Monday, January 21, 2008

Canuck Book Four

I finally got around to finishing Phyllis Brett Young's The Torontonians. It's not that I did not like the book - actually, I liked it a lot - it's just that, as usual, I got distracted.

Anyways, I plowed through and even missed my bus stop last night because I was so wrapped up in the story. The Torontonians is something of a revelation. As I had mentioned before, I used to subscribe to the idea that the Toronto I know and love just magically appeared at some point in the late sixties. Before that, the city was a grey mass of worker bees, churches and strange liquor laws.

While this book does not completely dispel the myth, it does show that, beneath the surface, life was far more interesting and varied than the myth would suggest.

The story follows a week in the life of Karen Whitney, a housewife living in one of Toronto's affluent new (at the time) suburbs. It is a mannered environment of lunches and bridge parties, automatic dishwashers and big cars. One day, she receives 3 letters that will in some way change her life. The novel, then, follows two paths. The present day portions are interspersed with long sections detailing her past - growing up in Toronto and then spending a year in Switzerland going to school.

The story is solid. Karen is suffering from a midlife crisis of sorts where she realizes that the materialistic life she has built in the fictional suburb Rowanwood might not be what she wanted, after all. It works well and is surprisingly relevant. Her comments on women and women's role in society are surprisingly prescient. At one point, she wonders why she and her friends were sent to school when all they were preparing for was housework that could be managed by people with no education. All of these time saving devices that just free up time to do more housework or bake more perfect cakes. This is a novel with teeth. She does not hide her dissatisfaction with a world that is not as different from ours as we would like to believe. Though, nowadays, both men and women risk having their lives trivialized by modern conveniences in both the home and office.

Her comments on consumer culture also stand up well. Talking about society's love of the something for nothing sales pitch, she writes:

"Most of the people on the North American continent, as far as Karen could see, were prepared to play ostrich to this kind of approach. The salesmen and the advertisers, very earnestly and sincerely, assured them that it was indeed so, they could indeed get something for nothing. All they had to do was sign on the dotted line, and keep it in mind that quality was its own reward. And if they were to buy right now, they would actually be saving money."

Later, when talking about the brotherhood that comes with owning the same make of car, she says, "You could leave all the throat-cutting to General Motors and Ford, which was not only convenient but sensible, because they were so much better at it than you were."

One might worry that this book is more suited for a history class, but they would be wrong. Much of the novel still rings true and the dated parts - smoking in the doctor's office or the ever-present martinis - do not get in the way of what is a very good story.


John Mutford said...

I'm one of those rare people not living in Toronto that doesn't openly disdain the place. In fact, I love it there. That said, the only other book I read about that city was Ondaatje's "In The Skin Of A Lion" and that wasn't a pleasant experience. Your choice seems to use it more as a backdrop and I think I'd like that better.

Remi said...

If you want Toronto books, I recommend Elizabeth Ruth's Ten Good Seconds of Silence and Alayna Munce's When I was Young and In My Prime. They are both great. The Munce book is the sort of novel you wish all poets could write - graceful, moving and hypnotic.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I had to google to see when this was written - 1960. This book does seem very clear-viewed and prescient. I shall certainly have to read it. Thanks.