Canadian author Barfoot (Critical Injuries, 2002, etc.) displays a quiet brilliance in her latest novel, about three women who come to terms with the unexpected death of the man in their midst.
In a large house in a small town, somewhere in North America, a man dies in his sleep. The middle-aged and hitherto robust Philip Lawrence has had a heart attack. His wife Nora screams, something she failed to do years before when she rang a doorbell and first encountered Philip “lean, grinning, nude.” Impressed by her cool, Philip promptly jettisoned his first wife and took Nora back to his hometown, where he thrived as a furniture designer and she as a cutting-edge artist. Nora’s scream brings Sophie and Beth running. Sophie, a voluptuous, 30-ish redhead, is the housekeeper/bookkeeper; the younger Beth, a beautiful airhead, is Nora’s live-in model. The novel plays out over the next three days, culminating in the funeral. Wryly humorous and bittersweet, it is full of surprises. For the last two months, Philip and Sophie have been lovers, passionate but cautious; Sophie, then, is as devastated as Nora. Beth, however, feels liberated; she has erotic designs on Nora. There are intriguing mysteries: Why has Nora’s artwork caused outraged townspeople to daub their fence with graffiti? What is causing Sophie’s nightmares? Why is Beth so tight-lipped about her family? (The answer there is a real shocker.) As the funeral nears, the memory of good-hearted, gregarious, sometimes fickle Philip is everywhere. Nestled snugly within the narrative are numerous themes: the nature of grief, the making of art, the uses (and misuses) of beauty, with the role of chance looping through them all. There is a lively funeral (Beth goes nuts, for one) and a satisfying coda at an art gallery a year later.
Barfoot brings a fine protean energy to the different perspectives of the women, intensifying our curiosity about their destinies; nice work.