For some reason I forgot about Mary Lawson. I read *Crow Lake* and *The Other Side of the Bridge* and liked them both, but then forgot who she was. And so this summer when I moved to Guelph, ON and saw ads at the (charming) local bookstore that Mary Lawson was coming to read I sort of shrugged. The ads billed her as “local” and I somehow didn’t connect that “local” in this instance could have been replaced with “international bestseller.” So imagine my delight in hearing her read and putting the two together: ah! Mary Lawson + Crow Lake! And then my enthusiasm to pick up Roads End – expecting (and receiving!) a Christmas read of the same kind of great character and plot of her earlier work.
What makes a great character? I’ve argued elsewhere for a character that makes believable – if difficult – decisions, characters who develop, change, regress, over the course of the narrative. In this instance its the development *after* the narrated plot that I’d highlight as an indicator of a successful character. This novel takes the narrative point of view of three characters — Megan (third person), Tom (third) and Edward (first) — and lets the reader alternately inhabit their perspective on past/present events. Overlapping chronologies require the reader to piece together plot through the disparate narration in a manner that rewards attentiveness and lends a certain (perhaps unnecessary?) suspense. In effect the decision to narrate in this way allows the reader to get “close” to all three and imagine their conflicts and aspirations continue after the book ends. For me – and perhaps an indication of my proximity to the character more than anything else – I was most interested in Megan’s journey and her ultimate decision. Since finishing the book a few days ago I’ve been lamenting that I don’t know – for sure – what happens to her next. And hoping that in Lawson’s next book (as in this one!) characters from past novels will reappear to provide a soothing “it works out fine for her” kind of answer.*
The plot itself doesn’t demand grandeur, instead it takes quotidian drama, adds the tragedy unique to small towns — the suicide/affair/birth/illness/injury/crime that everyone both knows about and is affected by — and allows characters the space and time to fully respond to the events. The book is worth reading if only for the way it lets the reader argue against the character’s decisions, seeing in all the ways their lives could be easier, more satisfying, more… something.
And it’s there – in the wanting what’s best for the characters – that I come to my minor complaint with an otherwise terrific read. It’s that it read to me like Lawson couldn’t quite leave her characters as hurt and as bewildered as they deserved to be. Which is not to say the changes they experience are unjustified or rushed – they’re not – but rather that the “roads end” for the characters, while not quite headed to the sunset, is decidedly smoother than I found believable or fair. Am I sadist? Maybe (count me in with Munro there), but I expect that for all the effort spent making the characters utterly believable, fallible, frustrating and *human* they might have done better to end with a little more bleak – and not the hope of the (literal) spring on which the novel concludes.
*My caveat: So I loved *Gone With the Wind* as a teenager. I loved the sex and the brutality of the ending. (I tried to re-read it in my early 20s and discovered I couldn’t make it through the racism). So, of course, I devoured the sequel (authored by Alexandra Ripley) *Scarlett* as I wanted – desperately – for the characters to live on and to find love, reconciliation, etc, blah blah, love. But, of course, the novel was terrible. It had to be terrible. Readers didn’t deserve and shouldn’t get “answers” or “solutions” to what-happens-to-characters-after-the-last-page. That should be the work of the novel itself. If readers can’t predict, or at least imagine, what the next decisions will be then perhaps the novel and its characters weren’t very good in the first place. Which is not to say I don’t want to see Lawson’s characters reappear, just that I know my desire to see them again is a selfish one borne of liking them, and not a literary one.