September 6, 2016
The thing about years, of course, is the way they’re layer upon layer. Today I dropped Harriet off at Grade Two, which is not such a departure from Grade One—same great teacher, same beautiful classroom. And then Iris and I headed down the street, back to playschool, and it occurred to me that it was four years ago today that I first entered the playschool as a member of its community. As I did today, I showed up for my requisite two hours of cleaning to help get our (cooperative) playschool all set for the new school year. It was also the day that Zadie Smith’s NW came out, which I’d had on special order from Book City, but that is neither here nor there. I’d been about five minutes pregnant with Iris at the time, but I didn’t know it for sure—it would be another week or so before my pregnancy would be confirmed.
It was a strange and vivid year, the year that Harriet was three and I was pregnant with Iris. I’ve written before about all the women I met, those hours we spent in the playground not bothering to take our children home for lunch because the conversation was just too fascinating. I remember taking my shoes off on days when it should have been too cold to be doing such things, but the sunshine had rendered the sand hot and glorious, and I liked to bury my feet in it. I remember that warmth, and those hours, and how conversations seemed to unspool, landing in messy piles all around us.
And then tonight I saw that Sarah was reading “Faith in a Tree,” by Grace Paley, and it occurred to me to get my own Collected Paley off the shelf and read Faith again. And reading it, I realized that probably I’ve been reading the story all wrong all these years. That so besotted was I by the idea of co-workers in the mother trade and those mothers in the park, and all their talk, that I hadn’t really paid much attention to the end of the story: “…Then I met women and men in different lines of work, whose minds were made up and directed out of that sexy playground by my children’s heartfelt brains, I thought more and more and every day about the world.”
I really thought that they’d been it, those mothers in the park. I really had thought she meant that this, the mothers stopping to talk, was the most important conversation. But it wasn’t, her revelation. Faith needs more than that, chatting women lounging in trees. The world needs more than that, at least if we ever expect to do anything about it. Whatever the women in the playground are doing, they’re not thinking more and more and every day about the world.
It doesn’t shock me as much as it might have, to discover that a beloved passage of a story doesn’t mean what I thought it did at all. It is possible that kernel of the truth of the matter had lodged its way into my mind. When I wrote my own post about my co-workers in the mother trade, I remarked on the fleetingness of it all, that those conversations had happened in a moment. A time when I searching for my own moorings as a parent, as a mother, and when the possibilities were still terrifyingly wide-open. I don’t really hang out in playgrounds anymore, not the way I once did, whiling away hours as the sun crossed the sky. There’s always someplace else I’ve got to be, one more thing I’ve got to get to. I suppose you could say I’m thinking more about the world, though it’s not quite so noble as that.
April 21, 2016
This morning I dropped Iris off at playschool, and noticed pussy willows in a jar on the counter, which took me back to a scary time we went through through just over three years ago now. It was a time in which I learned that it was possible to navigate life even in the presence of one’s deepest fears, and also that doing so sometimes required errands such as an excursion with shopping list consisting only of a bouquet of pussy willows and a tub of chocolate ice cream. I remember that with the pussy willows, I finally began to feel better, and I think I was thinking of A Swiftly Tilting Planet at the time, but I didn’t pick it off the shelf to get the reference.
But yesterday morning I was walking to school with my seven-year-old neighbour who’s currently in the middle of A Wrinkle in Time and has the other books in the series before her, and I told her how much A Swiftly Tilting Planet still means to me as an adult. It was the book I picked up in September 2001, after two planes flew into buildings and we wondered if the world as we knew it was entirely gone. I remember the comfort it brought me, the comfort it always has.
Mrs. Murry said, “I remember my mother telling me about one spring, many years ago now, when relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were so tense that all the experts predicted nuclear war before the summer was over. They weren’t alarmists or pessimists it was a considered, sober judgement. And Mother said that she walked along the lane wondering if the pussy willows would ever bud again. After that, she waited each spring for the pussy willows, remembering and never took their budding for granted again.
I took it down off the shelf this morning to find the pussy willows paragraph, and realize that I absolutely have to reread this book again. And I considered how fundamental it might have been in cementing my understanding of the cosmos, the world.
Darkness was, and darkness was good. As was light. Light and darkness dancing together, born together, born of each other, neither preceding, neither following, both fully being in joyful rhythm.
February 17, 2016
I’ve gone back off the grid in terms of reading, into backlists and rereads. The occasion of Valentines Day inspired me to pick up Shields’ The Republic of Love, which I read last in 2007, according to the note on the inside cover. (Apparently, I was much more organized in 2007.) I wrote a post about it too, and seemed to be as bowled over by the book’s goodness as I was this time (and also was struck between parallels between it and Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, as I’d later see connections between Small Ceremonies and We Need to Talk About Kevin). I don’t remember how much I loved this book back in 2007, but what I do recall and experienced as a faint echo as I read The Republic of Love this time was how much it made me long to go out and write a book just like it. A sad kind of longing it was because my attempts to be Carol Shields at that point had come up very short and resulted in considerable rejections. (I once wrote a story that was a short story glosa with excerpts from a story in Shields’ Various Miracles, and one rejection I received explained that the inclusion of Carol Shields’ prose on the page with my own only made clear how much my prose was not by Carol Shields. Sigh.) This, this, this, I remember thinking, as I read The Republic of Love in 2007. This is what I want to do. And it was something to be recalling that now from the other side as I now read with a novel of my own.
I feel like I’ve grown up with Carol Shields. I received The Stone Diaries as a gift in high school from my mom, a lovely little compact hardcover, before all the awards, I think, because it has no stickers, and her biography was still celebrating The Republic of Love having been shortlisted for The Guardian Short Fiction Prize in 1992. And I loved it—it was easy to love. This was makes Shields work so easy to dismiss—as “light,” not serious. It was her world-building that did it for me, the inclusion of actual photos and a family tree, the poetry written by fictional characters. How the photos were (many of them) of Shields’ own family, and this amazing blurring between fact and fiction was fascinating to me. The novel would stand on its own without these additions, but they pushed its edges, its limits, in ways that were wonderful to somebody who is only just discovering what fiction can do.
Unless remains my favourite of all her books—I went into great detail to explain why in this post from 2011. It’s a book I’ve returned to again and again, and it’s been rich with surprises every time. Eventually, I’d read all her books, her short story collections. I bought Various Miracles in a used bookshop in Kobe in 2003, and remember reading with rapture. Larry’s Party, Happenstance. I reread Small Ceremonies a few years ago, and really loved it—even with her first novel, it was clear that this was a writer with tremendous vision. I loved her collection of letters with Blanche Howard—I’ve read that book twice and intend to return to it throughout my life. There’s so much wisdom from two remarkable women, about living and writing, marriage and motherhood, and it was they who inspired me to pick up Penelope Fitzgerald’s Home, and I’m so pleased that I did. I think that’s also the book in which Shields notes that she’s no longer jealous of others’ literary success (though perhaps that was in Carol Shields: The Arts of a Writing Life), which seemed like an impossible goal for me once upon a time, but I’ve found my way toward it. I was stirred too by the notes about her “talent for friendship”; Shields has been such an inspiration for me as a writer, a mother, a feminist, a friend.
I had no idea what to expect when I picked up The Republic of Love last weekend; I didn’t remember much about it. I wasn’t even sure I really wanted to read it because there are so many books waiting for me to read them for the first time, let alone reading this one for the third or fourth. But here were my impressions as I read it. First, I was hooked immediately. My husband was reading a book he was loving, and said to me a while into it, “I’m hooked now.” “I was hooked on this one in the first paragraph,” I replied. Or the first sentence? “As a baby, Tom Avery had twenty seven mothers.” I’d forgotten about that and though it was Larry from Larry’s Party with the 27 mothers, but but I remember now that he had just one mother and she went and committed botulism. Carol Shields is certainly one for memorable prologues. Also remarkable: Tom is the name of Reta’s husband in Unless. I guess Shields had run out of good men’s names, the stolid types, Toms, and Joes. I think a lot about authors who reuse names—Barbara Pym does this. And then I went and read somewhere that there was no meaning behind it: “With me it’s sometimes just laziness,” she wrote to Philip Larkin. “If I need a casual clergyman or anthropologist I just take one from an earlier book.”
Another thing that was important was that I’d visited Winnipeg since my last reread of The Republic of Love, which made the book’s sense of place all the more vivid to me. We’d even made a pilgrimage to the Project Bookmark marker on the corner of River Avenue and Osborne Street, speaking of blurring lines between truth and fiction. I’d essentially stood right there inside the passage of the book, and now there were the words on the page after I’d seen them right there in their world, and the effect was amazing.
Shields loved naming characters (gratuitous Toms notwithstanding), creating the webs, the family trees we see in The Stone Diaries. It seems unfathomable that the world of The Republic of Love is created, made-up, rich as it is with friendships and histories, and couples who knew each other since meeting at someone else’s wedding through somebody’s aunt a thousand years ago. We get entire paragraphs of people who turn up at a party whom we never see again in the book, but they add texture to the world of Shields’ love story here, that it’s never just about two people anyway. Because the lovers have parents, and ex-spouses, and ex-boyfriends who have moved back in with their ex-wife whose husband used to be married to the first wife of one’s fiance. A merry-go-round, Shields refers to it.
And oh yes, it’s about love: “It’s possible to speak ironically about romance, but no adult with any sense talks about love’s richness and transcendence, that it actually happens, that it’s happening right now, in the last years of our long, hard, lean, bitter and promiscuous century. Even here it’s happening, in this flat, midcontinental city with its half million people and its traffic and weather and asphalt parking lots and languishing flower borders and yellow-leafed trees—right here, the miracle of it.” (Which was precisely what I was getting at here.)
I am older than Fay McLeod, heroine of this story—this is weird to me. Though when you are 36 you start being unfathomably older than so many people and it’s totally bizarre. I have been married a decade and have two kids, but still think it’s strange that Fay McLeod is older than me, but that’s mostly because she’s never been older than me before in the entire time I’ve been reading her story, and it’s hard to get my head around that shift. Will I ever read this book and think that Fay McLeod seems young? When I am 53 and she is 35, I wonder? Though I still think that girls in the high school yearbook who were 18 when I was 14 seem more grown up than I’ll ever be, so maybe there is no cure for this affliction.
What else…. I love the late night radio in this story, perhaps (sadly) the one bit of the novel that is dated because all the local stations would syndicate something cheap for the hours between 12 and 4 am these days. I love those voices late in the night, the call-ins, and everybody with an opinion, something to say. I love the way that time sweeps here, through nearly a year, I think. How so much happens off-page, in the margins. The voices—how Shields lets them have their space without explaining that they’re there for. I love the way an aerogram letter is essential to the plot. The different points of view, misunderstandings, what is understood but doesn’t have to be said. How there is no plot, except that love is the plot. That one can make a plot with good, decent people who aren’t terrible to each other. This, this, this, was what I meant when I said that this was the kind of book I wanted to write.
There is a lovely line by Elizabeth Hay in her essay from the PEN anthology, The Writing Life, that I underlined when I read it first in 2006: “What I’m doing is catching a ride on the coattails on literature.” YES. It occurred to me too how foundational all of Shields’ work has been for me, finding its way into my literary DNA and while I’m still no Carol Shields, her stories and ideas and preoccupations are echoing away in every paragraph I write. If not for her and all her work, I might be whiling away my time in a literary no-womansland.
PS I am excited about Startle and Illuminate, a new book of Shields’ advice on writing, which is forthcoming this April.
October 7, 2015
I’ve been reading the Anne books as long as I’ve known how to read, though my preferences among them are a bit curious as Anne aficionados go. Anne’s House of Dreams was always my favourite, followed by Anne of Ingleside, because I found her children incredibly amusing. Rainbow Valley I could take or leave, but of course I loved Rilla of Ingleside, which seemed a proper grown-up book. Anne of Ingleside didn’t particularly, however, but it did permit glimpses inside Anne’s marriage, which I was fascinated by. (“They sleep in different bedrooms,” I said to my mother one summer day at the locks at the Rosedale Canal. We were with family friends. “So how did they manage to make babies?” I was told we’d talk about it later.) Anne of Ingleside is the one book of all my Anne book whose binding has completely come apart, which isn’t that surprising considering it was a crappy Seal paperback (and oh, good gracious, the typos! The typos!), although the others are holding up okay. It is possible that I have never reread Anne of Avonlea or Anne of the Island. Grown-up Anne was always more interesting to me than her youthful counterpart, although I’ve reread Anne of Green Gables twice in the last ten years and it’s only deepened my appreciation for its goodness and depth.
And so last week I turned again to House of Dreams, because we’re reading it for our book club. And I was a bit surprised to find that reading it was nothing but a pleasure, and it was rich with humour and surprises. And both, in the case of the regular references to suicide by Miss Cornelia Bryant: “Doctor Dave hadn’t much tact, to be sure—he was always talking of ropes in houses where someone had hanged himself.” There’s a lot of dark humour in the book, and darkness full stop in regards to poverty and status of women in the village families. Anne and Gilbert’s home stands in contrast to to the world around them, just like Captain Jim’s light house.
And yes, Captain Jim, the one bit I was just not as taken by. He was a bit like an idiot savant and I kept wondering about his sexlessness. I wondered a lot about sex in general, actually, and have a better understanding of why fan fiction was invented because I would actually like to read Anne and Gilbert porn—wouldn’t you? Anyway, I was relieved when LM dialled it back whenever I fear that he was about to launch into a sea yarn. There is no book I’d ever want to read less than Captain Jim’s life book, and while I didn’t feel relief, exactly, when he crosses the bar, I wasn’t worry to see the last of him.
The book I do want to read is this one though, about Anne and Gilbert’s first year of marriage. About Anne’s longing for motherhood, which is a subtle but persistent force throughout the book (and even violently so on the part of her friend, Leslie Moore). It goes unspoken, but it’s remarkable that in having a child, Anne would meet a blood relative for the very first time, which even in a world lousy with kindred spirits has to mean something. At the beginning of the book she witnesses Diana holding her own daughter:
“cuddling Small Anne Cordelia with the inimitable gesture of motherhood which always sent through Anne’s heart, filled with sweet unuttered dreams and hopes, a thrill that was half pure pleasure and half a strange ethereal pain.”
The beginning of the book is wonderful, a homecoming to Avonlea, Anne and Gilbert’s wedding the first Green Gables has ever seen. The prose is still so familiar to me from when I read it years and years ago, and I can anticipate each next line as I encounter it: the bit about the bird that sang during the ceremony. Marilla is stiff and deadpan, and Mrs. Rachel Lynde is still every bit herself, and we’re acquainted with characters from previous books (although not Windy Poplars, which was published after House of Dreams, although it takes place before, making it seem as though her friends from Summerside did not making the guest list).
They move to Four Winds Harbour, near the village of Glen St. Mary. There they meet the neuter seafaring Captain Jim, and Miss Cornelia Bryant in her ostentatious wraps and declarations of, “Isn’t it just like a man?” And Leslie Moore, whose name I always found so euphonic, and quite fitting that her husband was called Dick. Indeed. Tragic Leslie, who hates Anne for her fortune as much as she admires her as a friend, and Montgomery’s acknowledgement of that complexity in female relationships is really quite profound. I also rejoiced at the birth of Bertie Shakespeare Drew, who would come to be an important character in the following book.
I always found the romance between Anne and Gilbert most endearing, and I imagine that my greatest attraction reading the book when I was young was imagining that somebody might love me as much as Gilbert loves Anne. This is also why, while I am lucky that somebody loves me much indeed today. I often admonish him for not voicing his interior monologue using phrases like, “I can hardly believe that you are mine.” (My husband believes I am his too much entirely. Poor man.) It is possible that Gilbert Blythe gave me an entirely unrealistic standard of courtly love.
I don’t recall being disappointed by the Anne in Anne’s House of Dreams, though I can certainly see why one would be and I really liked Sarah Emsley’s post about Anne’s dismissal of her writing talents in the novel. Kate Sutherland (who, lucky us, is in our book club!) address this too in a post a few years ago, suggesting that Anne had not let herself down so much as readers had misidentified her as a writer. She had had other goals for herself, although yes, it would have been nice if literature proper in the novel wasn’t so gendered. And while Anne does go the route of plucky childhood heroines and settles down into conventionality ala Laura Ingalls, Dorothy Ellen Palmer made a great point on Facebook about the importance of seeing Anne as an adopted child whose spiritedness may have been a way to deal with trauma, loss and insecurity, and that the trajectory of this character to a happy and stable adult, wife and mother, is incredibly remarkable. (See also: Alison Kinney’s essay, “The Uses of Orphans.”)
What has always been most striking to me about the book is Mongomery’s depiction of the stillbirth of Anne’s first baby, this indefatigable character overcome by heartbreak, and her pain is so real. The experience was close to its author’s heart, giving an extra layer of poignance to the narrative, as well as authenticity. Striking too is Marilla’s fear at the loss of her own daughter, and her relief when Anne’s life is saved. Her inability to articulate her emotions too: “‘Time will help you,” said Marilla, who was racked with sympathy but could never learn to express it in other than age-worn formulas.” And Leslie Moore who dares to say, “I envy Anne… and I’d envy her even if she had died! She was a mother for one beautiful day. I’d gladly give my life for that!” Which is neither kind nor wise but something beyond either. Anne’s anger as well at the idea her daughter was in “a better place.” And when she’s told that one day it will hurt less and she replies, “The thought that it may stop hurting sometimes hurts me worse than all else.”
Although the novel’s most heartbreaking part of all takes place when we learn in chapter 35 that Gilbert Blythe is an ardent Conservative—but of course, and so was Matthew, we remember. But then after 18 years, the Tories lose to a sweeping majority by the Grits, which does to show that anything can happen. Captain Jim himself redeemed by the fact that he wasn’t a Conservative himself—though he dies. Hopefully not a comeuppance, but I do hope that somehow Montgomery’s narrative is some kind of political forecast. More accurate than some polls, I am sure. It doesn’t have to be the Liberals necessarily, but please, in two weeks, let us be able to say, paraphrasing Captain Jim, “After nearly ten years of Tory mismanagement, this down-trodden country is going to have a chance at last.”
October 3, 2014
The last time I read Anne of Green Gables was in 2008, when I came away struck by how much it’s actually Marilla’s story, her own transformation, the softening of her heart. All the things she feels about her adopted daughter but will not say, but she feels them—the narrative articulates the complexity of her emotions. Reading it again now, I laugh at the paragraph from Rachel Lynde’s perspective about Marilla’s definite ideas about how to bring up children, and how only people who’ve never had children can ever have these. I also notice how silly Anne is; with all her big words she gets so many wrong (though whether these are actually typos is hard to tell. My edition is appallingly edited)—she’s a more realistic version of a 12 year old precocious child than I’ve ever noticed before.
This time, I am rereading Anne of Green Gables (the book I’ve been reading and rereading for 30 years now) as I never have before—aloud. It’s our current chapter book for bed time, joining a canon that includes the Little House books, Ramona, The Willoughbys, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Through the Looking Glass, and so many more. When we started reading it, I was surprised to discover I wasn’t sure it would work—there is so much description, so many words, in particular huge ones that no five year old has ever heard of. As we read through the first couple of chapters, it dawned on me that I’d come to the book at age 6 or so (first reading an abridged version) after being familiar with the Kevin Sullivan film—all the characters in my mind are precisely as cast therein. Would the story “take” the same without the cinematic precedence, I wondered? But it was the evening that we opened the book and Harriet had remembered the exact title of the chapter we’d left off at that I knew the story was resonating just as I’d hoped it would.
Reading Anne of Green Gables aloud is such a pleasure. So many words, as I said, but I get to say them. I’ve never had such a feel for the strength of Montgomery’s prose, and how effectively she communicates Anne’s incessant chatter. Reading aloud too, I get to convey the humour, of which there is so much, and it thrills me when the best jokes are met by Stuart’s laughter. Because he’s listening too, this being his first time “reading” Anne of Green Gables, as well as Harriet’s. He grew up in England, where Anne would be even more foreign to boyhood than usual. So I love that he’s enjoying this very Canadian experience, and Harriet too. (Iris spends story time entering and leaving the room, scattering chaos in her wake.) There are so many wonderful parts of the book that I’ve forgotten about, and when I glimpse an episode to come, I tell them, “Oh, this is going to be a good one.” When Anne turned her hair green, and jumping on Aunt Josephine’s bed, getting Diana drunk and saving Minnie May Berry, the mouse in the pudding and the lineament cake. The puffed sleeves. She’s just about to reconcile with Gilbert, and I absolutely cannot wait. We are enjoying this book so very much.
There is something to this book, which is far more than childhood nostalgia or attraction to a cultural touchstone. Anne of Green Gables is so familiar to us all that it gets written off more often than not, but that’s such a mistake. It’s a good-enough kids’ book, but there is so much going on in the text that a reader doesn’t notice when she’s young, and even when she’s not young. It’s a book that’s worth a reread every decade or so, at least.
April 14, 2014
I am so pleased to have my essay, “Rereading Fear of Flying: On Not Being Pregnant in Mid-Air With Isadora Wing,” featured on The Toronto Review of Books today. It’s sort of a companion to my piece in The M Word, so the timing is particularly nice.
February 13, 2014
Though there were a thousand other things I should have been doing yesterday, I neglected every single one to reread Love Story, the book which started my career as a bibliokleptomaniac when I stole it from the library at age 12. And at age 12, I thought this was the most romantic book in the whole world, rivalled only by Elvis and Me by Priscilla Presley, which I also read over and over again. (Elvis was so achingly tender and protective! He called her his little girl! Which she was, being 14 and all, but anyway…) Obviously, my definition of “romantic” at age 12 was suspect–I think this was the year I listened to “Everything I Do… I Do It For You” on my walkman, rewinding the song back to the start until the battery died. I wanted a boyfriend so bad that I drew circles around the word “boyfriend” in my copy of Love Story until I put the pen through the page. I was in love with Oliver Barrett IV, and I also loved the Beatles, which gave me two things in common with Jennifer Cavilleri, the smart-assed, bespectacled working class girl from Cranston, Rhode Island, who steals Oliver IV’s heart.
It really is every woman’s fantasy–blandly generic man-creature with dashing good looks, athletic skills and an inherited fortune to boot falls in love with you precisely because you are a smart-ass, bespectacled girl who is smart and mouthy. At the age of 12, I did not yet have glasses, but you can probably see why this spoke to me. I saw the movie version of the book a long time ago, and remember being disappointed in it. I think that for the sake of dramatic tension, the film makes a point of Jenny’s steel will being broken finally, but it doesn’t happen in the book. The course of love here really does run smoothly, and it’s a lovely story. It really is.
My original version of this book was a battered (stolen) paperback, and I was reading a similarly battered copy of Catcher in the Rye around the same time, so the two books became linked in my mind. And it’s true that Holden Caulfield and Oliver Barrett have similar backgrounds and similar narrative styles, address their readers in a similarly (dated) colloquial fashion. It’s true that both characters also know themselves far less well than their readers understand them (or at least their readers who are older than 12). Neither of these boys/men is very sure of himself.
(Note: my Oliver Barrett IV is not Ryan O’Neal. Gross. Never. Love means never having to say that your Oliver Barrett is Ryan O’Neal.)
I make this comparison, which still holds up today, to show that Love Story is not a terrible book. Just its title is sort of shorthand for barf-inducing, but as one who reread it as recently as yesterday, I can promise you that it’s not that bad. Until it is. And then, oh, it is so bad, because any love that means not having to say you’re sorry is one in which one person is going to have to die within a year or two, because how can such a love be lasting? (Which I know now because I am not only not 12, but I have been married for nearly 10 years.) And it’s going to have to be Jenny, who dies of leukaemia and reports that it doesn’t even hurt. Surely, the tidiest death in all of literature. She was a bit pale, is all, and then she died. And what can you say about that?
I tried to read Elvis and Me a few years ago, purely for fun. I thought I’d enjoy it but it was terrible, unbearable. But Love Story, on the other hand, I will probably visit more than a few times again before I finally shuffle off my own beautiful, bespectacled, smart-assed mortal coil.
February 13, 2014
In the mood for some Valentines Day reading, I’ve been dipping in and out of Four Letter Word: Original Love Letters, by Joshua Knelman and Rosalind Porter, which I reviewed in 2008. It’s a really great anthology of love-letters as stories with a fantastic line-up of writers. I particularly enjoyed the contributions by Miriam Toews, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lionel Shriver, and Valerie Martin. I’ve been interested lately in the life of the literary anthology, and this one with its short pieces and thematic approach is probably one that’s worth keeping on the shelf. I’m glad I did. And not just because when it’s on my shelf, I get to look on its spine, which in my hardcover edition is printed to look like a collection of actual letters bound.
November 12, 2013
If Margaret Laurence’s The Fire Dwellers were published today, critics would be lauding its uncanny sense of the contemporary moment, how Laurence dares to voice the unspoken truths of motherhood, her pitch-perfect portrayal of the subtleties of maternal ambivalence. Published in 1969, Laurence’s fourth novel belongs with Atwood’s The Edible Woman and Phyllis Brett Young’s The Torontonians as essential Canadian novels born out of the world of The Feminine Mystique. Which puts the book’s contemporary moment-ness in question, but then the lessons of The Fire Dwellers don’t tend to be the kind we pass on to our daughters, however much to their detriment. Not that they’d listen anyway. Isn’t it funny how the history of feminism is so profoundly uncumulative? How we have to learn it for ourselves over and over, and it’s a revolution/revelation every time?
But then The Fire Dwellers is largely about such disconnectedness, between generations, between spouses, friends, between the personal and the political, and—in the case of protagonist Stacey MacAindra—from one’s self, from one’s own life. Stacey is 39, sixteen years married, mother of 4, and according to the sensationalist copy on my Seal Book paperback, she’s looking for a lover. Which isn’t really true, though it’s probably a good way to sell a paperback. Anyone who has read the book, however, will tell you that she is looking for is herself beyond her oppressive roles of wife and mother. Roles which aren’t strictly oppressive; “They nourish me and they devour me too,” she writes of her children, and it’s in this in-between where she’s stuck, imagining the various ways she is destroying her children (by being overbearing, by too much attention, with her anger, all of these suggestions underlined by “helpful” magazine articles suggesting as much) and/or all the ways they would be destroyed anyway if she somehow managed to get away from them.
Through the novel, Laurence plays headlines from television news programs, broadcasting war, turmoil and unrest around the world. In one sense, the headlines are juxtaposed with the domestic, but we soon come to see that these are parallel, that the home-front is no safe haven after all.
“I can’t forget that piece in the paper. Young mother killed her two-month-old infant by smothering it. I wondered how that sort of thing could ever happen. But maybe it was only that the baby was crying, and she didn’t know what to do, and was maybe frantic about other things entirely, and suddenly she found she had stopped the noise. I cannot think this way. I must not.”
Children are hit by cars and killed, neighbours attempt suicide, Stacey and her husband worry about money, she fears that Mac is sleeping with his secretary, her youngest still isn’t talking (and what has she done to her to make this go wrong, Stacey wonders), and just as terrifying as the suffocating demands of motherhood is considering who she will be once the demands are rescinded, when the children are older. Who will she possibly be then?
Laurence’s The Diviners is so central to my literary consciousness, and I couldn’t help but see Stacey in the context of the Manawaka she’d fled from as a young woman, and in relation to Morag Gunn whom she’d stood apart from as a child but whom she’d have so much to talk about if they met up again in adulthood. And I was surprised to discover that Morag didn’t even exist when Laurence wrote The Fire Dwellers—The Diviners would be published 5 years later in 1974. But in The Fire Dwellers, you see the roots of The Diviners taking shape, its ideas and experiments with narrative and form.
Stacey MacAindra is Betty Draper, is calling out for Betty Friedan, though fat load of good a book is going to do her. (I always find it interesting when people critique Betty Draper’s character for her obviousness to Friedan, as though one day every woman in America read The Feminine Mystique, and society flicked a switch). Stacey MacAindra is also so many of us, as we remarked at my book club the other night. “Maybe we all turn into Stacey MacAindra sometime…” as I tweeted last week. Women for whom the day is never long enough to encompass all the things we want to do, all the people we want to or need to be. Women for whom motherhood and selfhood become a battle, with wifehood thrown in for good measure. You’d throw it all away, if you weren’t tied to it inextricably.
Stacey’s green slacks are dated, and so is her slang, but absolutely nothing else is in this novel which 45 years later is a challenge to and a reflection of the world at once.
June 2, 2013
I have nearly all of Barbara Pym’s novels on my shelf, the bulk of which I obtained when a contents sale was held at a house around the corner and I pretty much cleaned out the library. And this is how it is with Barbara Pym novels–it usually takes death for a reader to finally part with them. Though they also turn up at used book sales from time to time (probably after a death as well), which is how I first encountered Excellent Women, perhaps Pym’s best-known novel. I’d heard of Pym from Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing, Maureen Corrigan’s Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading and also from this wonderful piece on the CBC on the Barbara Pym Society, which I joined shortly after becoming a Pym convert. It was Excellent Women that fast turned me into one too, and no wonder, I discovered, over the past few days as I read the book again.
It’s wonderful. I could see how encountering Pym first through some of her other novels might be a less delightful experience, one not truly appreciated until one understands the nature of the Pymmian universe. But Excellent Women, as subtle and small as her other books, is so absolutely funny, its goodness immediately graspable. As ever, the delicious gap because what is written on the page and the reader’s apprehension of the true situation. It’s the story of Mildred Lathbury, spinster daughter of a clergyman whose life changes with the arrival of new neighbours Rocky and Helena Napier, plus a clergyman’s widow who steals the heart of the vicar whom everyone had assumed that Mildred was in love with.
And the lines: “A little grey woman… brewing coffee in the ruins.” The austerity of 1950s’ England is not at the novel’s forefront, but instead a shadow in the background with references to bombed-out buildings, ration books, and bad food. But ordinary life goes on anyway, church services conducted in the half of the church that was not destroyed in the war, which gives the congregation a heightened intimacy.
And the vicar with his plaintive call: “May I come up? I can hear the attractive rattle of tea things. I hope I’m not too late.” Oh, so much tea. “Perhaps there can be too much making cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. We had all had our supper, or were supposed to have had it, and were met together to discuss the arrangements for the Christmas bazaar. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look. ‘Do we need tea?’ she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realize that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind.”
There are so many landslides in this tidy book, whose whole world is turned inside out by its final page. Most aren’t the landslides you’d notice and it doesn’t end with a wedding (though a further glimpse of these characters in another Pym novel reveals that one will come about eventually!!!), but more with a change in consciousness, the main character’s heightened awareness of her place in the world. And it’s a funny little world too, quintessentially English, rattling tea things and all. How I adore it, absolutely.
This past week, I also reread A Glass of Blessings, which is more subtle and infused with a touch of melancholy in spite of its delights. So many musings on a furniture storage facility–such a curious book. A bored and idle married woman fancies herself the object of another man’s affections, though he turns out to be gay (which is as expressly stated as you’d imagine for a book published in 1958). Pym is truly the master of the unrequited love narrative.
I do look forward to much Pym rereading this summer. I’ve read most of her books in a pleasurable blur, and welcome the opportunity to think deeper about them. I also look forward to baking a victoria sponge cake this afternoon in celebration of her centenary. It’s either bake a cake or have a baby, and the latter doesn’t appear to be happening yet.