Road Ends by Mary Lawson
In this novel, Mary Lawson writes about small town life in Canada, concentrating on one particularly dysfunctional family that made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. The eldest boy in the family, Tom, lost one of his best friends to suicide and eighteen months later, Tom is still too numb to do anything other than live at home and drive a snow plough clearing roads as a job. He barely talks to anyone anymore. His mother has had another baby, despite being advised not to by doctors, has retreated into her own world and totally ignores the rest of the family. Then there’s Meg, the only daughter, the one who has kept the family together and the household running. The father, Edward, is either at work or in his study and avoids his children as much as possible; he seems quite unable to parent. And last of all, there’s dear Adam, who is little still, and totally neglected. He reminded me of a stray dog, desperate for love.
Meg, however, decided she must leave home and goes far away to London where she creates her own working life in a hotel. The household descends into squallor and chaos without her around and, reluctantly, Tom is faced with having to confront just how bad it is and has to learn to deal with the world and responsibilities again. Eventually he writes to Meg and asks her to come home.
I’ve related that in such a bland way; believe me, the book is so much better than the synopsis I’ve just written. It is so tender at times, while mirroring the unintentional cruelties that family members can inflict on each other. It also reflects well the almost claustrophobic atmosphere of a small town, where everyone watches Tom deal (or not deal) with his grief. It’s a great read.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
I haven’t been so pleasantly surprised by a book in a long time – what a great read. I didn’t like Eat, Love, Pray; found it cloying and cringe-worthy, so I didn’t look kindly upon this new novel of Gilbert’s. It is also another tome (why is there such a trend at the moment for extremely long books?), which put me off for a while.
Alma Whittaker, the book’s protagonist, is one of the best characters I’ve met in a long time. She’s not beautiful, she’s not graceful or dainty but my heavens, would she have made a great feminist. Brought up from a young age by her parents to speak her mind, she is intelligent, educated, and constantly curious. The book is set in the 1900s, starting with the story of her parents, and then spanning Alma’s life. It ranges around the globe from London to Peru, Philadelphia to Tahiti and then Amsterdam. Her father, Henry, is an extremely rich man who made his money through the acquisition of rare botanical specimens, while her mother is extremely knowledgable about botany and so Alma grows up in a world of science and exploration, with finally focussing her studies on all kinds of moss.
Through her studies, she meets a man who becomes her husband, a man who brings great sorrow into her life and causes her to finally leave the house she grew up in and go in search of answers to his peculiarities. With these travels, she slowly develops a theory of evolution that equals Darwin’s.
Gilbert must have done an incredible amount of research, both scientifically and historically, for this book, but never once does it sound didactic and I was totally absorbed in Alma’s totally believable world. She is such a rounded character, robust and capable and yet very vulnerable and aware of her physical shortcomings (she’s large with wild red hair, big hands, ‘comely’ one might say).
I haven’t enjoyed a book so much in a long time. It’s not as detailed as The Goldfinch (although about the same length) and perhaps not as skilfully written, but it’s a fantastic story.