From Flow Charts to Fantasy
- Sheila Fischman (Translator) and Francois Gravel (Author)
The Extraordinary Garden. Cormorant Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Adele Holoch
The first novel of François Gravel’s Fillion family saga, A Good Life, followed three French Canadian brothers’ struggle through the Depression and their subsequent development of a successful furniture business in the mid-twentieth-century. In the series’ second installment, The Extraordinary Garden, a member of the next generation of Fillion sons begins narrating his own story. The challenges the middle-aged Marc-André Fillion faces aren’t economic; with a solid background in management and a stable bureaucratic career, he lives comfortably with his wife, Marie-France, and their two young children in a house abutting a sprawling nature park in Longueuil. The test of Marc-André’s strength, and that of his family, comes in the form of his love for a married mother of two, Josée, whose home also borders the park. As he narrates Marc-André’s efforts to negotiate friendship and desire, temptation and familial obligation, reality and fantasy, Gravel also creates a compelling, if not always convincing, portrait of everyday family life in late-twentieth-century French Canada.
Marc-André is a man who prides himself on his ordinariness and practicality: “In high school I was the kind of pupil who got good grades in every subject but was never a champion, never did anything remarkable . . . Show me procedures and I proceed,” he says of himself early in the novel. As a college student, he wins the attention of an intimidatingly beautiful woman one night when he defends of the institution of marriage to a group of friends, articulating his dream of one day having a family with two children and a station wagon. The woman, Marie-France, is also a management student, and as their romance progresses, Marc-André and Marie-France decide “to stay together, to marry, have children, set up a partnership whose name would be family.” It is in those sensible, managerial terms that Marc-André continues to define his relationship with his wife and their children throughout the novel: “Marie-France and I had set up a family. It was our dream, our project. It became our business,” he says simply.
But Marc-André is not all businessman and bureaucrat. Occasionally, an imaginative side seeps through his practical rhetoric, and that side is invigorated in his encounters with his neighbor Josée. Where Marc-André’s communication with his wife is the stuff of management classes, the language he shares with Josée is one of songs and childlike fantasies, of ideal stories—“the movie you’d watch over and over, the novel you’d read again and again”—and enchanted expanses of parkland. “We lived in the city but we just had to walk through a forest in order to pay one another a visit. A magical forest. An ‘extraordinary garden,’ in the words of Trenet’s song.” He imagines the connection between himself and his neighbor as “something magical . . . something obvious, so obvious that it’s palpable,” a chemistry entirely apparent and natural not only to himself and Josée, but also to any casual observer nearby. From flow charts with one woman to manifest destiny with another: “It’s as if life wanted us to meet before we even knew one another, wanted us to marry despite ourselves, as if the whole world wanted to throw us into one another’s arms.” Thus begin seven long years of Marc-André’s longing for his neighbor and the fantasy world she opens up for him, years punctuated with family events both ordinary and extraordinary.
The demarcation between Marc-André’s straightforward existence with Marie-France and the fanciful world he shares with Josée is too starkly drawn to be entirely convincing; the women and the possibilities each creates for Marc-André teeter on the brink of becoming abstractions of stability and fantasy. The relative lack of insight the novel offers into Josée’s and Marie-France’s perspectives contributes to this problem. Whereas in his third Fillion family novel, Adieu, Betty Crocker, Gravel gives another abstracted woman a third act opportunity to speak her piece, here he leaves Marc-André’s wife and lover mostly mute. What redeems their silence in the story is that Gravel does not seem to be aiming to create a fleshed-out family narrative in this novel, but rather to provide a vision of how a man chooses the life he does.
“Everyone has three families: the one we’re subjected to, the one we choose—or think we choose—and the one we dream about while we’re strolling the paths of the extraordinary garden,” Marc-André says. Ultimately, Marc-André’s struggle to decide which life, which love, which side of himself to cultivate makes for an engrossing and insightful tale.
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MLA: Fischman, Sheila, Gravel, Francois, and Holoch, Adele. From Flow Charts to Fantasy. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 July 2014.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #197 (Summer 2008), Predators and Gardens. (pg. 138 - 139)
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