Friday, June 22, 2012

The Torontonians by Phyllis Brett Young

I did not get a conventional academic education in feminism/feminist theory, so I missed that stage of being immersed in second wave literature and theory. Despite this it took me a long time to get on board with intersectionality, privilege, etc. but regardless, the pop culture of/depicting that particular time of despair and ennui never really fascinated me.

You know what I'm talking about - the fifties/early sixties, white middle-class housewives living in the suburbs and yearning for something more. Think Revolutionary Road, Mad Men, etc. (and see how it still captivates us - or perhaps re-captivates us). This is what The Torontonians is about - a middle-class white housewife, Karen, who lives in the suburbs and begins to see her life as unimaginably dull, and begins to toy with the idea of suicide.

What kept me from being bored while reading The Torontonians was that it was not a tired re-tread of this pop culture trope; this book was first published in 1960, so it was pretty much written in real time. Young has captured perfectly the mood of her time, the fashion and feelings that costume designers and cinematographers are busting their butts now trying to replicate. I can't imagine that this book wasn't groundbreaking when it was published; I wonder how many women saw themselves in it, and how painful and liberating it must have been for them. At times I was bored and frustrated by it, but read in the context of the time it was written, it is earth-shattering.

The story takes place over a week of Karen's life, taking many detours into memories of her past. She lives in the fictional Toronto suburb of Rowanwood, and has just watched workmen lay the Chinese carpet she and her husband Rick have dreamed of owning for years. Suddenly, the end of the road has arrived - all of her dreams for herself have come true, and she realizes, slowly but surely, how petty and fragile those dreams really were. Now begins her "happily ever after", a prospect so dull and maddening, she considers suicide.

What struck me about the novel was that despite being rooted in a very particular time and place, it is in some ways a universal story about what it means to grow up, or to be a "grown up". All of Karen's friends live what we would think of as grown up lives, with houses, cars, children, responsibilities, etc. But they act like adolescents, with their obsessions with things, their sneaking around, their idiotic conduct. And Karen begins to realize how much she had romanticized things in her past, as well as the concept of having the house and living in Rowanwood. She is not an adult until she decides to live fully in reality.

I can't say too much about the story because it is one of those books that is about the journey; you need to follow everything through Karen's eyes and watch her grow. I loved how the author used Toronto as a blend of fact and fiction; Rowanwood is not real, nor are some of the street names mentioned, but some landmarks are - the Canada Life building, the art gallery, the university. As someone who is slightly familiar with the city, I found this led to the impression of a layer of fantasy covering the life of the inhabitants of Rowanwood - their slight separation from the reality of the life of the city. It was one of the most effective uses of Toronto as a setting that I've read so far.

There were times when I was a bit bored by the book, or I didn't want to pick it up because it was a bit depressing. But it was definitely, for me anyway, a worthwhile read and I would recommend it, for sure.

Three CN Towers out of five

Friday, June 8, 2012

Vices of My Blood by Maureen Jennings

Did I mention already that I love mysteries? This novel is a lovely, gruesome little mystery set in Victorian-era Toronto. It features Detective William Murdoch, a charming bachelor who rides his wheel (bicycle) everywhere and likes to actually solve crimes instead of just rounding up the nearest tramp and sticking him in jail.

The story opens with the murder of a clergy man, a crime that shocks the community and seems to be thought quite unforgivable. We are presented with a few likely suspects: Sarah Dignam, the parishioner who might have more going on with the reverend than just prayer meetings; Matthew Sweezey, his competitor for the job; Esther Tugwell, a poor woman whom the reverend denied aid; Mr. Drummond, a local grocer who thought Sweezey should have got the job; Jack Trevelyan, a tramp found with the dead man's boots and watch; and on and on. Most of the characters seem to feel the murder of a man of God makes no sense, as how can he have any enemies? But the story itself betrays potential murderers at every turn. I guess anyone can get stabbed in the neck with a letter opener.

Murdoch is quite creative in his methods, disguising himself as a tramp and spending the night in the workhouse among them. Through her story, Jennings manages to shine a disturbing light on urban poverty and the fallibility of religious charitable endeavours.

At home, Murdoch lives in a boarding house with some lovely people, chief among them a teacher named Amy Slade with whom he is quite charmingly in love. Amy was my favourite character - she is a feminist, gets in trouble for wearing pants, and thinks marriage is a bum rap for ladies. I like that she is presented as not only a viable love interest for Murdoch, but also an equal in conversation and household duties. Positive portrayals of feminism are few and far between, so Amy was a total unexpected bonus for me. I also liked Dr. Julia Ogden, the pathologist who inspects the body and who refuses to take any crap from Murdoch (or anyone). Badass female characters in Victorian stories - yes please!

I liked this book a lot. The pacing is good, the characters well drawn (except some of the other policemen, whom I found a bit interchangeable), and the setting of Toronto at that time adds a fascinating element. In the acknowledgement the author details the changes she has made to certain locations, and the historical accuracy of the layout - it's a lovely touch.

I understand that there is a whole series of Detective Murdoch novels (this is the sixth), and a TV series as well. It's great to see that a Canadian female author has created such a successful narrative franchise; I will definitely read more of her work in the future.

Four CN Towers out of five