Sisterhood Illuminated

  • Michel Tremblay
    A Crossing of Hearts. Talonbooks (purchase at
Reviewed by Dominique Hétu

The third novel in a series of nine, Michel Tremblay’s A Crossing of Hearts further weaves the past and present of the Desrosiers family by taking sisters Maria, Tititte, and Teena on an emotionally demanding vacation out of Montreal to Duhamel, in the Laurentians. In need of a break from their urban responsibilities and worries, the sisters hope to do nothing but gossip, overeat, and brave the ice-cold water of the lake. The novel contains four parts. The first, “Darkness,” introduces the sisterhood dynamic in the city and, more precisely, the complicated relationship between Maria and her daughter Rhéauna—Tremblay’s famous Nana. The latter, having grown up in Saskatchewan with her two sisters and grandparents, struggles to adapt to her life in Montreal and pleads with her mother to take her and her younger brother Théo to Duhamel. The young woman’s coming-of-age journey to the country triggers memories she had buried deep and revives a longing for the Saskatchewan family and lifestyle.

Deciding as a group to set aside their criticisms and worries to thoroughly enjoy their vacation, the Desrosiers sisters arrive in Duhamel and are welcomed by family members who have been taking care of Teena’s house and son since she moved to the city. Uncomfortable at first, the group quickly relaxes and enjoys togetherness, sunbathing, and swimming. Typical of Tremblay’s writing, those glimpses of light (the second part of the novel is titled “A Little Sunlight” and the third “A Lot of Light”) bring nuance and optimism to the women’s world, which otherwise is marked by guilt, shame, poverty, and a haunting past.

Sheila Fischman finely translates the novel. She renders Tremblay’s historical accuracy, intertextuality, and female solidarity beautifully, with Rhéauna’s love of books and genealogy delicately intertwined with her mother’s and aunts’ struggle to come to terms with their past and present decisions, and with their displaced sense of home and belonging, which is fuelled by family secrets. Humour, care, and interdependence offset such displacement, such a feeling of “hereditary failing,” which, although represented clearly and abundantly throughout the text, does not prevent these women from helping one another and attempting to appropriate private and public spaces on their own terms.

Tremblay once again beautifully and skillfully depicts the nuances and overlaps between urban and rural experiences, the weight of intergenerational struggles, and the sometimes tricky negotiations between the yearnings of the individual and those of family—if not more importantly between women’s agency and patriarchal expectations. The novel is textured with details of working-class living conditions, typical foods, urban proximity, and women’s emancipation in the city. As such, it tests and transgresses the social conventions of motherhood, girlhood, and sexuality, celebrating the strength of togetherness and solidarity without romanticizing or shying away from the difficulties of such strong relational, emotional, and material attachments and responsibilities for women. Tremblay’s steadfast love and careful depiction of women—women who explore, go out, laugh out loud, and challenge stereotypically gendered spaces and roles—provide credible, valuable agency for his female characters and leave them the freedom to make their own choices.

This review “Sisterhood Illuminated” originally appeared in Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 238 (2019): 166-167.

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