Prairie Fire Review - Letters to Omar

Reviewed by: Bev Sandell Greenberg

Author Rachel Wyatt's latest novel is a heart-warming tale of friendship, family and loss. In the 1990s, Wyatt served as the director of the Writing Program for the Banff Centre for the Arts. She was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2002, and received the Queen's Jubilee Medal the following year. To date, she has published six novels and more than one hundred radio plays for the CBC and BBC.

Set in Toronto, her seventh novel focuses on three lifelong friends, Dorthy, Kate and Elsie, now in the seventies. Dorothy and Kate are actually cousins whom Elsie first met at university. A retired executive assistant, Dorothy has weathered three marriages. Her first husband committed suicide, her second was a bigamist and her third was a Russian poet. In her spare time, she writes letters to famous celebrities like the actor Omar Sharif. Kate, a retired professor and divorcee, has a daughter, Delphine, and a grandson, Jake. Elsie and her husband have two daughters, one of whom is estranged. Several years earlier, Alice, a gay jazz musician, left her husband and teenage daughter to move to Europe.

The story takes place over the course of a year. At the outset, Jake is about to head off to Afghanistan. His departure triggers much soul-searching amongst the three friends. As a result, they affiliate themselves with WANT (World Aid Now and Tomorrow) and decide to stage a fundraising dinner to support an Afghan village.

The plot simmers till several events occur in quick succession. The three friends disagree about the distribution of funds raised from the dinner and travel to Ottawa to protest. Soon after, Alice moves back to Toronto around the same time that a publisher named Pierre Jones arrives from France. He insinuates himself into the lives of Elsie, Kate and Dorothy and their family members. Not only does his presence in Toronto stir up the women, it also alters the dynamics of their friendship. As a result, the characters must make some important decisions.

Written in lucid, cinematic prose, the linear narrative is presented as vignettes. Within each chapter, Wyatt also includes the texts of unsent letters penned by Dorothy. As a literary device, they provide readers with her backstory. For Dorothy herself, the letters serve as a coping mechanism, a commentary that gives voice to her thoughts and feelings.

Throughout the novel, Wyatt's playful wit adds an element of levity to the story. At several junctures, the humour centres on food. One example involves Kate's unexpected difficulties with transporting the dessert to the banquet. In another scene, Dorothy ruminates about Elsie's offer to cook a stew for the fundraising dinner from an extra goat head that was donated. She imagined sad eyes floating in gravy. There would be six eyes so the chance of one turning up on her plate was about one in eight. But Elsie was joking surely. She was, though, determine thrify in some areas of her life. (69)

Nevertheless, some aspects of the novel fall short. One drawback is the overwhelming number of characters introduced in the first chapter; in fact, readers may be champing at the bit in their attempts to untangle all the interrelationships. Furhtermore, the character of Pierre Jones does not ring true. He briefly meets Elsie's daughter Isabel in Europe and drops everything to search her out in Canada. Then, coincidentally, he keeps turning up in public places where he bumps into the three friends and their family members. How likely is that in a city the size of Toronto? Savvy readers may conclude that Pierre is little more than a deus ex machina, a device introduced by Wyatt to resolve a few subplots. 

Wyatt's strength is her touching portrayal of female friendship. By the end of the novel, readers will feel intimately acquainted with all three protagonists. 

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