Uncommon Lives

Reviewed by Neil Querengesser

These first-person novels are worth reading together in the order reviewed, as they offer vivid and compelling portrayals of contemporary women of varying ages moving through successive critical stages of their lives. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is told by a teenager coming of age during the second Quebec separation referendum, Hysteric is narrated by a deeply tormented Montreal woman on the verge of thirty and suicide, and Adult Onset is recounted by a successful yet troubled Toronto mother and writer approaching her fifties. All three novels draw heavily from events in their respective authors’ lives to create fully realized successful works of fiction.

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, Heather O’Neill’s second novel, comes eight years after her debut runaway success, Lullabies for Little Criminals. It is narrated by the central character Noushka Tremblay, who along with her fraternal twin Nicholas turns twenty during the political and social tumult of Montreal in 1995. The Tremblay twins were born of a one-night stand between their father Étienne, a famous Quebecois singer, and an underage girl from Val-des-Loups who soon turned them over to be raised by their paternal grandfather. Noushka and Nicholas have become household names throughout Quebec, having been shamelessly exploited through the media by their father to further his own career. Noushka is longing to find meaning in her life beyond her current identity as Étienne’s daughter and Nicholas’ sister. But she soon discovers how difficult it is to break away from these family ties and the expectations of her society. Noushka attracts many men. Among them, she soon discovers her current affluent Anglais boyfriend to have closer ties to her family than hitherto suspected, and moves on to a volatile marriage with the francophone Raphaël, a former teenage figure-skating sensation with a secret traumatic past. As her province moves inexorably towards the conclusion of its referendum, so too does Noushka struggle towards the possibility of her own independence. Although she endures a multitude of tribulations throughout her last year as a teenager, the novel’s tone is generally upbeat and often humorous, a quality achieved primarily through an expertly realized narrative voice. The narrator sounds like someone not much older than the self she is describing: sensitive, self-conscious, and still vulnerable and co-dependent, yet also intelligent and self-directed. She navigates the often-tragicomic obstacles that beset her with distinctive charm and élan. Like O’Neill herself, Noushka emerges as more than just a survivor from her troubled teenage years.

Hysteric is a harrowingly realistic account of a former prostitute’s attempt to construct a somewhat more normal relationship with her boyfriend but finding it a daunting task. The novel has significant autobiographical elements; it is narrated by a woman named Nelly, in much the same voice as Arcan’s first novel, Whore. Much of the story is an address to Nelly’s lover, a hip journalist from France, with whose writing she often compares her own. She iterates with intensity and literary brilliance the passions, jealousies, and conflicts of their cripplingly dysfunctional relationship. She spares few disturbing physical or emotional details of her life in the Montreal nightclub scene, of drug abuse, of her broken sexual relationships, of her complicity in her lover’s internet porn addiction, of the distressing hallucinogenic aftermath of her abortion, and of her teenage photo session a decade earlier for Barely Legal magazine. Much of the novel, particularly the twenty-nine year-old narrator’s oft-repeated goal to kill herself at age thirty, resonates with literary cries for help, cries made doubly poignant by Nelly Arcan’s own suicide at thirty-five, five years after the novel’s first publication. It is a disturbing book to read, both for the adept portrayal of its own traumatic events and for its close connections to the life of this talented and promising writer, cut so tragically short.

While psychological trauma also informs Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset, it is contained within a larger and generally supportive family and social network, giving this novel a more redemptive vision. As with the other two novels, the narrator, Mary Rose, “Mister,” MacKinnon, has much in common with her author. Both were born in Germany to military families with Nova Scotian roots. Both are successful middle-aged writers living in Toronto, married to younger women with careers in theatre. Both are raising two children and a dog. While Mary Rose may have other things in common with her author, the novel’s success does not necessarily depend on that. Each of the seven chapters is devoted to a day of Mary Rose’s life in the first week of April 2013, with several flashbacks to her earlier years. Throughout the week this otherwise prolific author wrestles with how to respond to her elderly father’s first-ever email, in which he has expressed his and her mother’s belated pride in and acceptance of her lesbianism, ironically misspelling in his subject line a reference to the popular LGBTQ video “It Gets Better.”

The novel indeed has much to do with “getting better,” in many senses of the term. But before better can be achieved, worse needs to be acknowledged and confronted. In her childhood Mary Rose suffered from painful bone cysts and resultant operations. As a middle-aged woman she begins to contemplate, indeed virtually obsess over, the extent of her parent’s complicity in this disease, wondering if they helped cause it through their neglect or through unintentional physical abuse. Her aching arm becomes a central trope for the many problems that currently beset her: her absent spouse Hilary working on a theatre project out west; conflicts between her pit-bull and the letter carrier; aging and forgetful parents; the influence of siblings dead and living; a willful toddler for whom the house can never be sufficiently child-proofed; and other, younger, mothers against whom she is constantly measuring herself. From the outside, her week moves through the banal episodes of many a middle-class mother; from the inside it is a battleground, a site of tremendous struggles within herself to find enlightenment and balance, and, if possible, an understanding truce with her past. Adult Onset begins well and gets even better, as does MacDonald’s literary career.

This review “Uncommon Lives” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 178-80.

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