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Penelope’s Way

by Blanche Howard

At the age of 70, Penelope Stephens creates a list of life goals. On reviewing them, she decides to find the meaning of life rather than take up snowboarding. It is meant to be a leap – as surely as flying down the slopes of Whistler – and what follows is a year of exploration and introspection. Through a Science for Seniors class, she begins to ponder the elemental nature of the universe – gravity, electricity, time, and perception. At the same time, events force Penelope and her family to confront the meaning of their own lives. Penelope’s old lover dies with her name on his lips. Her daughter Brenda struggles with illness and troubled relationships. And her son Gordon, a deeply rational Unitarian minister, begins to see the auras of his parishioners.

Penelope’s Way is Vancouver writer Blanche Howard’s ambitious fourth novel, edited by her friend and collaborator Carol Shields. Portions of it are taken from Howard’s previously published stories, and she transplants them into the novel with varying levels of success. Occasionally, the stitches show through the bandages – some episodes, though well crafted, could be cut away with no negative effect. When Penelope recounts her brother’s quest to win a shotgun at the local fair, it makes a compelling anecdote, but in the larger context, it only serves to interrupt the narrative flow.

The central story follows Penelope’s search for meaning. She is not on a spiritual quest so much as she is sampling at a theoretical buffet, trying a spoonful of mysticism, a dollop of chaos theory, and a serving of spiritual intervention. Along the way, Howard blends science and mysticism, the mundane and the eternal. What she creates is a quiet and contemplative novel with a soft core of sentimentality that somehow avoids mawkishness. Penelope’s world, though comfortable and insulated, is never entirely secure. Her search for the meaning of life is destined to fail, but Penelope, and the reader, find a satisfying middle ground where contentment is possible.