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January 18, 2011

The Torontonians by Phyllis Brett Young (and Betty Draper)

Phyllis Brett Young’s 1960book The Torontonians is not necessarily to be read as a stunning example of the novel form. The satire and irony have been rendered most unsubtle in the years since its first publication, so that The Torontonians reads more like Cyra McFadden’s The Serial than a remarkable work of literature. Remarkable, however, The Torontonians most certainly is when it is read for its feminist content and Toronto setting. It’s a fun read too, and in places very funny.

Published three years before Betty Friedan’s book, The Torontonians is The Feminine Mystique put to fiction, except that Young makes clear what most modern readers of The Feminine Mystique miss: the new woman problem is not so much with the domestic sphere itself, but rather with what consumerism has done to it. Women have never had it so good, except that their labour has been alienated from production via labour saving devices, which don’t actually save labour but just create more jobs to do. And then they’re expected to be fulfilled by the material goods that decorate their houses, and adorn their yards, and when they fail to be, nobody can imagine what could possibly have gone wrong. In its critique of consumer society, Young’s novel anticipates Atwood’s The Edible Woman.

The Torontonians also employs that setting so familiar from Atwood: the city of Toronto. London’s creeping here too, as Karen Whitney’s home on the city’s outskirts overnight becomes the centre of suburban Rowanwood (which was modelled on Leaside). One of the most enduring images of the novel is the Whitney’s buckweed lawn, which they’re forced to spend a summer painstakingly installing because they can’t afford to lay down sod but also realize their neighbours are running out of patience with their uncultivated grass. Rowanwood is the kind of neighbourhood in which a house with just one bathroom is frowned upon for dragging down the market value of the others.

In her novel, Young paints a picture of Toronto in the midst of transition, juxtaposing the suburbs against downtown where Karen had grown up in the Annex neighbourhood. She writes of a Toronto elite (“the Masseys and the masses”) who were all familiar through family connections, and attended the same private schools. But the city, howeer constant in its hum, is always changing. With some of her scenes set against pre-CN Tower aerial views, she shows that no one ever steps into the same city twice.

Young’s novel is a historical document, and deliberately so, as as the book’s introduction makes clear. She thought it was important that writers document the way people lived then, and so we get a story in which doctor and patient both smoke during an examination at the Medical Arts Building at Bloor and St. George. We read about a city in which the subway was new, New Canadians were usually Hungarian, downtown high rise apartments were novel (and an exotic dream for the bored housewives of Rowanwood). There is the Peyton Place-ish suburban sex too, and a very funny line about who’d do what in Loblaws, but Young shows restraint here. By the end of the book it is quite clear that her people are not caricatures, and the narrative rises above plot cliches.

(The Torontonians is also very, very Betty Draper, and is the first Mad Men-ish book of a few I will be reading in the next while. The others are The Collected Works of John Cheever, and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything. Any other suggestions?)

6 thoughts on “The Torontonians by Phyllis Brett Young (and Betty Draper)”

  1. m says:

    Revolutionary Road! I haven’t read anything else by Yates, so I can’t speak to his other work, but Revolutionary Road is brilliant.

    1. Kerry says:

      Yes yes yes! Though I read it a) before I knew Mad Men and b) when I was pregnant, plus it was the movie tie-in so I think part of it was lost on me. Perhaps worth a reread. Thanks.

  2. m says:

    Ooh…reading Revolutionary Road while pregnant. I can’t imagine that was a good pairing.

    Have you read Gloria? It’s Mad Men-esque–similar times, wealth and privilege–but about a coming-of-age debutant. I’m sure I’m not selling it, but it’s one of my favourite books ever. It taught me how to be a woman.

  3. Alex B says:

    I will definitely be adding this to my reading list. Right now I am reading “A Strange Stirring – The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960’s” by Stephanie Coontz. Having this one under my belt before reading ‘The Torontonians’ should definitely help put things in context. Thanks for the review

  4. Gillian says:

    Jane Rule’s ‘Contract with the World’ is a stunner. One of my favourite books and it sounds like it deals with a few of the same topics: the changing city, women, women’s ‘issues’, men, the 60’s. I’ll have to read ‘the Torontonians’ to see if they really do compare. ‘The Edible Woman’ breaks my heart – I just love it when she crawls under the bed so much! and the skeleton buildings, and the friend with the dirty-faced children and the men. Interesting to find that this is a genre – of course it is – I just hadn’t noticed it before. Go get Jane Rule.

  5. Gillian says:

    I meant to say that ‘Contract with the World’ is Vancouver’s version of the same time. It’s great.

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