The Doctor, Voices Lost in Snow, In Youth is Pleasure, Between Zero and One, Varieties of Exile
Mavis Gallant

These stories, previously published in The New Yorker and collected in Montreal Stories (McClelland & Stewart, 2004), chronicle the life of Linnet Muir as she moves from an innocently rebellious childhood into a rebelliously idealistic young adulthood. At once personal narrative and social commentary, the stories critique the divisions that existed in early to mid-century Montreal, while drawing their humor from Linnet’s oppressive upbringing and inability to fit in.

Linnet’s Montreal is a place of torn and undefined identity, much like the narrator herself. Raised Protestant, schooled in a convent by French-Canadian nuns, and later shipped off to New York to complete her education, the Linnet that returns to Montreal is a young woman emancipated from her history.

In Varieties of Exile, set during the third summer of WWII, Linnet begins to meet refugees, and becomes obsessed with capturing fragments of these “prophets” of socialism. Employed in an agency, systematically going through “all the Russians”, fervently composing stories about people in exile, and three times engaged, she meets Frank Cairns with whom she shares a few brief, although tender moments.

The first story, The Doctor, builds on the tension within a close-knit social circle the Muirs keep, as observed by their young daughter with an intuitive omniscience that only a child under ten can posses. Here the rivalry is between crossed lovers, and feeds on status and class. The enormous and statuesque Mrs. Erksine, twice married to diplomats, traveled, and educated in fashionable French, embodies the patriotic gentility that the Muirs (and perhaps Canadians at large) try to emulate.

Gallant’s writing is succinct and smart as she weaves the web between English Protestant and French Catholic; British, Canadian and American; North American and European. Bitingly funny, infinitely clever, and garnished with a perfect dash of irony, Gallant’s stories do more than stand up to the test of time. Montreal Stories belongs in the favorites section of every Montrealer’s bookshelf. Reviewed  by Marianne Perron, 2009.

On Beauty
Zadie Smith

Anyone who read White Teeth does not need to be introduced to Zadie Smith. If you read either of her first two novels, you will have likely already devoured her latest work of fiction, On Beauty. Her writing is addictive in both its substance and vitality, marking Smith as a young British writer to keep tabs on.

In her third literary installment that won the 2006 Orange Prize, Smith focuses her keen eye upon the spheres of infidelity that surround two families, one American and one British, and the dramatic impact that ensues when the worlds of academia and everyday reality collide.

The Belsey family serves as an eclectic mix in matters of race, religion, education, size and opinion, yet this remarkable ability to remain so different from one another is partially what endears the reader to their case. Alternatively, the British entourage, the Kippses, complement each other quite well, forming a seemingly cohesive unit that only heightens the realization that the Belseys are anything but a tightly knit family, no matter how many Mozart concerts they manage to attend as a family unit.

One of Smith’s amazing abilities as a writer is her capacity to draw her reader into the specific landscapes that her characters chart, principally the London and Boston neighbourhoods that she manifests with startling precision. You can literally smell the tea that permeates every inch of the London streets as well as the authentic apple pie scent that wafts from the windowsills of upper class American homes in Boston.

While Smith’s use of dialogue is remarkably apt throughout the novel, there are a few dangling instances where the voices she gives her characters do not echo against the ear as pristinely or as believably as they rightly should. This might be owing to a tendency to overindulge when charging through speeches that are simply dripping with academic jargon, but it’s a fault that she can be easily be forgiven for, considering that the pleasure of reading her novel severely outweighs a debatably implausible quip or two.

On Beauty is a cohesively unified narrative on the polemic of love and marriage, as well as a complicated but in-depth look at familial relationships. It puts contemporary university existence in America under the microscope and demands a reconciliation between students that walk the halls of universities and those that can only afford to look in through the half-fogged glass.

When asked about how she perceives her own writing, Smith claimed, “I think of my books as collections of sentences and I find I like bits of the writing more than I like other bits.” Please believe me when I tell you that you’ll likely enjoy all the bits she has on offer in On Beauty, as it’s always the bits that draw you in. Reviewed by Kimberly Senf.

Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Vladimir Nabokov

Anyone turned on by forbidden love or linguistic acrobatics should check out Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor. At once a tangled delight of language and imagery, a dark love poem written from the bitterest of arbors, and the dewy kiss of a naughty innocence, Ada is a tricky but rewarding read. Demi-distant siblings amorously entwined, Van and Ada Veen coyly break and stake each others hearts as they move from post-infantile coitus to the adulation of a more adult adultery. Written by Marianne Perron for The Tragically Unip August 2008.


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