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June 29, 2014

Mating for Life by Marissa Stapley

mating-for-lifeThe cover doesn’t lie—Marissa Stapley’s Mating for Life is the perfect novel for dockside, for reading on the beach. By which I mean it adheres to a certain formula. The ends all tie up into perfect solutions, tragedies averted. By which I also mean that it’s a pleasure to read, this novel about Helen Sear, a woman who is part Joni Mitchell, part Gloria Steinem, a former folk singer whose relationships with men throughout her life had been like the relationships fish have with bicycles, except with a lot more contact. Contact enough for her to have had three daughters with three different men, these daughters now grown and trying to reconcile their complicated family legacy. They’ve each responded differently to their mother’s example, creating their own selves from those parts of her they’d embraced or rejected. Or at least had attempted to reject—it will turn out that they’re each more like their mother than they’d previously understood, and unlike her too in ways all their own.

The novel begins at Helen’s summer cottage north of Toronto, where Liane (the youngest) is spending a week alone trying to finish her dissertation and to sort out her feelings toward her fiancé. And it was here where I began to notice something beyond a formula at work, and to be delighted by the unabashed bookishness of the narrative–a perfect novel for dockside that features people who are reading on docks. And reading specifically too–Liane notices a man at a neighbouring cottage reading at the end of his dock, something with an orange spin. She swims close enough to see that it’s Junkie by William Burroughs and she’s disappointed, plus a but disturbed. Later, rifling through the cottage library, she turns up a copy of The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff, and begins to read its wonderful first sentence…

Meanwhile, the oldest daughter, Fiona, is starting to lose it after more than a decade of trying to attain domestic perfection, trying to prove to the world that she’s nothing like her mother at all. When her husband reveals a secret from his past, the veneer of her life is cracked, and she’s not sure she can put the pieces back together. Living not far away is the middle sister, Ilsa, whose attempts to emulate her older sister’s are beginning to prove an abject failure. She’s got two small kids, a husband who ignores her, and her once-successful career as a painter is as stalled as her marriage. She starts to wonder if the spark she’s missing might be found in an affair with a former teacher, and she’s far too aware of what she’s doing when things finally cross the line.

Unbeknownst to her daughters, Helen has also embarked upon a complicated domestic arrangement. She has fallen in love with a good man who wants to marry her, which might sound uncomplicated to most women, but most women haven’t spent decades solidifying a public reputation for independent womanhood. She’s not sure whether her new feelings mark an evolution or compromise of her principles.

The chapters alternate between the points of view of Helen and her daughters, as well as those of other women–the estranged wife of the man Liane watches reading on his dock, their eldest daughter, the woman whose just the latest to shack up with the owner of the local marina, a man whose virility is legend (which she hopes might give her barren womb the boost it needs to finally make the baby she’s been longing for). Each chapter is preceded by a short paragraph on the mating habits of various wild animals, the habits reflected in the behaviour of the characters who will appear. These allusions serve to further the questions posed by the narrative about human relationships and whether their patterns are learned by nature or nurture. But they also bring the animals themselves into the story in a really interesting way that calls to mind Alissa York’s Fauna, both in the rural cottage landscape and in the city settings too.

As one would expect from a novel about a folk singer, Mating for Life is as full of musical references as it is literary ones. And speaking of the literary references, this is the only book I’ve ever read in which a major plot point hinges on a copy of the literary magazine The Malahat Review. It terms of its allusions and also its sense of place, the novel seems compellingly charged with the world in a way that is a pleasure to encounter.

The book is not without its problems—dialogue can be stilted and expository, I could have done without the thoughts in italics that underlined what Stapley’s impressive prose was already making quite clear. Sometimes the adherence to formula broke a spell, and maybe I am being nitpicky, but I spent a lot of time figuring out how the marina owner, who had grown children, could have only read one book in his life “for school” and had that book be Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief, which was published in 1999. Maybe he’d gone back and got his high school equivalency, I wondered? (A possibility!). But do you know what’s so wonderful? The reference to No Great Mischief wasn’t casually made, thrown down for solid literary cred, but for its brilliant last line which I won’t reveal here for spoiler reasons, but which ties in so perfectly to everything that Mating for Life is all about. Formulaic or not, Stapley’s narrative was constructed with such care.

There are also truly splendid bits of prose. A standout line for me was, “The lake was like a garage-sale mirror, smooth but mottled.” It’s an image that has lingered in my mind.

Mating for Life is the type of summer book that I’d pass on to my mother and my sister, the way we did with Judy Blume’s Summer Sisters years ago. It’s the kind of summer book I don’t encounter so much anymore, me with my head jammed far up my literary ass and therefore unable to soak of summer books for summer books’ sake the way I once could. Because summer book or not, I need my books to be good. I need lines of prose to stick in my head and characters with three dimensions, and for the most part, Stapley delivers, showing the messy, complicated, infinite, wonderful and never-boring threads of women’s lives.

One thought on “Mating for Life by Marissa Stapley”

  1. JC Sutcliffe says:

    Love this review!

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