In an era when so many books and articles argue about whether women can and should “have it all,” it’s refreshing to read two witty debut novels about women who don’t stand in for some presumptive superwoman, but are portrayed as idiosyncratic individuals.Claire Wilkshire’s Maxine and Ali Bryan’s Roost both feature women in their thirties living in Atlantic Canada (Maxine is set in St. John’s, Roost in Halifax). But the similarities end there.
When we first encounter Maxine, her life is tidy, quiet, and solitary, aside from the occasional appearance of a couple of her close friends. Roost, on the other hand, begins with Claudia – a single mother of two – scrambling through her filthy kitchen for matches while her entire family waits to light birthday candles in the living room.
Although she has a fine job, Claudia also has a messy house and a divorce under her belt, while her brother Dan has a successful marriage, a clean house, perfect children, and enough money to send his parents to Cuba for a week as a birthday present. On that trip, their mother dies unexpectedly, and most of Roost is about Claudia’s attempts to keep her life and family together in the face of this devastating loss. The book, written in the first person from Claudia’s perspective, follows her through her winter of mourning, but this sad premise serves mainly as a platform for the author’s sharp, often dark wit.
By contrast, Maxine’s eponymous protagonist has recently quit a stable office job to try her hand at writing a novel. Simultaneously, a family moves in across the street and forces their way into Maxine’s neat little world. Their bright nine-year-old son, Kyle, starts inviting himself over to use Maxine’s computer, which turns out to be a good thing for Maxine, pulling her out of her self-absorption. Kyle becomes Maxine’s unlikely writing coach, finding literary competitions for her to enter and cheering her on to meet her word-count deadlines.
Wilkshire drops in excerpts of the novel Maxine is writing about an elegant woman named Fredérique, who is obviously representative of Maxine’s idealized version of herself. Maxine’s novel morphs into a bizarre thriller that, in a weird twist, shakes her out of her quiet, quotidian existence in St. John’s.
Wilkshire’s novel-within-a-novel passages are – intentionally, one assumes – stilted and detached. Fredérique is a vessel through which Maxine can begin to figure out who she really is, but the glitzy details of Fredérique’s life are left vague: Maxine doesn’t even really know what her alter ego does for a living, although she knows she’s very successful at it. Maxine’s fiction, we come to understand, is a means to indulge in a dream of glamour devoid of the inconvenient details of real life, and Wilkshire conveys this perfectly.
Maxine is a deliberate, considered character who seems at first more like a precocious child than a grown woman. Her relationship with Kyle plays out, in its early stages, almost as if between equals. But as the book goes on, Maxine slowly matures, and as her relationship with Kyle evolves, she becomes like a surrogate mother to him.
Claudia, on the other hand, appears from the outset like a fully formed, albeit flawed, adult. With two small children to contend with, she doesn’t have time for deliberation, and Bryan is adept at revealing the chaos of motherhood. The author delights in the disgusting details of family life (in one memorable, but frankly unnecessary, scene, Claudia discovers that she’s accidentally run a poopy diaper through the washing machine).
Bryan displays great facility in describing Claudia’s two kids: four-year-old Wesley and a toddler named Joan. In the vein of hip, modern mothers like Kelly Oxford, Bryan mines the experiences of Claudia’s children for humour, not all of it of the gross-out variety. Little Joan is the funniest character, a defiant toddler who insists on dressing for Halloween as a “cat squirrel.”
But whereas Maxine is intentionally contrived, occasionally to the point of implausibility, Roost isn’t quite contrived enough. Claudia’s life is a potential minefield of drama: there’s the loss of her mother, the emotional unavailability of her brother, and the mental illness of her father (as is often the case, it falls to the daughter to step up as caregiver), not to mention the presence of Claudia’s ex, Glen, who has just embarked on a new relationship. Bryan is skilful at creating convincing scenes from daily life, and the book is full of astute details and engaging moments, but she never manages to weave those details into a satisfying emotional arc. The book leaves Claudia more or less where she began: witty, alive, and coping.