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Book Reviews

The Secret Lives of Litterbugs and Other (True) Stories

by M.A.C. Farrant

In her eighth book, the prolific humourist M.A.C. Farrant takes us back to the days when cleaning out the car meant throwing everything out the window, drinking and driving was simply the way things were done, and fish for dinner was fancy. These scenes from the author’s childhood serve as the set-up for the book’s second half, with Farrant now running her own odd household, in which mom makes sure her adult children have plenty of condoms and dad is asked permission (and gives it) for teenage kids to light a joint. 

Growing up on Vancouver Island in the 1960s, Farrant had an unconventional but not outrageous childhood. The clan portrayed in these pages is not some dysfunctional, mentally unhinged family out of an Augusten Burroughs memoir, but a caring, fun-loving, and usually poor family living on the edge – sometimes quite literally. (Farrant’s childhood home teetered on an oceanside cliff.)

The stories are told with a lightness that lets the reader laugh while still conveying the author’s understanding that maybe theirs isn’t the best way to handle things. Farrant writes about her and her husband driving their teenaged daughter and six of her friends to a party, the girls’ backpacks stuffed with beer. After the fact, her husband admits, “I can’t believe I did that. Driving seven minors in possession of alcohol in the back of my truck.”

But Farrant’s stories are all very believable, in part because the absurdity is always kept at a reasonable level and the storytelling is so finely accomplished. Hyperbole is not Farrant’s style; she is simple and direct. A reader may not want to live her life (the bathroom-reno story is enough to dissuade anyone from home upgrades), but it is hard not to empathize with the candour and simple emotion of the stories. In one of the book’s most poignant moments, after burying an elderly aunt and discovering the flowers the family had left at her graveside had been stolen, Farrant laments, “[T]hose flowers being stolen made me mad. Those flowers were the least we could do.”

The stories roll along seamlessly for most of the way, until an abrupt and unfortunate change in tone in the final chapter. Although prior to this, the book is clever and unpretentious, the final story is precious and – compared to the lighthearted quips in the rest of the book – portentous. It’s a shame, because there is nothing wrong with a book full of well-written, lightly humorous stories that make us chuckle, shake our heads in dismay, and sigh with emotion.