Alice Zorn’s first novel follows five Montrealers as they navigate critical junctures in their relationships. Joelle, a former film student now working as a medical secretary, has just turned 40. Her husband, Marc, has become infatuated with Ketia, a fellow nurse half his age. The affair with the older, married white man jeopardizes Ketia’s bonds with her Haitian-Canadian family. Meanwhile, Diane, Joelle’s best friend, learns that her boyfriend, Nazim, hasn’t told his family in Morocco about her. For his part, Nazim struggles to fulfill his responsibilities to both Diane and his Muslim family.
Set at the apex of Y2K paranoia, the novel’s backdrop provides a sense of anxiety – everything could change at any moment – and sure enough, by the end, all the characters, particularly the three women, find their lives altered. However, just as the dawn of the new millennium brought its fair share of anticlimax, the characters in this book don’t quite live up to expectations.
Joelle and Marc’s behaviour at the outset seems fairly standard for an impending breakup. Joelle lies and makes excuses for her errant partner, tolerates his bad temper, and clings to her memories of happier times. Gradually, Joelle’s history of abuse comes to light, and Marc’s mood swings and single-mindedness are recast as violence and egomania. Zorn painstakingly constructs the complex perspective of an abuse survivor, which is why it seems such a betrayal when, late in the novel, Joelle suddenly recognizes Marc’s true nature and finds the strength to stand up to him. Although we’re rooting for Joelle, her sudden personality change seems too easy.
Ketia’s transformation from naive girl in lust to repentant wronged woman is just as sudden, though perhaps more understandable, predicated upon a pregnancy scare that overwhelms her with feelings of shame and unwanted responsibility. By contrast, Diane’s recognition that her control-freak tendencies are at odds with her love and respect for Nazim and Joelle seems less earth-shattering.
Each of the novel’s five parts is made up of several related, but separate, narrative sections that alternate between the different characters’ points of view. But the effect here is of a jumble of voices, none of which feels particularly well fleshed-out or authentic. This aptly named novel is a broad study of sudden and unlikely change in the lives of its characters.