Bidding Goodbye to an Ideal
- Sheila Fischman (Translator) and Francois Gravel (Author)
Adieu, Betty Crocker. Cormorant Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Adele Holoch
At the funeral for his beloved aunt Arlette, Benoît, the narrator of François Gravel’s Adieu, Betty Crocker, is infuriated when the presiding priest repeatedly misidentifies the woman Benoît remembers so fondly from his childhood. “Odette, Claudette, Pierette, why not Bobinette the marionette while he’s at it? Her name is ARLETTE, I want to shout at him, her name is Arlette and it’s not all that complicated.” But as Benoît himself learns over the course of his narrative, Arlette’s identity was not nearly so straightforward, and the moniker he applied to the aunt he believed to be a perfect Montreal housewife, Betty Crocker, is itself a misnomer. The story of Benoît’s discovery of Arlette’s true history marks the third installment of Gravel’s Fillion family saga, following A Good Life and The Extraordinary Garden. Like its predecessors, Adieu, Betty Crocker pairs a charming conversational style with thoughtful insights into intimate family dynamics—centering, in this novel, on the limitations of a family’s perceptions of one another, and on the challenges of faithfully remembering and retelling a family’s history.
In the early pages of the novel, Benoît describes his childhood adoration for Arlette to his wife. Growing up in Montreal in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he explains, he wistfully watched the care his aunt Arlette took in her duties as a housewife, envying his cousins their crustless sandwiches cut into perfect triangles, their meticulously sewn Sgt. Pepper costumes—“absolutely identical to what the Beatles wore”—and their spotless home. “If anyone had asked me then to trade my mother for Aunt Arlette, I would have said yes without a hint of remorse: the sandwiches at our house always had a double crust and that crust was usually stale,” Benoit tells his wife. But upon Arlette’s death, Benoît learns a strange truth about his aunt from her children, Daniel and Sylvie: for the last thirty years of her life, the happy homemaker was housebound by a fear of leaving her home.
The remainder of the novel is devoted to Benoît’s investigation of Arlette’s illness. An academic with an interest in the rules and communications of organizations, he delves into his study of Arlette with his characteristic zeal for research. “I do like nosing around. It’s the first virtue of a researcher,” Benoît declares. In his enthusiasm, however, Benoît neglects another virtue integral to researchers’ work: that of impartiality. As his childhood construction of Arlette as a flawless, untroubled housewife falls apart, Benoît quickly goes about reimagining her as a prisoner in her own home, bound to decades of pacing her linoleum floors. Despite his cousins’ protests that Arlette was happy, in her way, the well-traveled Benoît remains convinced that such confinement must have been torture. “No one stays shut up inside for thirty years, it’s inhuman. What crime did you commit, Arlette, to warrant such a punishment?” he asks.
In the last section of the novel, the dead Arlette speaks, explaining her life and her illness to Benoît in her own words. Her response suggests that she does not, indeed, regard her thirty housebound years as an imprisonment; in fact, she feels more confined by her nephew’s particular construction of her past. At once flattered by his portrayal of her homemaking talents and resistant to his notion of her as a spineless Betty Crocker, she admonishes Benoît, “you have to be careful with stories; sometimes they also become prisons . . . Normal people don’t want to be shut inside a single story, Benoît, especially not in a story told by someone else because that someone wants to deliver a message, or seem intelligent, or understand himself better, or I don’t know what.”
Arlette’s final exchange with Benoît brings to mind another relatively recent novel, Nancy Huston’s 1993 Governor General’s Award-winning Plainsong (published in French as Cantique des Plaines), which traces a granddaughter’s narrative of her grandfather’s life. As Paula, the granddaughter, interrogates her grandfather, she says she hears his voice—but the novel’s readers only hear his voice filtered through hers; they only experience his past from her often-querulous perspective. The living can and do rewrite history, as Huston’s novel—and the majority of Benoît’s account—suggest. For the dead to take umbrage with their descendants’ revisions is an unusual, and effective, narrative technique, a reminder that remembering and retelling can be an enormous responsibility.
Like the other entries in the Filion family saga, Adieu, Betty Crocker is a richly rewarding read, recommended for all readers, and especially those interested in contemporary Quebecois literature.
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Books reviewed: The Fortunes of Wangrin by Amadou Hampaté Bá and Aina Pavolini Taylor
- Living in a Learning Way by Sylvie Vranckx
Books reviewed: News: Postcards from the Four Directions by Drew Hayden Taylor and One Story, One Song by Richard Wagamese
- A String of Western Canadian Firsts by Thomas Hodd
Books reviewed: Adventures in Debt Collection by Fred Booker, The Mole Chronicles by Andy Brown, and Dancing Nightly in the Tavern by Mark Anthony Jarman
- Bidding Goodbye to an Ideal by Adele Holoch
Books reviewed: Adieu, Betty Crocker by Sheila Fischman and Francois Gravel
- From Nature to the Nursery by Candida Rifkind
Books reviewed: Paul Goes Fishing by Helge Dascher and Michel Rabagliati
MLA: Holoch, Adele. Bidding Goodbye to an Ideal. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #196 (Spring 2008), Diasporic Women's Writing. (pg. 154 - 155)
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