Toronto : HarperCollins Canada, c2007.
I should start by saying that I am of Ukrainian background, so I am always interested in what Janice Kulyk Keefer is writing. When I heard this book was coming up, I was delighted. It deals with the intertwined lives of a group of first-generation Ukrainian-Canadian women who, in the 1960's, spend their summers at the beach with their children. (Husbands appear on weekends). To liven things up a little, they start a 'lending library'; a book club of sorts, primarily made up of sexy novels (Tropic of Cancer, Lady Chatterly's Lover, Valley of the Dolls, etc).
How could I resist this triple threat? Kulyk Keefer, Ukrainian mothers and daughters, and books -- what else could I ask for? I read through this novel very rapidly, and I did like it, though I had been expecting something a little different at the start. It wasn't a straight-ahead narrative leading to a crashing climax; rather, it was a gathering of impressions, moments that cumulatively led to a great change in all their lives. Kulyk Keefer's last novel was an imaginative retelling of Katherine Mansfield's life, entitled "Thieves"; the germ of this novel was found in Mansfield's short story "At the Bay".
It tells the stories of women like Sonia Martyn, Sasha Plotsky, Nadia Senchenko, and their various daughters and sons. The lives of the women as friends, wives and mothers are explored, filling out their characters bit by bit. The lives of the pre-adolescent daughters are also captured, in a very visceral way. This is set the summer that "Cleopatra" was released, and this is made much of - perhaps a bit too heavily at times. The idea that Liz Taylor and Richard Burton willfully follow their passions in an affair both repels and attracts these women, and this motif plays out in their community. Both in reading their 'dirty' books and in their fascination with Taylor and Burton's affair, these women
"are all pretty incorruptible...that is, they remain afraid. That's why what happens this summer appears to them a calamity, the social equivalent, Sasha thinks, of an earthquake or a hurricane. ... Because it will end up changing everything: they will lose their innocence by gaining imagination, understanding that it can happen to any of them. That you don't have to be Elizabeth Taylor to give way, to give yourself away. That it can happen in Hamilton as well as Hollywood. That you can make it happen."
Near the end, shocking events occur that change the way they all relate; one of the single mothers is discovered to be beating and abusing her daughter, and one of the husbands runs off with another of the wives. The love affair is nothing very shocking to us now, not as it would have been in the 60's. It's the importance of it to the women, shown in the quote above, that makes it such a defining moment in the novel. I think, though, that due to the lack of one subjective character to follow throughout the book, we see the terrible events but don't really feel them. I was more alarmed by the scene in which clumsy daughter Laura accidentally snips a hole in the bodice of her mother's party gown and then shoves it into the back of the closet; you feel Laura's panic and knowledge that she has once again proven her awkwardness, in contrast to her two lovely sisters. Another scene more powerful that the final romantic flight is one in which a developmentally disabled boy is tricked into trying to kiss another boy decked out as a girl. The tension in that scene between all the boys, the two involved in the action as well as the group of instigators, make it fairly snap with electricity.
Still, I think this is a lovely summer read; you can smell the lake, feel the hot sand sticking to you, and recognize the boredom of the children which causes them to do various unadvisedly foolish things. It is a story of a summer in which darkness slips up between the cracks of an apparently idyllic season. The long, lazy unchanging summer days lead into big changes that shake up this group of nice Ukrainian Ladies.