August 18, 2014
Ellen in Pieces by Caroline Adderson
Caroline Adderson’s Ellen in Pieces is the novel we’ve all been waiting for. Me, because I’ve been reading pieces of Ellen in Pieces in journals and magazines for the last few years, and hearing rumours they’d culminate in an actual book, and how often are one’s longings so perfectly satisfied? And you’ve been waiting for this book, because I promise that it’s one of the best you’ll read this year. Devastating, wonderful and brilliant. Because aren’t you always looking for a book to apply such adjectives to? Because I’ve been longing to read this book for years, and when I did, it was even better than I’d hoped.
It’s a novel in stories, or a collection of linked stories, or maybe a novel comprised of fragments, which is more like a life is than most novels I’ve ever read. The first three “chapters,” I’d read previously, and through which I’d become entranced with Adderson’s character, Ellen McGinty, divorced, determined, blundering, flawed, impulsive, hated, and loved. Because it’s rare to encounter such a character in fiction, a woman in the middle years of her life, a woman who is not a type, who has history, is unsure of what to do with her present, who has a body, experiences lust, gets tired, loves her children, cannot stand her children, has friends, fights with her friends, who is herself with such remarkable specificity—”Ellenish” is a term applied at one point in the book, and I knew exactly what they meant. It is rare that a character is so vividly realized—so familiar and yet utterly original at once.
Caroline Adderson pays attention to words, which are as specific as her characters. No one else would write a sentence like, “A melting weakness overtook her and she remembered all those years ago, not here but in Ellen’s North Vancouver kitchen, how he glissaded out of the way so Georgia could set down her platter of blintzes.” A platter of blintzes—has there ever been such a thing? The world reinvented through Adderson’s extraordinary, euphonic vocabulary.
In the first chapter, “I Feel Lousy”, Ellen discover that her younger daughter, not even the disappointing one, is pregnant, which evokes memories of her own troubled past, an accidental pregnancy with her ex-husband, the terrible, awful burden of motherhood, single motherhood in particular, and the lengths that a mother will go to—this mother in particular—for her daughter’s sake. “Poppycock” finds us a few years into the future, Ellen’s estranged father on her doorstep, obviously suffering from some kind of malady and she’s horrified to find him but also bowled over because he wants her, he needs her. She’d assumed her family had written her off altogether since she’d tried to sleep with her brother-in-law at her father’s 50th birthday years before. But the past, just like the present, turns out to be more complicated than that, and the reappearance of her father is a gift that comes with a shadow, a particularly long one.
And if you think that ending is devastating, read “Ellen-Celine, Celine-Ellen” next, about Ellen and her two friends whose relationship was forged at pre-natal class years ago, Ellen all alone because her asshole husband Larry had just abandoned her (the first time). The three stay close in the decades to follow, Ellen and Celine taking a trip to Europe together, which is ill-advised, so say their other friend, Georgia, and also Ellen’s hairdresser, Tony, because Ellen and Celine spend much of their friendship not being able to stand each other, a situated not mitigated by their strong personalities, and also that of the three friends who’d met in pre-natal class, it had been Celine’s baby that died.
Have I conveyed that these stories of death and crisis, all the drama of a life, are also funny? Adderson portrays human behaviour at the intersection of heroism and buffoonery, or else just irritability, to much effect. There’s a subtlety at work here. There are lines that are going to come along and break your heart.
The next few stories are more concerned with the present, pieces fitting more closely together. Ellen begins to find herself—her daughters are settling down, or else calming down; she sells her house; she takes up pottery again; after years of searching, she is learning to be present. She also starts sleeping with a young man who is her daughters’ age, which doesn’t hurt. She thinks she’s beginning to get over her ex-husband, Larry, whose desertion has wrung her heart for years and years.
One chapter is from the point of view of Matt, Ellen’s young lover, who is using Ellen to escape from his own troubled domestic situation. Another by Ellen’s older daughter, Mimi, who has overcome her problems with addiction but is still searching for something to hold onto, and still running from her mother too, whose presence is still vividly felt even from halfway across the country in Toronto, currently in the midst of a garbage strike. (Mimi traces back most of her problems to having once discovered her mother in bed with her grade-five teacher, whom she’d been in love with. Until that point.) Another word in this chapter, “orrery”, which recurs at the end of the story as Mimi rolls down a car window using a similar device. “She saw the moon, the faint stars vying for attention against the glare of human habitation. Pluto was up there somewhere, that small cold outcast planet far away. But there were people who still believed in it, people who wished it well.”
If the story doesn’t devastate you, I promise that the prose will.
At the end of this chapter, Mimi finally gets an inkling of why her mother is who she is, with the aid of a handy Bryan Adams lyric. Maternal ambivalence is a two-way street, and Adderson’s is a gut-wrenching depiction of its flip side. And then in the next chapter, “Mother-eye—the curse cast on every birthing woman, the hex of self-sacrificing empathy. I will see your pain, but you will never see mine.”
It’s at the end of this chapter when Ellen is diagnosed with breast cancer, and I’m going to tell you this, tell you this straight: Ellen dies.
I am telling you this because it’s revealed anyway in a tiny sentence on the back of the book (“…we watch Ellen negotiate the last year of her tumultuous life as the pieces of who she is finally come together.”), and in the epigraph as well, and I am telling you this because if you aren’t prepared, it might just be too terrible to take. When was the last time an author dared to kill off the central character in her novel and not even at the end of her novel…
…and of course, Virginia Woolf did, in To the Lighthouse, which I read last month, and which I see as having all kinds of parallels with Adderson’s book, although the two vary greatly in style (and Adderson’s prose is devourable, while Woolf’s must be savoured in measured portions). The notion of “time passes” and that we see a character through the eyes of those around her, the mixture of love and dislike and what lies between which makes up most relationships, and she isn’t even knowable to herself, because who has ever been so pinned down? That she a person whom people assemble around, in all her flaws and fallibility. If she is a solar system, here is the sun, and what happens after the light goes out?
The death scene is sublime, written from the perspective of Ellen’s young grandson, who has his own problems, and when I came to the paragraph break, I put down the book and sobbed and sobbed, and had to go find someone to comfort me—it’s rare that text on a page is ever this affecting. I was devastated, but also amazed at the beauty of the scene, of Adderson’s writing—it was perfect. Masterful.
In the final stories of the book, Ellen’s friends and family gather around her, offering richer perspectives on the scenes we’ve already read. I was especially besotted with “The Something Amendment,” from the perspective of Georgia, who is the third in Ellen’s friendship with Celine. We’ve previously known Georgia through her telephone conversations with Ellen, her jolly husband Gary chiming in from the background. As ever, however, the reality of life is more complicated than can be discerned from down a telephone wire, and Georgia’s own relationship with Ellen is different from even what Ellen suspects, and one of the great achievements of Adderson’s book, I think, is her rich portrayal of decades-long female friendships, the betrayals and compromises that are implicit in such relationships.
If I have to go out of my way to find a criticism of the book, it would be that the Ellen herself is so compelling that the chapters in which she’s at a distance are not as much—the half-grownness of Ellen’s lover is so bland compared to the presence of Ellen in her prime, although the characterization of him at home with his family is vivid, rich and surprising. Or maybe it’s just that I think that Ellen could have done better?
I don’t hate that she died. I wish she hadn’t, but I also didn’t feel like Adderson was using cancer or death as a plot device, to manipulate her characters or (worse!) to manipulate her reader. If its confrontation with cancer and mortality, Ellen in Pieces is a companion to Oh, My Darling by Shaena Lambert, which I read last year (and Lambert is thanked in Adderson’s acknowledgements; they share a publisher). It’s a brave take on things, really, but typical, because the exquisite nature of the entire book comes from Adderson defying her readers’ expectations, surprising you with every line, with every turn of the page.