Tag Archives: Canadian fiction

The Best Kind of People: Zoe Whittall

In Zoe Whittall’s topical book The Best Kind of People, George Woodbury is a middle-aged married, respected exclusive preparatory school science teacher who inherited money, a lot of money, from his father. He has a claim to fame as the Connecticut teacher who took down a school shooter, so when he’s accused and subsequently arrested on criminal charges which include attempted rape of several underage girls, his story is BIG news. With George locked up awaiting trial, his wife, local trauma nurse, Joan, his teenage daughter Sadie, and his son Andrew have to deal with the fallout.

The novel begins with George and Joan enjoying a quiet evening at home when he tells her he’s been receiving anonymous “cryptic” notes in his school mailbox and that the school secretary warns him there’s a rumor he’s “being set up.”  Within minutes, police come to the home and George is arrested on charges of “sexual misconduct with four minors, [and] attempted rape of a minor.” What then follows is a nightmare for George’s family. The Woodburys live in the most exclusive gated community in town, but reporters flock outside the gates, snapping photos as family members leave and return. Excrement, eggs and broken beer bottles are thrown over the hedges. Sadie is cruelly harassed at school, and Andrew, now a lawyer who lives in New York with his lover, Jared, returns to help. Joan’s acerbic, fiercely single sister Clara also descends on the home. At first, the family think George’s arrest is a mix up which will be quickly sorted out, but hours turn to days, and weeks turn to months….

We follow the family members as they each go through the process of learning about, and dealing with the accusations. Much of the book’s focus is on Sadie, the 17-year-old who is experimenting with sex through her relationship with her boyfriend, Jimmy, but then later she begins to have feelings for an older man who (stupidly) sends her all the wrong signals. And of course, ‘misreading signals’ or sending ‘wrong signals’ are trip wires in male-female relationships. There are those in Avalon Hills who think George’s accusers just outright lied, and those who defend George wonder if the girls somehow ‘got it wrong.’ 

In high school, Andrew had a sexual relationship with an older married coach. Andrew was 17 at the time, and in his mind, nothing criminal occurred.  Returning to Avalon Falls brings that affair back into focus, and it tends to make Andrew more open to the possibility that his father is guilty of the charges, or at the very least, that he has have a secret life that no one knows about. 

Although the novel concerns the Woodburys in the community, there are really only a handful of characters to worry about here. Perhaps the cleverest addition character wise is Kevin, a one time ‘hot’ author who is floundering on his second novel. He lives with (and off) Jimmy’s mother, Elaine. He comes to the conclusion that George is guilty as there was something off about the man–a total lack of self-awareness and also he was a little too perfect:

George always struck Kevin as an intimidating figure, who was nonetheless approachable and jovial. He used to joke about him with Elaine, that he didn’t seem real. He’d seemed too perfect, too good a husband, not enough darkness. 

On the opposite side of the fence, the school secretary Dorothy is an activist with a men’s movement which boasts slogans such as: Just because you regret it doesn’t mean it’s rape. One of the members thinks that George “is a symbol of all that feminism has done to cause hysteria in this world.” 

Inappropriate sexual behaviour is at the core of the story. We come to news stories with opinions, past experiences and beliefs. We’re human–it’s what we do, and so everyone in Avalon Hills, Connecticut has an opinion (his wife had to know, the girls involved are slutty, etc). Even withholding opinion (as in ‘innocent until proven guilty’) is still taking sides. as far as the residents are concerned. The case is like a storm that whips everybody’s opinions out into the open; the case is no longer about the victims, or George and what he may or may not have done. 

There was a lot I liked about the novel; It’s well-nuanced. Loved the loaded ‘support’ Joan receives. A basket of fruit and a card from the nurses at Joan’s work is delivered shortly after the news of George’s arrest becomes public knowledge:

The card read, I hope you’re hanging in there, and it was signed by all the nurses at work. Accompanying it were a pamphlet for victims’ services, one for a support group for women survivors of violence, and another for a group of women with loved ones in prison.

I sometimes think of news reports that interview neighbours who live next to a suspected pedo. Do you want to be the one who goes on camera saying you always knew there was something weird about him? Or would you rather say he seemed normal and you noticed nothing?

Could have done without the details of Sadie’s sex life–that’s not a prudish comment just an observation. She’s a major character and since some of her father’s accusers are her age (or younger) she is impacted in a way her mother isn’t, but details about the blow jobs and the hands jobs were boring.  I wished there had been more focus on Joan. Also, given the brevity of the charges, it seems highly unlikely that Joan wouldn’t have dug through the family finances from the moment George was carted from the house. Or perhaps that’s just me. Along that same line of thought, at one point, fairly deep into the novel, one of the characters mentally voices an opinion about the witness statements. Joan’s reaction to the evidence and witness statements is vague and never really addressed. Perhaps she doesn’t want to know, but for this reader this seemed manipulated to facilitate plot.

I read some comments from readers who thought the novel ended too abruptly. I didn’t have that reaction; I thought the understated ending was extremely powerful. The author succeeds in showing that no one walks away unchanged by this event. 

review copy

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Beast in View: Margaret Millar (1955)

“In the mirror above the telephone stand she saw her mouth repeating the lie, enjoying it, and she saw her head nod in quick affirmation–this lie is true, yes, this is a very true lie.”

Thirty-year old Helen Clarvoe has a lot to be grateful for, and yet she lives a miserable, solitary existence at a bleak, second-rate hotel. After the death of her father, she left the family home and has very little to do with her flighty mother and dilettante brother. Beast is View is an exploration of loneliness, madness and manipulation, a claustrophobic novel with few characters and very little down time.

Beast in view

The novel wastes no time on preliminaries, and we are dropped right into the action when Helen Clarvoe picks up the phone, and begins a conversation with someone who purports to be an old friend. As the conversation becomes increasingly disturbing, Helen demands to know who is calling her: the caller identifies herself as Ellen Merrick, and that they met at school.

Peculiar things begin to happen to Helen. She hardly goes out as it is, but the phone call and the subsequent events rattle Helen so much, she turns to her late father’s financial advisor, 50-year-old Paul Blackshear for help.

What a graceless woman she was, Blackshear thought, hoarding herself like a miser, spending only what she had to, to keep alive. 

Blackshear, a widower, is already semi retired, and when Helen tells him about the threatening phone call, and that she’s beginning to wonder if someone has access to her apartment, initially he doesn’t want to get involved. Then he changes his mind. Armed with scant information, Paul begins to track down the mysterious Evelyn Merrick. Soon he finds himself on the track of a woman who leaves a trail of damage through poisonous innuendo, and this trail leads him right back to the Clarvoe family. ….

Blackshear discovers that Evelyn Merrick has an almost hypnotic power over her victims. There’s one scene that takes place at the Lydia Hudson School of Charm and Modelling.

The outer office was a stylized mixture of glass brick and wrought iron and self-conscious young women in various stages of charm. Two of them were apparently graduates: they carried their professional equipment in hat-boxes, and they wore identical expressions, half disillusioned, half-alert, like travelers who had been waiting too long for their train and were eying the tracks for a relief car.  

This scene is representative of  the novel’s premise of truth vs. illusion. The charm school students feed the business–the graduates don’t feed the modelling industry. Millar creates a schism, a mirror fractured in two in the very first scene, and this sensation continues through Blackshear’s quest. Most of the (unpleasant) characters appear to have some sort of duality–whether they’re two-faced or living some sort of lie. Millar feeds this unsettling thread throughout the plot’s twists and turns.

Beast in View is an unnerving, classic woman-in-peril novel with an emphasis on terror through psychological suspense–something along the lines of Midnight Lace (although the plots are dissimilar). After reading this, it’s easy to see why it was picked up for an episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour, for in this novel, terror exists (mostly) in the mind. This book should appeal to fans of Ruth Rendell.

Margaret Millar was the wife of Kenneth Millar AKA Ross Macdonald

review copy

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Infrared by Nancy Huston

I’ve been curious about the novels of Nancy Huston for some time, thanks to the enthusiasm of Emma who first put this Canadian author on my radar. Infrared is the latest novel from Huston; it’s the story of Rena, a forty-five-year-old photographer who arranges a holiday for her father and step-mother in Florence. Right away, I was intrigued by the premise as I have a weakness for stories about people on holiday–after all people unmoored from their usual social surroundings and obligations make great subjects for fiction.

The holiday begins with signs of trouble. Seventy-year-old Simon Greenblatt and his second wife, Ingrid arrive from Montreal and check into the Hotel Guelfa in the middle of the night after they “narrowly escaped a tragedy.” In this case, the tragedy involved Simon and Ingrid getting lost and temporarily losing the most important piece of their luggage en route to the hotel. When Rena joins them, arriving from Paris the next morning, the tone for the holiday is set, and for the rest of the week, she’s more or less dragging them from one tourist destination to another. The days are short and frustrating for Rena; Simon and Ingrid often don’t get started until noon and then frequent meal breaks and rests absorb a huge portion of what’s left. All of this empty time for Rena lends itself to contemplation of her past life.

While there’s a sense that Simon and Ingrid operate at an entirely different speed to Rena, there are also different types of discourse taking place in this triangular relationship . There’s an insider discourse between Simon and Ingrid which excludes Rena, but then Rena and her Timothy Leary worshipping father also have a way of speaking to one another which excludes Ingrid. As for the words which pass between Ingrid and Rena, well they’re loaded with disapproving innuendo. Here’s Rena ordering for Simon and Ingrid in a cafe:

“But …you speak Italian!” exclaims Ingrid.

No, not really, it’s just that … communication’s so much easier between strangers.

“Easy to be a ployglot,” says Ingrid, pursuing her reflection on Rena’s linguistic gifts. “when you’ve been married to a whole slew of foreigners and travelled to the four corners of the world for your profession.”

And what of the “slew of foreigners” Rena married? Ingrid’s comment makes her step-daughter sounded like a polygamous transient. She’s been married three times–although when Rena discusses her sex life with Subra, her imaginary doppelgänger, she professes to have been married four times. To be perfectly accurate, Rena lives with her current much younger muslim love-interest, Aziz, who is dealing with his own problems back in Paris. Aziz and Rena are not married yet, and if his mother has anything to say on the matter, a marriage will never take place. Here’s Rena on her choice of husbands:

Fabrice the Haitian, Khim the Cambodian, Alioune the Senegalese, and Aziz the Algerian–were all, thanks to the unstinting generosity of French colonialism, francophones…as, indeed, were my Québecois lovers–all the professors, truck drivers, waiters, singers and garbage men whose t’es belle, fais-moi une ‘tite bec, chu tombé en amour avec toué graced my teenage years…I much preferred them to my anglophone neighbours and classmates–far too healthy for my taste, approaching sex in much the same way as they approached jogging (though usually removing their shoes first), interrogating me in the thick of things as to the nature and intensity of my pleasure, and dashing off to shower the minute they’d climaxed.

That passage should give you a good sense of Rena’s voice and also her attitude towards sexuality (note this is not a book for prudes). Rena takes what she wants, and she also enjoys being taken. She acknowledges that there’s “something hypnotic about a man’s desire,” and this feeling she describes rather interestingly as a mixture of “fright and euphoria.” That a man has “chosen” her provides a “violent thrill,” which always manages to amaze her. An interesting emotional response to sex and desire.

As the book continues, and Rena provides a guided tour of the splendours of Florence to her father and stepmother who are both decidedly underwhelmed by the city’s beauty and much more interested in its pastries, Rena falls to contemplation of the past, and that includes her troubled familial relationship. Gradually, as the narrative moves back and forth between first and third person, we discover the deeply troubled tracks of Rena’s past.

For this reader, and it’s entirely a matter of personal taste, I’ve long since been OD’ed with the sort of revelations regarding Rena’s childhood. Bring on something new, I say, and the new and interesting part of this novel concerns not the major dirty revelations of  Rena’s wee years but instead her difficult relationship with her father (what was he thinking?), her  interest in photography and how her profession ties into her views on sexuality. For Rena, sex is very much about giving and taking. She approaches the act of sex–no matter how often it is repeated or with how many different partners–with awe and the sense of a gift. Perhaps this explains why she loves to photograph her lovers as they climax, and also why she enjoys taking photographs of lover’s lovers–in fact My Lover’s Loved Ones is even the title of one of Rena’s photography shows. I’ll add here that while some of Rena’s memories of sex are real, others are pure fantasy and exercises in the distracting power of seduction.

Rena seems to understand that with the act of sex, one gives a little of oneself away. She literally achieves this with photographic mementos taken with infrared film in order to disguise the features of her lovers, but she is fully aware that while partners share their bodies, sex is also a study in selfishness. She photographs prostitutes who exist for their male clients by renting out their bodies without any of the ramifications of pregnancy or responsibly for the males, and in their turn”few hookers mentioned anything vaguely synonymous with desire or pleasure; all, on the other hand mentioned money.”

There’s a lot going on in Infrared, and while the book’s intelligence and the author’s talent is never in doubt, the book’s two main storylines–Rena shepherding her father and stepmother through Florence and the memories of Rena’s past and career–compete with each other. The former storyline is diminished by Rena’s story, and so it fades from view constantly, almost making the trip a backdrop, and yet right at the end, the novel veers back to the familial relationship with a crisis that is somewhat predictable. For this reader, there was a lot that worked, and a lot that didn’t.

Another review can be found on Kevin’s blog.

Review copy from the publisher.

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Filed under Fiction, Huston Nancy