There may be no place more conspicuous in its pursuit of perfection than suburbia. While every suburb differs somewhat, depending on its location—or forest that’s been flattened to accommodate its vast expanse—what the subdivision doesn’t waver on is its promise of a better life.
To author Carrianne Leung’s parents, living in Hong Kong in the 1970s, the suburbs were a mystical place where new opportunities sprang forth like water from an automatic sprinkler on a tidy green lawn. So when Canada passed a new immigration act that set off a wave of emigration from non-Western European countries, they left their home, with 7-year-old Leung in tow, to settle in a new subdivision in Scarborough.
Living in a newly built neighborhood was “really exciting,” Leung recalls. “The pressures and boundaries were being figured out. We were constantly taking notes on what Canadians did.” However, as exhilarating as a new place can be, the adjustment to it can be frightening and isolating. “There’s a mark of respectability with suburbs where you don’t go beyond the fence,” says Leung.
When a suicide rocked Leung’s neighborhood, its ripple effects were felt, but there was no discussion about it around the dinner table, no attempt to use the tragedy as a way to talk about issues surrounding mental illness. Instead, the kids were left to contemplate the death on their own. “The adults were the ones who pretended not to see,” Leung explains. “No one talked about it because we were supposed to be good neighbors.”
In her transfixing book, That Time I Loved You—a collection of linked stories that all take place in 1970s Toronto—a string of grisly suicides takes hold of a brand-new subdivision in Scarborough similar to the one in which Leung grew up. Starting first with Mr. Finley, one of the neighborhood parents who “off[s] himself” with a rifle in his basement, these deaths set the community on edge, particularly June, the precocious daughter of Chinese immigrants, whose curiosity and fear prompt her to closely monitor the adults around her for any indicator that they may be next. What she finds instead is that appearances aren’t always what they seem. Hidden in the delicate ecosystem of their suburban oasis are secret lives veiled by lies, infidelity, and bottles full of Pledge. “Every day was a collective staring down into a deep hole of one’s own making and imagining,” Leung writes.
Gazing beyond the chain-link fences that divide the carbon-copy homes, Leung’s stories grapple with what it means to belong to a place dissected by boundaries. In a landscape that peddles its aspirational uniformity, Leung’s characters—most of them women and first-generation immigrants—lead double lives, struggling to reflect the happiness they’ve been sold. One mother, who no longer feels needed in her household, whispers Portuguese to the primroses in her yard before glugging down a jug of bleach; Marilyn, the town’s elderly socialite and veteran bedazzler, has a predilection for stealing things that people don’t need. On the verge of becoming caricatures of themselves, these women’s eccentricities are grounded in their longing to be seen as individuals. To consider their vices is to consider ours, too.
“For a lot of women during [the ’70s], the suburbs were supposed to be the completion,” says Leung. But for some, the dream of the nuclear family was alienating. In one story called “Fences,” Francesca, a first-generation Italian-Canadian, weighs the facts of a loving marriage in the childless home she’s built with her husband. In Scarborough, “privacy was a luxury they could now afford,” but as soon as a fence is erected in their yard, Francesca is overwhelmed by a need to escape.
It’s impossible not to see echoes of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides in the ease with which Leung excavates whimsy and, conversely, misery in the mundane. But the stories she creates are wholly her own—not just because they’re personal, but because they’re universal. Her imaginary town brings to bear the turmoil and division rendered when physical and social structures are put in place. It’s a sentiment that won’t be lost on her new readers.
Stephanie Buschardt is a writer living in Brooklyn.