Barbara Gowdy: The Romantic
One day, maybe, I will let my anal-retentiveness run wild and divide all the books reviewed on this site into various categories. One category, to show you what I mean, will be novels featuring quirky characters. Barbara Gowdy will figure strongly in this category. Following on from Mr. Sandman, this features another set of quirky characters. The trouble with the quirky character genre is that you have to steer a fairly straight course between outrageously quirky and boringly normal. In addition, you have to make sure that you do not slip into the mawkish. Sadly, in this novel, Gowdy comes too close to the mawkish and too close to the boringly normal. It’s not a bad novel but not as good as Mr. Sandman.
Firstly, as the title implies, it is about love. The narrator/heroine is Louise Kirk. Her mother was a former beauty queen. She was also hyper-critical of the neighbours and, indeed, pretty everyone else. She had high standards, particularly as regards dress. And, one day, she just left Louise and Louise’s father, Sawyer (Saw) and is discovered only many years later after she died. About a year later, the Richters moved in across the street. They were a German couple who had adopted a son, Abel, just a bit younger than Louise. As Louise tell us at the very beginning of the book, Abel will die on her twenty-sixth birthday and most of the book is about her love for Abel, told three years after his death. The book jumps around chronologically so we see both her early meeting with him (in the nearby ravine where both play at first alone and then, eventually, together) and her caring for him up to his death (from cirrhosis of the liver – he is a chronic alcoholic), before learning of what went in the middle.
Louise is not much concerned with Abel’s motives but only her love for him which, in good quirky fashion, is up and down. Abel sort of tells her that he loves her but though they have a childish affair, a quick fuck on the lawn when teenagers and then a brief affair later, there seems to be some doubt. His family moves to Vancouver when they are in the early teens and, while Louise tries to keep in touch, Abel does not. Indeed, he returns to Toronto without telling her and she only finds out when she meets him at a party (which leads to the quick fuck). While they stay in touch by phone after that, she eventually realizes that she is pregnant. She flies out to Vancouver (to where he has returned), spies on him, sees him with another girl, returns home, induces a miscarriage and refuses to have anything to do with him. They get together again and have their affair but she catches him in bed with another woman and refuses to speak to him again. Only when he is dying, do they get back together.
Mixed in with this love story are a variety of other characters but most are not really very quirky. There is her very ordinary father, the housekeeper, Mrs. Carver, who eventually marries Mr. Kirk, her three lovers (two of short duration and one who catches her in bed with Abel), various employers, colleagues and schoolfriends. But none of them is really interesting to us or, indeed, to Louise. Gowdy tells a good story but this one didn’t quite make it.
First published 2003 by Metropolitan Books