Clara Callan: In which I start writing the review ambivalent, and end up not liking the book; or, the merit of writing reviews

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Oh I don’t know. It’s hard sometimes to summon a review. Sometimes you read something and think ‘yes. that was just fine.’ And in the case of Richard Wright’s (why does he insist on the middle initial?) Clara Callan, I have no solid argument against reading it, but I also can’t muster a persuasive case for picking it up. So sure, if you find yourself in a hostel with a free copy (or in my case, a used bookstore with a copy in the $1 bin and your only other reading material is the very boring A Brief History of Seven Killings) then by all means: go in.

Here’s what you’d be in for:

Set in the mid-1930s we follow Clara, a spinster school teacher, through love/life upheavals. Told through diaries and letters the novel does some interesting (and at time acrobatic) work in sketching Clara’s interior life through these heavily mediated outward displays of thought. We are always at one further step remove and working to balance what Clara tells her sister, tells herself, and what might better approximate the truth of her character.

Clara’s sister, Nora, moves from their small town Ontario home to New York city to be a radio actress. Cue some of the heavy handed I-went-to-the-library-to-research-this-novel aspects. Moments where Clara or Nora are viewing a particular film, or reading a particular novel, or a specific politician has a specific public moment that offer very little to plot or character development and seem instead to be signals of Just How Representative Of the Period this novel is meant to be (can you tell I was a little annoyed by it all)?

We’re meant – I suspect – to feel sorry for Clara. She’s all alone! With nothing to occupy her but the coal furnace (the coal created for me some unjustified resonance with Sons and Lovers that I just couldn’t shake) and writing (and then burning) little poems, she is the portrait of a sad, eccentric, a little unhinged spinster that bedevils content and fulfilled single women the world over. Until – and of course – she encounters men. And then boy does her life see action. I won’t do you the disservice of spoilers, okay I will, except to say: pregnancy! torrid affairs! roadside sexual assault! abortion!  Okay, it’s not – at all – dramatic like that because it’s told through Clara’s plodding and ho-hum narrative voice. But it’s pretty frustrating that all the action in her life – all the moments where she makes deliberate choices – come about as the result of something a man did.

Which isn’t to say the book lacks for interesting women. Nora’s friend and radio producer, E.something – Evelyn? I forget – is a rich, independent, force of nature. And a lesbian to boot, which is important only insofar as I’m making this claim that the book sets women up to be defined by their relationships with men. Except I still am! Because E. can’t find love in New York and moves to Hollywood so she can be rewarded by male producers and writers. So there. (okay, she may find love in the end, but whatever). And Nora is kind of interesting, too. Except oh wait. She also flits about wooing (married) men and bemoaning that she’ll never be a wife and mother.

So sure. The book has some great period scenes (and by great I mean sometimes stumbling into the over-set). And some interesting moments of narration. And some complex female relationships. But I think on the whole I didn’t like it. So there. Lessons in writing a book review: writing it down can help you figure out your reaction and opinion. Who knew? (okay, everyone who keeps a journal. But whatever. You smug journal-writers-you.)

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Governor Generals

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