Sunday, March 01, 2015

Book of Eve

Book of Eve / Constance Beresford-Howe
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2001, c1973.
176 p.

This is an interesting Canadian classic, of sorts. It's the brief tale of Eva, a 65 year old Montreal woman who has finally had enough of her emotionally stifled (though physically comfortable) life in Westmount, and enough of her demanding husband. So, she simply sets down her things and leaves the house. And does not come back.

She moves into a small apartment in a decidedly non-comfortable neighbourhood in the downtown area of Montreal. It's a basement studio, and she makes it nicer with some fabric, a plant, and eventually a stray cat that she takes in. She also explores her own desires and longings, spending much time dreaming and remembering and trying to decide where she wants to go from this point on.

There are others living in the house that she's ended up in. The owners are upstairs, and above them there are more tenants, including a younger Polish man with whom she has an affair. While the Goodreads summary says this is about a woman who 'finds love', I don't think that her love affair is the point here. She is finding herself; finding her emotional freedom despite the financial difficulties it causes her, despite the loss of any social standing that results, despite the distance it causes between her only son and herself.

The only thing that really gave me pause was the way that Eva refers to herself a few times as elderly, as decrepit, and so forth. I felt like she sounded a lot older than the age she was supposed to be -- but perhaps that was self-perception as she struggled not to feel that she'd wasted most of her life already.

Written in the 70's, it really reflects the issues brought up in Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, and many of the concerns of 70's feminism -- the lack of agency women had in their lives, the emotional abuse that was normal for many housewives, the boredom and loss of self that resulted -- but this story is also a very individual one that relies on the character of Eva Carroll and the wonderful Montreal setting to really make it shine. I thought it captured an era really well, and was able to illuminate one small story that opens up into a larger one. It's a moving story of a woman who just has to strike out on her own, and is willing to pay the social and monetary costs to be true to herself.

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Further Reading:

If you're looking for a similar kind of slower-moving story about the small moments of a woman's life, you could try a variety of Alice Munro's short fiction. While many of her heroines make subtler changes than Eva did, they are all fighting to be true to themselves.

Ethel Wilson's 1954 Swamp Angel follows Maggie Lloyd, a woman who walks out on her difficult second marriage and finds a new life working at a fishing camp in the B.C. interior. While her more remote setting brings different challenges than Eva's very urban Montreal one, both women are striving to find a place where their spirit can be free.

8 comments:

  1. Loved The Book of Eve. And I agree about the references to age and her perception of self; could be in part due to the circumstances she comes from (having 'lost' herself in marriage and so feeling the weight of that) or the era. In the 70's, age sixty-five would have been so much older than it is now. At least we're making 'some' progress! (;

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    1. It's true that 65 would have been 'older' in that time. She's definitely feeling it, though.

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  2. Both books interest me, but I'm leaning more towards Swamp Angel.

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    1. Swamp Angel is more mysterious, and even so, Ethel Wilson's other books are even better than Swamp Angel, in my opinion! I really love her stuff.

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  3. My mother and I both enjoyed The Book of Eve a lot back when it was published. She selected it for her book club (they met monthly for over 50 years) and interviewed the author as part of her presentation.

    Oh wait, I just remembered this part: Constance B-H was so intrigued by the idea of the book club doing her book, she asked to attend the meeting. And did.

    I must go see if it's among the books I held onto when we sold her house.

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    1. That is so cool! What an amazing book club meeting that must have been. And also pretty fascinating that they met for 50 years. Amazing.

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  4. Wonderful review as always, Melwyk. This book is new to me, and it sounds very interesting, although it might be a tad depressing in some ways. (Hopefully, modern marriage features more equality.)

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    1. Yes, it is kind of depressing to see what expectations were, and what Eva's options seemed to be then. Very much a classic of its time.

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Thanks for stopping by ~ I hope you will leave your comments and reflections to let me know what you think!