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A Student of Weather

by Elizabeth Hay

Two sisters fell down the same well, and the well was Maurice Dove.” This line encapsulates the conflict in A Student of Weather, Ottawa writer Elizabeth Hay’s achingly good first novel. Beginning in the Prairie dust bowl of the 1930s and continuing in New York and Ottawa in the decades following, the novel follows the Hardy sisters – beautiful, virtuous Lucinda and her darkly intelligent younger sister Norma Joyce – as they quietly compete for the affections of the same man. A Student of Weather is a brilliant exploration of the universal themes of pain and betrayal and survival, rendered with such a sure, deft touch that Hay seems to be discovering new literary territory.

Hay has two previous non-fiction books to her credit as well as two short-story collections, one of which (1997’s Small Change) was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for fiction. Her talent is palpable in A Student of Weather, which manages to evoke place, time, and emotion with razor-sharp resonance. When the quieter of the sisters, bearing a jug of lemonade on a summer afternoon, realizes that she has lost her unspoken battle for the affections of Maurice Dove, her reaction (“The weight of the jug. The ache in her wrist”) perfectly illustrates her Prairie stoicism. Since Hay has carefully developed the character, there is more heartbreak in those two short lines than most writers manage to convey in a paragraph.

But A Student of Weather is not simply a well-wrought example of a fine CanLit premise (Two Prairie Sisters in Love with the Same Man). The plot itself is wide in both physical and emotional geography, and textured enough that the book moves beyond the spare and elegant. There is momentum to the narrative, and action and intrigue – suicide, car accidents, and child abandonment all punctuate the novel’s messy affairs of the heart. Add the seductive incisiveness of the writing, and it’s nearly impossible not to gobble the book whole, even when you want to savour every bite.