Edmonton: NeWest, 2012.
This debut novel by Cassie Stock was great fun to read. I loved the design and the concept -- art and craft intertwine and the cover and interior design both reflect a doily design that hints at "old lady" but ends up being so much more.I also enjoyed the fact that it is set in Winnipeg -- she names the city and uses its landmarks and buildings in the book.
As the story opens, our 27 year old protagonist Frieda Zweig has given up on her goal of life as an artist. She's one of those women who have lost their way, and are slightly awkward and outsider-ish. She's staying with her very successful and very traditionally feminine friend Ginny while she tries to sort herself out, and impulsively responds to the following personal ad she's stumbled on while looking through the papers for a job:
BEAUTIFUL old phonograph for sale. 78 record player. Excellent condition. Gladys doesn’t dance anymore. She needs the room to bake. Bring offer. Ph. 254-9885.When she arrives at the house she's called, however, there is no gramophone, only a room to rent. So she takes it. And finds out that there is more than one inhabitant of the house: Gladys is indeed still in residence, as the most entertaining ghost I've come across in a while. She appears and disappears at will, telling Frieda her life story (heart breaking!) and encouraging Frieda to return to painting. To me, she seems to represent the ancestral past, of women who were held back, and serves as a reminder that we have so much opportunity to create and express our selves: if we don't want to do it for ourselves, we need to think of all the others who didn't have the chance, and not take our freedoms for granted! However, Stock does not get preachy or "issue bound" when she's telling the story... that is simply the feeling the Gladys brought out in me.
This novel is quite dense with characters -- Frieda is living with her friend Ginny at the beginning; she gets to know both Gladys and her new landlord Mr. Hausselman quite well; her millionaire exboyfriend Norman and his mother show up; Mr. Hausselman's son Whitman is convinced to return home for a brief visit, and introduces a local woman, Marilyn (a tough screenwriter) to the mix; the next door neighbour Miss Kesstle (a master crocheter) and a young girl named Girl also become integral to the tale. The relationships between all of these characters are unusual and don't take the easy route -- no simple pairing up going on here. Mr. H teaches at a downtown centre for youth, which focuses on the arts as a way to give underserved kids a way to find meaning in their lives. When the government threatens to close it down, all the characters come together to form a protest (which in itself is pretty creative and entertaining).
At its heart this story is about creating a life: whether that's through art, craft, business or relationships. Creative power bubbles throughout, and I found that the narrative really honoured Frieda's painting as well as Miss Kesstle's crocheting prowess, and Girl's cardboard box art installations. Whitman is a film-maker and Marilyn, a screenwriter who's hit bottom. Marilyn is an interesting character: successful by selling her screenplays to Whitman, she is also an addict and a very cynical, suspicious character. She has some very strong opinions about the role of women in art and about the subtle ways women are held back as artists. I loved how Stock takes Fine Art, domestic craft and feminism and stirs them all into a story that, despite its darker moments, sadnesses and soul-searching, ends up being uplifting and life affirming.
While all is well that ends well, not every character gets a happy ending. Some get a sad one while others end up with a realistically ambiguous status. But this book satisfies, and entertains, and provokes thought. A perfect book to sit down and discuss with other readers, with all its twists and turns and Ideas. This is a fabulous debut -- I will be looking out for further novels by Cassie Stock!
(Read the opening here)
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!