In her debut novel, Toronto’s Marissa Stapley challenges entrenched ideas of what it means to be a wife and mother, and explores how modern women often struggle to maintain their own identities in the face of societal expectations.
Told mostly from the points of view of Helen, a 60-year-old free-spirited former folk singer, and her three very different daughters – Fiona, Ilsa, and Liane – the novel considers varying perspectives on marriage, from long-standing unions to divorce to a steadfast opposition to legal declarations of love. This is by no means a morality play, however. Stapley deftly shows the positive and negative aspects of each arrangement without being judgmental. Marrying for life isn’t an inevitability for humans; Stapley carefully positions it as a choice. As if to emphasize the analytical, almost documentarian elements of the novel, Stapley begins each chapter with a description of a different animal’s breeding and mating habits. Some choose a partner for life, while others pick a new mate each season.
Stapley excels at bringing the reader into the lives of these women. Although the novel mostly focuses on Helen and her daughters, there are a few chapters dedicated to peripheral female characters. While these chapters offer the reader other perspectives, the characters are too underdeveloped. By contrast, Fiona, Ilsa, and Liane’s stories are the novel’s strongest elements. Middle sister Ilsa, torn between her desire to have the perfect life for her two young children and her urges to experience love outside her marriage, is particularly captivating. Her fight to make the right decisions, both for herself and her family, is heartbreaking and strikingly honest.