Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Textbook of the Rose

The Textbook of the Rose / Joann McCaig
Dunvegan, ON: Cormorant Books, c2005.
168 p.

Another tale of a middle aged woman having a bit of a life crisis: but this one was much more satisfying for me.

It has heft, it struggles with the questions of love and relationship, power, friendship and more. Stella is a professor of medieval literature, and the novel's structure is influenced by medieval narrative conventions -- it begins with a prologue, proceeds through a series of passus, and ends with an epilogue. It's also shaped by taking the form of a romance quest, with mentions of Gawain and of the Canterbury Tales throughout. I found that this layered the story in a way that I found rewarding to explore, with deeper meanings echoing through the pages.

Stella is in her forties; she has an ex, Jake, who left her for a younger grad student. She has two children. She has a love affair with a much younger man, an innocent, halfway through the book. Or does she? The way Stella tells her story, revises her story, recants and reasserts what is truth, makes reading this a continual fascinating puzzle. What is going on and why is she telling us what she does? It's not so much that she's an unreliable narrator or that she is delusional -- not at all. It's the shaping of her story to hold meaning for her, taking imaginative flights into what could hold meaning and shaping them to fit her reality. The interplay of structure and story really appealed to me, and I enjoyed the surprises and doubling-back within the narrative.

Stella has friends and acquaintances within her work world, many women, and they get along for the most part. They are able to share their experiences and feelings about the way their disciplines are changing, what the new trends in scholarship are and how that makes them feel about the security of their positions. They also frankly discuss the place of older women in their situation.s and ponder what is to be done. I liked the fact that Stella didn't see every other woman as a rival, even with the betrayal of her protege, the promising grad student who ended up leaving her studies to start up a relationship with Stella's husband. And even that grad student isn't portrayed as an evil villain but has some complexity to her character.

This novel has enough plot to keep you reading -- a good main character -- fairly straightforward language even with the medieval influence -- and a nice sense of a prairie summer particularly in the middle sections. I enjoyed this and think it will be one I'll read again.


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!


  1. Wow, this sounds really interesting. I like the idea of fitting a modern story into a medieval type of writing.

  2. Medea - it's hard to express the feel of this book. It's not medieval in tone, but the main character references many medieval patterns and characters and it really deepens the read. I liked it.

  3. I like reading your reviews of these sort of off-the-beaten-track sort of books. Stuff form the "small-presses" as your footnote says.
    This one sounds quite interesting, and again -- one I will watch for in my travels, having heard of it, from you.
    I am very much a fan of Canadian literature and think we can boast of some of the very finest writers in the world! Not only of the Atwood and Ondaatje status, but also writers like Frances Itani, Barbara Gowdy, Emma Donaghue, Steven Heighton -- one could go on, ad infinitum.

  4. Cip - thanks so much! I second you on the vast number of fabulous Canadian writers we could name (I do love Frances Itani!)

  5. I once went to a Frances Itani Breakfast at Chapters... it was just so peaceful and surreal. We had..... breakfast! [Go figure]. She is so very down-to-earth and sincere.
    It was during her Poached Egg on Toast promotional touring [a book I really enjoyed]. I must say, her Leaning, Leaning Over Water is still my favorite, though. Wonderful, connected short stories -- taking place in OTTAWA, no less.
    As do many of the books of Elizabeth Hay.

  6. Cip - I enjoyed Leaning, Leaning over Water a lot, but think that Naming the Bones is still my favourite read. And you are so lucky to have had BREAKFAST with her! :) I went to uni at the same time as her son (a very nice guy) so have a fondness for her personally as well.

  7. Interesting, medieval in a sense that the story is a bit Madame Bovary-ish? I guess, regular women hasn't change, with that I bet this is a fine book.


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