Queen's Court / Edward O. Phillips
Toronto: Cormorant, c2007.
As I looked over the last few books I've read, I had a strange feeling that I couldn't quite put a name to. The books were good -- I enjoyed reading them. Yet, there was a sense of something....something.... Then I read Kerry Clare's review of The O'Briens, and in her opening words my feeling is expressed perfectly:
There exists considerable difference between “a good book” and “a great book”, and lately I’d feared being so fixated on understanding the latter I had become unable to appreciate the former. Which would be a shame, I think, because there is pleasure in a good book, a big fat novel to while away a long weekend with.
And while this particular book is most certainly not a big, fat novel, it is still a good book, a pleasurable read for a warm summer afternoon.
The story follows Louise, a new widow who decides to do things backward -- from living in the retirement capital of Victoria, B.C., she decides to move back to her hometown, Montréal. A cousin, Diana, lives in the Westmount neighbourhood, and Louise stays with her while looking for a place of her own. While they are close friends, Diana is also quite managing, and Louise wishes to be independent. She finds a beautiful old apartment in downtown Montréal called Queen's Court and moves in, only to find her life complicated by her neighbours.
The highlights of this book for me were the descriptions of Montréal and environs (ie: Westmount), perhaps because that was my neighbourhood for most of the eleven years that I lived in Montréal and it was a lovely, nostalgic visit. But I think the sense of place is particular and pungent enough to satisfy any reader. Louise is an amusing narrator, an "old woman" who still loves her scotch and a bit of extracurricular adventure with an old lover. She vacillates between proper and pugnacious, with a fondness for strong language. Actually, the manner in which she describes her amorous adventures was a little bit jarring for me -- she uses "the F word" repeatedly and while I have no problem with that word it felt a bit cynical for her character.
She is also the least susceptible old lady possible, and becomes suspicious of her neighbour Jonathan, an antiques-dealing, old-lady-courting gay man. Phillips lets his pen run free with his satiric representation of Jonathan, especially when he has a friend visit -- their repartée is risqué and slightly catty. (I imagine he is allowed to do such as he is satirizing his own community.) Then Louise's son arrives for a visit and immediately (on his first day) falls in with Jonathan in an obvious enough manner that Louise has to do something about it. Not because she has confirmation that her son is gay, but because she can't stand Jonathan.
All these personality wrangles, plus a little bit of a mystery about the source of some of the antiques across the hall, lead Louise a lively chase. She investigates, finds satisfactory solutions to some of her dilemmas, and restores a more meaningful relationship with her cousin Diana. It is entertaining reading even while there are a few flaws.
Primarily, the dialogue sounds almost noir at times -- amusing but a bit wearing after a while. Some funny lines, though, and plenty of sharp observation. The novel is named Queen's Court and yet it opens with Louise yet to find her apartment, and at the end she leaves it and moves back to care for Diana when that lady becomes ill. Despite Louise's leap at independence, she ends the tale doing exactly what an old lady should do, and what she was rather vehemently opposed to at the beginning: living in close quarters with her cousin in Westmount, taking on companion duties. I would have wished for a more lively finale for this feisty woman.
Nonetheless, Phillips' portrayal of the varied characters of Westmount was entertaining enough that I'd now love to read Early Birds, his novel about three women preparing for a garage sale. I'm sure the gentle skewering would be plentiful there.
(Listen to a lovely, brief interview in which he gives props to George Eliot, Jane Austen & Barbara Pym, among others -- keep listening past the creepy computerized voice at the beginning!)
For this year's Canadian Book Challenge I've chosen as my theme "Small-Press-Palooza" Thus, for each book I'm including a link to the small press who has published it. Take a look -- there are wonderful small presses all over Canada!