Haley, Susan: Maggie’s Family and Choyce, Lesley: Cold Clear Morning

Maggie’s Family
by: Susan Haley
Gaspereau Press
282 pages;

AND

Cold Clear Morning
by: Lesley Choyce
Beach Holme Publishing
268 pages

First published in The Globe and Mail,1998

Reviews by: Kerry Riley

If recent North American fiction was one’s only source of information, one could be forgiven for forming the impression that Nova Scotia functions, primarily, as a safe harbour for the heartsick and world-weary. And, while anyone who has ever visited the province would surely be uncomfortable with such a lop-sided generalization, they would, I think, instantly concede the appropriateness of the idea. Even a short acquaintance with that most elemental of places provides a sense of its restorative powers.

Two new Canadian novels, Maggie’s Family, by Susan Haley and Cold Clear Morning, by Lesley Choyce, have a central character, who, lost in the wider world, returns to her/his Nova Scotian birthplace to learn essential truths about life, love and family.

In Haley’s book, middle-aged Maggie, neglected wife of superstar biologist Jim Ribbinski, returns to her hometown of Amadou Bay, two squabbling teenaged daughters in tow, to tend to her dying mother, and take possession of the house that is her inheritance.

A lonely only-child, her marriage in limbo, and tenuously employed, Maggie is clearly stalled in a backwater of her life. Then, one bright, shiny day, Tom Stephansson, an old childhood crush, now acting in the local summer theatre, waltzes into her life. Soon, he has her teenagers tamed, her household shipshape, delicious (and slimming) meals on the table. He proves, further, to be an enthusiastic and considerate lover, apparently blind to the droops and sags of mid-life. He comes complete with an endearing gaggle of theatre friends – two perpetually helpful (and tidy) gay men, in particular — who provide a nurturing extended family for Maggie and her daughters. Maggie’s dismal existence has been transformed into every peri-menopausal woman’s fantasy.

It is, of course, too good to be true (or, at least, completely true) and trouble arrives in the form of “la Barry” a rapacious diva imported to boost the star quality of the theatre season. Maggie is shocked to discover that Tom is entirely willing to use his (admittedly ambiguous) sexuality to advance his career. Much emotional turmoil ensues before a new, more realistic equilibrium is established.

More nuanced than any short review can express, Maggie’s Family is a gently probing, funny and wise examination of what it really means to be a family. Although Maggie herself is, at times, a maddeningly timourous creature, and the dramatic arc of the story diffuse, one is left feeling freshly buoyant about life. A Bridget Jones’s Diary for the 50-something crowd, this tale will rekindle your love affair with the idea of family, however broadly you choose to define the term.

In Choyce’s book, Cold Clear Morning, Taylor Colby, a Nova Scotia native who has made a name for himself in the American music business, returns to his boat-builder father’s home, in retreat from the drug-induced death of his wife. Soon, his estranged mother, Helen, turns up too, seeking reconciliation. Meanwhile, feminist academic Jillian arrives in town with her troubled son Wade. Guitar-strumming, surf-loving, all-round affable good-guy Taylor learns a lot about love, life, and forgiveness, melts Jillian’s frosty heart, and straightens out her son, before returning to America, where his dead wife teaches him to look up, not down, and he is able to rededicate his life to the things that are important.

Choyce works hard (although not always successfully) to avoid the forest of clichés lurking in any storyline that includes surfing and rock music. His tactic, often, is to push deliberately against type (the dangerously-smouldering-deeply-wounded-by-love-lone-wolf-hero type, that would be). This, admittedly, makes for a more interesting characterization, but Taylor still manages to suffer from epic self-absorption, and, as narrator, keeps his own story firmly centre-stage. Yes, he’s full of guilt and regret, but the operative word in self-flagellation is still “self.” The other main characters shuffle mildly about, being good and decent, and doing the right thing, while Taylor works through his lonely odyssey of self-discovery. Jillian, it must be said, falls pretty fast, for a feminist.

A Maritimer, and surfer himself, Choyce writes engagingly and well about the water, and it is the (fortunately frequent) passages dealing with the ocean which save this book. That, and the fact that Taylor Colby is actually quite likable, and, in the end, we do care about his journey, even if the path is well-worn.

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