Prairie Fire Review - They Shouldn't Make You Promise That
Reviewed by: David Rozniatowski
The republican of this noel, which first appeared in 1981, is a testimony to its appeal. Many readers probably identify with Eleanor, the central character and narrator; others may just find that the story hits a nerve. On my first reading, I was struck by one fleeting scene which gave me a key to my own personal take on the novel. It occurs on an early spring day in Saskatoon as Eleanor is walking her dog along the river bank:
There's a soft, swishing sound , and I see a girl on skis, her shining copper hair covering half the back of her blue ski jacket, push on the poles and disappear down a trail through the trees to the river. (132)
The sudden appearance and disappearance of the skier is the sort of cinematic grace note that would fit well into an Ingmar Bergman film, and the association of ideas with Scandinavia led me to think of how similar Eleanor's situation is to that of Nora in A Doll's House and Hedda in Hedda Gabler. Like Ibsen's heroines, Eleanor is seriously disillusioned in her marriage. Her husband, Hugh, is an accountant by profession, perfectionist by nature, rose-grower by hobby, and classic male chauvinist by choice. To Eleanor's plea, "Hugh, I've been sick. . . Couldn't you have washed your own shirts and socks for once?", his reply is virtually a cliche,". . .doing the laundry isn't my job." (165)
Commenting on Hugh's passion for rose cultivation, Eleanor writes, "Our back yard in summer has been photographed and written up umpteen times in horticultural magazines and the Saskatoon Star Phoenix. The Butchart Gardens have nothing on us." (16)
The irony of the rose-covered exterior hiding the misery inside is almost too obvious. The malaise of the marriage is not a sudden development. Hugh and Eleanor have been married for twenty-two years, and have three children, each of whom is beautifully delineated as an individual--Philip, the anxiety-ridden pre-med student, seventeen-year-old Kate, experiencing the wild mood swings of her age, and Michael, the wisecracking fifteen-year-old who seems to possess the best survival skills of the lot. Eleanor tries to cope with her family's problems and her own, but is hindered by her perception that everyone else is happier than she is. Particularly envying her friend Gena, a free-spirited widow and career woman, whose boyfriend is a temperamental antithesis of Hugh, and Margaret, the wife of one of Hugh's close friends, Eleanor slides into a deepening depression that she tries to combat with sardonic humour. Her interior monologues are engagingly funny and often spiced with literary allusions. Check out her comparison of Hugh with Dickens's Sidney Carton (102), or the sly reference to one of Yeats's Crazy Jane poems in a speculative reverie on Hugh's mother's attitude to sex (106).
The black comedy of a disastrous dinner party, a fiasco of a birthday celebration for Gena, and Gena's death in an accident (suicide?) jolt Eleanor's perspective but only increase her sense of hopelessness. As if keepin pace with Eleanor's mental state, the novel increasingly moves into a maic roller-coaster mode. On her way to buy groceries, Eleanor whimsically wonders about the origin of the name, Safeway,"...is there a dangerous way to get groceries?" (160). Moments later, a confrontation in th supermarket leads to a vignette of sheer Stephen King horror that leaves Eleanor and the reader shaken.
Eleanor finally reacts drastically. During a telephone lecture from Hugh on her failings, fortuitously happening to have a wire-cutting tool in her hand, she severs the telephone cord, nearly electrocuting herself in the process. It's a compromise between Nora slamming the door at the end of A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler pulling the trigger of the pistol. (By the way, how perfectly Hugh could mouth the inanity of the final line from Hedda Gabler: "But people don't do that sort of thing!")
Flight (including a comic episode of a desperate emergency search for a washroom), temporary solace with Gena's friend and lover, Harold, and remorse follows in quick succession. As the story ends, Eleanor's future is uncertain, but she has taken the first tentative steps towards regaining control of her life.
Lois Simmie's narrative is fluid and eloquent, and her gift for characterization is outstanding. She conveys the sense of Eleanor's pain so vividly that it almost overpowers the defensive humour of the novel.
Horace Walpole wrote that this world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel. Eleanor has both intelligence and sensitivity, but like that of Jane Austen's Marianne Dashwood, the crisis in her life is caused by an all too human predominance of sensibility over sense!