Three Failures

Reviewed by Kelly Baron

Andrée A. Gratton’s Choosing Eleonore, translated from the French by Ian Thomas Shaw, explores a failed attempt at friendship, one that quickly descends into a form of psychosis. Marianne is a nurse in Montreal who becomes obsessed with Eleonore, a woman she sees on the street, choosing to follow her home before being hospitalized after attempting to block a man from visiting her apartment. She stalks Eleonore, watching her through open windows when she is at home and learning her schedule. She forces her way into Eleonore’s life, but allows herself to be used so that her delusions about their friendship can continue. Marianne cleans Eleonore’s home, finds Eleonore a job at her hospital, and eventually takes over her lease when Eleonore disappears without a word, attempting to preserve her home for her without any indication that she might return.


Marianne’s story is akin to a failed Single White Female, where, as readers, rather than being afraid for Eleonore’s safety, we simply feel concerned for the narrator. Marianne very quickly experiences delusions of Eleonore reciprocating her friendship; in describing her second attempt to see Eleonore, for example, Marianne narrates that Eleonore “knew where I was working, so it was easy for her to meet me there” (6). At that point in time, Eleonore is unaware she is being watched; she has not met Marianne, and Marianne’s decision to bring groceries to her home and leave them at her door seems delusional at best. Choosing Eleonore emphasizes Marianne’s psychosis well, and the slim volume is a captivating inquiry into a failure to develop a real friendship, to move beyond simple obsession.


Lee Gowan’s The Beautiful Place represents a different form of failure. Billed as a sequel to Sinclair Ross’ As For Me and My House, The Beautiful Place tracks the life of the grandson of Philip Bentley, the failed-painter-turned-minister from Ross’ canonical text. The younger Bentley is equally a failure; in his youth, he wanted to be a writer, but instead he finds himself middle-aged and recently fired from his position as a cryonics salesman, a role where he convinced naive consumers, afraid of death, to freeze part of their bodies so they could be unfrozen when science caught up with their various illnesses. The novel tracks the younger Bentley’s journey through letters to his last client, Mary Abraham, who wants to recover the head of her husband, kept now in the titular Beautiful Place, where the bodies are frozen. By the second half of the novel, these letters are interspersed with diary entries from when he met his grandfather.


As a standalone novel, The Beautiful Place is compelling and comedic. Bentley is a pitiable figure, struggling to manage a failing marriage, his mother’s dementia, and his daughter’s future. As a sequel to As For Me and My House, however, it falls short; the great artist from Sinclair Ross’s novel is surely not Philip Bentley, but Bentley’s wife, the diarist behind the novel’s poignant scenes of the Depression era in the Canadian prairies. Gowan’s sequel has Philip leaving his wife and son to become a critically acclaimed painter and provides very little of satisfaction when it comes to Mrs. Bentley’s story. She is nothing more than a mother to Bentley’s father, a disdained family member who wants to play at the younger Bentley’s second wedding, much to the chagrin of his new wife. “Grandma Bentley,” as the younger Bentley calls her, has her defining scene when feeling betrayed at how her former husband rendered her in art, a rendering the younger Bentley agrees with: “I suddenly saw her in the way the black paint met the canvas, smearing off to grey in the thinning drips. She was there, staring back at me, her eyes accusing me of every sin I had ever committed and, for the first time in my life, the painting made sense” (236). It’s an unfair portrait of the committed diarist from Ross’s novel, one that detracts from The Beautiful Place working as a sequel to As For Me and My House.


Stéfanie Clermont’s The Music Game, translated from the French by J. C. Sutcliffe, approaches failure differently. In detailing the lives of Céline, Julie, and Sabrina, friends since they were young girls, the novel lauds failure as an alternative to the expectations of building a heteronormative family under late capitalism. The novel is a display of formal strength; while some chapters follow a clear narrative structure and allow for the reader to easily identify if we are learning about Céline, Julie, or Sabrina, others resist such identification, and are more akin to prose poetry. The nature of these chapters’ fragmentation is such that their reflections could be assigned to any of the three women, creating a sense of a collective unconscious in the novel. That collective unconscious expands to include the reader at the beginning of the second section, with its gorgeous second-person address. The Music Game is a compelling novel of female friendship that, in failing to adhere to clear genre divides, becomes a beautiful display of collective identity that pushes beyond the limits of form.

This review “Three Failures” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 22 Mar. 2023. Web.

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