Saturday, July 09, 2011

#54 - Suddenly

First, I am going to preface this review with a statement: I adored Bonnie Burnard's The Good House. It's a novel I picked up on a whim from Book City when it was first published and sang its praises to everyone who would listen for years. It's a classic, right up there with The Stone Diaries, Clara Callan, and Away (book I read all around the same time), and so I was excited to read Bonnie Burnard's latest novel Suddenly, if only because it's the first one she's published in 10 years. That's a long time to wait.

Sadly, I probably never should have read this book. It's neither the right time of my life (it's a novel about truly middle-aged women) nor am I in the right frame of mind (having spent the last nine months battling my own life-threatening disease, I couldn't quite cope with the breast cancer victim at the centre of the novel) to appreciate the gift of Suddenly. There's no doubt in my mind that Bonnie Burnard's a wonderful writer. She has an ability to bring the everyday to the page that's unparalleled by many of her contemporaries. It's a unique gift, and her voice reminds me deeply of Carol Shields, which is why I was so very disappointed in this book.

Sandra, our heroine, finds an evil lump in her breast at the end of the summer -- her grandchildren have just gone back to the city with her husband, and she sits alone after a swim contemplating the hard reality of her future. Of course, her friend Jude has battled breast cancer and survived, and Sandra hopes she will too. Alas, it is not to be, and the majority of the novel takes place on her deathbed, that awesome Canadian-woman-writer-trope, where the family rallies around and all of the action takes place in reverse as the dying go through their lives, their relationships, their happiness and their regrets with a fine-toothed comb.

But one remains easily lost within this book because the point of view isn't that simple, it switches from Sandra, to her best friend Colleen (who is beautiful, but childless, natch, and married to Sandra's brother, the surgeon Richard), to her other best friend Jude (the ex-hippie, jilted by a Texan lover who left her on a farm to go fight the Vietnam war after casually fathering her son), to her husband Jack, and back again. It's all over the place and the pronoun "she" doesn't help matters when all three main characters are women...

It's a tedious book, with tedious, unbelievable characters: Sandra's a saint; so's Colleen only she's beautiful too, Jude's "wild" but reformed, and they all feel so old they're covered in a layer of dust. These are the women of my mother's generation, one of them could have been my mother, and yet they have no sense of humour, no sense of adventure and really no life in them at all -- even when it's "flashing" before them as their best friend fades away in a cloud of morphine and horrible pain from an awful disease that takes far too many women. The title confused me for nothing happens quickly in this book -- Burnard takes pages and pages to describe the most mundane aspects of everyday life, episodes that would have been best excised, and the whole novel would have been better for me if it read chronologically, if I got to see these women through their lives and not just as flashbacks in Sandra's journals, which, of course, she kept religiously her entire life.

But I feel bad being so critical, which is why I think that my original statement, that it's neither the right time of my life nor am I in the right mindset to contemplate a novel about someone so willingly giving in to a disease -- not fearing death is one thing but Sandra's utterly unrealistic in terms of her approach to illness; no one is as saintly as she's portrayed on the page, no one. There's no anger, and even when there is, it's slightly ridiculous -- two women having slight "words" during a winter storm and then poof, it's back to celebrating Sandra and her ability to hold the other two women together. Yawn.

I much prefer Lionel Shriver's approach to illness: frank, honest, angry, and also accepting -- there's something raw and real to how she writes about sickness, and I appreciated it. There's tedium to being sick, to having tests, to being stuck in a bed, and anger, relentless, unceasing anger about the fact that your body just isn't doing what it's supposed to. And I'd hope that Sandra would have a glimpse of this throughout the book, that someone, anyone, might rage against the dying of the light just a little before rubbing more lotion on her cold feet or recalling some other wonderful thing she did during her abnormally normal life and marriage.

So don't blame Burnard -- it's a great book club book for women of my mother's age, it's a terrific book to give your mother-in-law for Christmas, and it would have done wonders if Oprah's Book Club still existed and ever considered that Canada has a literature from which to choose reading material. But Suddenly, with its long, drawn-out conclusion (Sandra dies! People mourn!) just didn't cut it for me, a girl of a certain age who has battled a mean-ass frustrating disease for months.

2 comments:

Kailana said...

That's too bad! I still haven't read The Good House. I have owned it since near its release... That's scary how long that has been on my TBR pile.

*Note to self: Deanna really likes The Good House. You should maybe READ IT! :)

Finn Harvor said...

Good review. FWIW, I also liked your comments on A GOOD HOUSE, since I think it's an overlooked work; it's very strong and moving near the end with its depiction of the decline of the father of the family, and an accurate depiction of at least one form of dementia and the emotional cost of this on all the family.

However, at the same time, the novel also shows signs of at least some of the flaws you suggest are in SUDDENLY: to get to that strong ending, one has to wade through sometimes unconvincing sub-plots and descriptive passage that detract from the central story. This extraneous material lends the novel a rather sentimental quality. Some works can pull off a "baggy" approach, but A GOOD HOUSE is weakened by them, and I remember wishing Burnard had had it in her to be a little more ruthless with the ms. at the editing stage -- it likely would have elevated a good novel to a great one.

(I realize that other criticisms you make of SUDDENLY, especially the way Burnard describes illness (yes, hard to pull off, but crucial to get right)) are not connected to the above. But again, intelligent editorial cutting is often a good step to getting to the emotional core of a story.)