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The Surprise of My Life: An Autobiography

by Claire Drainie Taylor

Portrait of a Marriage might be a more apt title for this book, as Claire Drainie Taylor devotes over two-thirds of The Surprise of My Life: An Autobiography to her life with the actor and radio personality John Drainie. She chronicles their meeting (“John Drainie Makes an Entrance”), their marriage, raising six children, travels abroad, and finally, his untimely death from lung cancer.

The author’s solo adventures that frame the main story are lively and varied enough to warrant an autobiography. She grew up in a Jewish family, first in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, and later in Regina, lived during the Depression in Vancouver, eloped at the age of 18, and lived in a remote Vancouver Island logging community. Then, without previous experience, and equipped only with talent and good looks, she embarked on a career as an actress, radio performer, and scriptwriter. And she emerged from widowhood to marry the founder of Cineplex, Nat Taylor.

The author follows a hallowed literary tradition in memorializing a beloved spouse for posterity and shaping her account as an extended letter to her children and grandchildren. Virginia Woolf dubbed her father’s similar effort “The Mausoleum Book” for its lugubrious tone, idealization of her mother, and heavy-handed moralizing.

Drainie Taylor’s is no sepulchral volume but sprightly, humorous, and full of the quotidian details of life in a large family. Nor does she create an idealized portrait but frankly describes her husband’s difficult and volatile temperament. She does, however, indulge in some grandmotherly moralizing (her publication date coincides with her 81st birthday). She makes invidious comparisons between the present and an earlier more mannerly time and inserts such asides as “Women’s Libbers take note!”

This book is a generous gift not only to the author’s own descendants but to the many fans and friends who remember John Drainie and are interested in the Drainie family.