With Heyday, novelist and playwright Marnie Woodrow has deftly threaded two parallel narratives from very different time periods. The contemporary half of her story ambitiously relies on the inner thoughts of Joss, a recovering alcoholic and struggling photographer who is grieving the death of her wife, Bianca. Joss’s mourning will feel comfortingly authentic to many: she chain-smokes, guiltily goes back to the bottle (or, in her case, wine box), and blasts the kind of music Bianca would have hated, all while sorting through a mental catalogue that eludes personal clarity.
It soon becomes apparent that Joss is uncertain if she was ever really in love with Bianca at all, and the spotlight on her fraught yet all-consuming grief forces us to examine the very nature of companionship – its comforting flaws and inevitable surrender. As Joss desperately tries to envision a possible future, she yearns for something passionate to “erase the hollow in her guts.” Yet, as she flounders, she isolates herself, her position as a photographer who can no longer take pictures only underscoring her new role as the lonely observer: “Lift your camera. Risk tears. Do it. Do it. And it was as if she realized: I am a hunter who cannot shoot. … Everything that had once mattered had fallen away from her grasp.”
In the narrative past – 1909, to be specific – a decidedly happier love story begins to flourish. The beautiful and aspirational Bette meets Freddy, a tomboyish ticket taker at the Toronto Islands movie theatre. The teenagers become enamored with each other while riding a roller coaster, a cute though obvious metaphor for what’s to come. Bette is immediately and inexplicably drawn to the quirky stranger in men’s boots a few sizes too big; their courtship is enchanting in its naïveté. Their pairing has all the familiar fumblings (and fatalism) of young love.
Bette is an obedient girl with loving spiritualist, suffragette parents. As she feels drawn to the slightly older, impoverished orphan, their growing affection is infused with such a charge that she is uncharacteristically prepared to lie to get closer to the other girl. Bette’s happy relationship with her parents (especially her father) is not only refreshing, but underscores the importance of her attraction to Freddy (because she is willing to deceive them to be with her). Ever resourceful, she finds ways to sneak away to spend time in the girl’s company, sharing with her the lush escapist pleasures of the amusement park and fighting the growing guilt born of their illicit relationship.
These two young women yearn for adventure in a culture that denies it to them, and we are charmed by the temporary and tenuous escape they find. Their world is a vibrant one, lit by Woodrow’s attention to detail and skill in constructing their century-old milieu. Though the girls’ love grows, Freddy is promised to Darius Peacock; she plans to use his $500 dowry to run away to New York City. “She would try to enjoy this summer with Bette as if her life depended on it.”
Bette’s burgeoning enthusiasm for someone new gleams sharply against the greyness of Joss’s fumbling need to let go, and the latter casts a shadow on the optimism of the former. In mourning for Bianca, Joss believes travelling to Coney Island will allow her to sort through emotions she’s never really been able to address. Freddy, too, longs for Coney Island, looking for a different kind of freedom she can’t access within the confines of her life and her era.
Miraculously, the rich historical story does not distract from its more solitary, contemporary counterpart. Woodrow’s engaging prose gracefully bounces us back and forth through time, and from the frenzied birth to the (literal) death of love. The Toronto Islands setting also adds cohesiveness to the disparate plotlines, and Woodrow’s knack for invoking place comes in especially handy here.
Though there are moments when the reader questions how exactly the two unfolding dramas are meant to complement each another, we are enthralled nonetheless, admiring the author’s staggering ability to detail the difficult emotions of day-to-day life. There is also the connecting theme of love – its elusiveness and complexity, sacrifice and heartbreak. “She wished she could find a special telephone to the dead, to apologize for not loving her as much as she deserved to be loved,” writes Woodrow of Joss. “If only such a phone service existed. The lines would be lit up day and night, with no shortage of customers.”
It’s been over a decade since Woodrow released her well-received first novel, Spelling Mississippi, and this romantic follow-up doesn’t disappoint. As someone who is not a fan of the traditional historical romance, I was nevertheless thoroughly engaged by the world Woodrow created. Heyday is a thoughtful examination of what it means to love and be loved, and to maintain a fundamental sense of self in the process.