A woman finally confronts the past she has blotted out for more than 20 years in Warren’s follow-up to her Governor General’s Award–winning debut (Juliet in August, 2012).
On holiday in Ireland, Frances Moon blurts out to her longtime partner, Ian, that she had a stillborn child when she was 19 and, by the way, never divorced the husband who wasn’t the father of her baby. Back in Toronto, Frances quits her job and heads for Elliot, the small town in western Canada where she grew up. She is devastated Ian might not be waiting when she gets back, but she has done nothing to counter his accusation that “you are a person who resists happiness.” We begin to discern the reasons for this in Chapter 2, which rolls back to the early 1960s to show 5-year-old Frances wondering if her restless, dissatisfied mother has taken off for good while her father weeps at night. Mom does return, making it her mission to ensure that her daughter goes to university and escapes her fate as a farmer’s wife. As Warren traces Frances’ loss-haunted childhood and adolescence—three significant adults in her life die unexpectedly—the present-tense narration underscores that none of these issues have been resolved. It’s painful to watch Frances sabotaging herself: refusing to apply for a scholarship; marrying a much-older man simply because it gives her aimless life some direction; then abruptly changing course when the magnitude of her mistake dawns on her. Warren’s reluctance to delve into her characters’ motivations gives the novel a rather distanced feel for quite a while, though it’s highly readable throughout. Then, just as young-adult Frances “step[s] from the ruins of a life that didn’t happen,” the startling interpolation of the town scapegrace’s back story points us in the direction of a tentative emotional reckoning for Frances as well. The understated yet touching closing pages suggest Frances has achieved some degree of contentment.
Fine, sensitive fiction, though the author’s rigorously restrained approach won’t be to everyone’s taste.