NANCY BAUER is no amateur; she's a CBC Literary Competition prize-winner with three books to her credit. But Samara the Wholehearted, her new novel, reads like a first draft. Don't editors get paid to prevent that from happening? CanLit fan that I am, I'm also aware that publishers use my money to produce books. How did this one make it past quality control?
The novel features 20-year-old Samara, who hails from Boston and spends summers with her parents at Summerland, their New Brunswick retreat. Mom and Dad are communitarians, sincere believers in human fellowship: they practise their beliefs by doing co-operative group exercises with their guests. After many summers spent this way, Samara can hardly be blamed for terminal boredom. For one thing, she misses her boyfriend Roger. Then a roster of peculiar guests arrives, characters who might have been fascinating in more skilled hands. There's Samara's half-brother Fred, who's just discovered the upright idealist who fathered him; Fred and his two kids get dumped off at Summerland by his wife, who splits for good. No wonder. Fred is a handful, a child himself, emotionally disturbed and clairvoyant, he predicts his own death and gets Samara to promise she'll look after his two kids. He dies; she does. No inner conflict, no soul-searching on her part. No reaction from Dad to the loss of his son. No explanation of Fred's death, either.
Then there's another guest, Marty, a scientist in the Mould of Stephen Hawking: brilliant but severely handicapped. When her companion Ron gets sick, Samara steps in, makes immediate sense of Marty's garbled speech, and tends to all her needs. Samara also befriends two reclusive Russian visitors, Yuri and Raisa, a couple who pass themselves off as brother and sister (no reason given). Meanwhile, Samara's old beau Roger comes to visit her, wades into this implausible stew, calls it as he sees it ("This whole place seems a little muddled"), and gets shrugged off like an itchy sweater.
What next? With Fred dead and summer holidays done, Samara goes to Minnesota to attend the university where Marty teaches; she moves into the scientist's house along with the two children, and Yuri and Raisa act as housekeepers. She is predictably adept as student, aunt, and friend. A few more incidents and this woolly ball of loose ends finally stops unravelling.
Samara the Wholehearted isn't. None of the characters comes to life. We're never allowed to get close to any of them; by telling us everything and showing us almost nothing, Bauer avoids the dramatic conflict that drives the plot of a good novel. Critical elements that should be explored are dropped: Samara's quick change from bored kid to mature young adult, her alleged love for Roger, her relationship with her intriguing, unconventional parents, her capacity for making her way through difficult friendships. It's even harder to believe that no sparks jump the gap between troubled, psychic Fred and the rather cerebral dad he's never met. How were such fundamental problems missed by both writer and editor? Readers deserve better.