Garbo, Brando, Sean Connery . . . the stars are out in one Ottawa home that’s experiencing video heaven.
Canadian Hay follows her widely praised first novel (A Student of Weather, 2001; Small Change, stories, also 2001) with this investigation of love and romance on-screen and off. Harriet Browning’s dad would not let his kids watch movies. Maybe that’s how her “disease of video love” took hold. Now, in 1997, she’s a middle-aged housewife and part-time teacher, married to architect Lew Gold, with two preteen kids, Kenny and Jane, movie-lovers both. Harriet and Kenny wallow luxuriously in film lore; only Lew is unaffected by movie mania, as he waits patiently for his wife’s return. But Harriet is an insomniac, and she’s also writing (but not mailing) letters to the New Yorker’s redoubtable Pauline Kael: a melancholy woman, Harriet, but also smart, sympathetic, and a devoted mother. Does she like movies because “she could love someone who . . . didn’t know her . . . but not someone whose face had been blurred and compromised by dealing with her”? That’s the heart of the matter. The question takes on new urgency with the arrival among their eccentric neighbors of feisty Dinah Bloom, a single woman, older than Harriet but still attractive; she too is a movie-lover, and joins the club. In fact, she falls in love with the whole family (as does the reader), while noting the dangerous imbalance in the marriage as she and Lew are drawn to each other. Additional complications follow, thanks to Harriet’s self-invited houseguest Aunt Leah, who reeks of malice (she’s the widow of a blacklisted screenwriter), and her bearlike stepson Jack. Will Dinah and Lew make the leap into adultery? Or will she settle for being Jack’s fourth wife (he’s wooing her with roses)? We can sense Hay letting her characters guide her through the muddle; the result is a variety of hard and soft landings.
A sparkling demonstration of Hollywood’s hold on our fantasies—and its awkward fit with our earthbound selves.