toxic childhood, Penelope is driven by an abiding love for her beautiful, imperious and destructive mother and returns to England to care for her.  

The story, told from Penelope’s point of view, is set in San Francisco and an English cathedral city, and covers the last three months of Imogene’s life.  

While coping with the day-to-day challenges of her mother’s decline, Penelope must also confront self-doubts regarding her own marriage and career, her relationship with her college-aged daughter Caitlin, and the sudden and unsettling reappearance of an old love.

At the same time, through shifting childhood memories, newly-found war-time letters and chance disclosures by Imogene’s old friends and lovers, Penelope attempts to discover before it’s too late what went so wrong in her mother’s life, why she chose to remain deadlocked in an abusive marriage, and why, most importantly, she seemed to blame Penelope for all of it.

Before she can find answers, however, Penelope must ask the right questions.


In this quiet, intense novel, a woman returns to England to comfort the dying mother she rejected long ago. Penelope Sayle Foley fled her parents’ home on the elegant Regent Crescent in England after a mysterious family dispute. In 1997, she now has a sexy Irish-American husband, a college-age daughter and a San Francisco advertising job, but she must leave them all behind to deal with Imogene, her difficult, demanding mother. Imogene is on morphine to dull the pain of what she calls “tummy trouble” (really “the Big C”) and drifts between the past and present, haunted nightly by “her”—a ghostly figure only she can see and who, Imogene insists, is trying to take her to hell. The novel’s title refers, in part, to Penelope’s decision to move the ailing Imogene to a nursing home, but as the story progresses, readers discover what Imogene herself had to do years before.

Although Penelope eventually accepts the fact that she’ll never know the whole story, she learns bits and pieces from Lord Storey, an elderly man who loved and lost Imogene to Penelope’s father, Frank Sayle, during World War II; she finally comes to terms with Imogene after her death. The author’s clever prose—a cross between British and American style that perfectly reflects Penelope’s inner conflict—provides sharp dialogue and a group of charming, eccentric characters straight out of a BBC television series, including Bethany, who does tarot readings and loves her dog; the gardening McBrydes; Simon, a gay architect who always knows just how to handle things in an emergency; and Miss Bannerman, who once pined for Frank Sayle. All serve as perfect foils to the confused, miserable Penelope, who finds herself caught between two different countries, loving and hating a woman she never understood. An enthralling, well-written family novel.



Here’s a novel that reads like a movie. In scene after scene, Mary-Rose Hayes takes on the complex bonds between a mother and daughter, moving the story skillfully towards its surprising finale. It is an excellent and satisfying read.

—LYNN FREED, author of The Servants’ Quarters


A touching and suspenseful novel, a brilliant portrait of a difficult, dying woman, her complicated daughter, and the ambivalence of love.

—DIANE JOHNSON, author of the forthcoming Flyover Lives


Mary-Rose Hayes thoughtfully examines territory many a family will recognize, and also provides compelling mysteries. An intriguing read from an accomplished storyteller.

—SANDS HALL, author of Catching Heaven Sensitive and gracefully written.


Mary-Rose Hayes captures the ups and downs of maternal romance with accuracy and insight.

—MOLLY GILES, author of Iron Shoes


About the Author: British born Mary-Rose Hayes is the author of eight previous novels, including the TIME/LIFE bestseller "AMETHYST" and two political thrillers co-authored with Senator Barbara Boxer.  Her books have been translated into sixteen languages.  She has taught creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley; Arizona State University;  numerous writing seminars in the Western United States, and at an annual writers' retreat in Tuscany, Italy.  She has worked in jobs ranging from medical researcher to fashion model to international deliverer of sailboats, and has lived on four continents.  She currently lives with her husband in Northern California.



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