The newcomer, the interloper, the sophisticate who moves in with a family and ends up drastically overturning their domestic dynamics is a plot device that has been employed in comic novels like Stella Gibbons's 1932 classic, Cold Comfort Farm. Edward Phillips uses it in his latest comedy of manners, The Mice Will Play, where his female protagonist, Gemma Johnstone, a former nurse who has supported herself through discreet prostitution, is temporarily employed to take care of an elderly dowager called Helen Chisholm. Without the usual restrictions that her daughter imposes on her, Helen starts to regain her self-confidence and, coached by Gemma, to spend lavishly on herself. Relatives arrive unexpectedly from Toronto, and in no time Gemma is trying to impress Helen's divorced son with her culinary skills, while a grandson, a university student, looks on knowing it will all be to no avail. There is some epigrammatic dialogue, a few unexpected plot turns, and a surprise ending.
The Mice Will Play has all the hallmarks of Phillips's earlier work. While his setting is the world he knows best, the enclave of English Westmount in Montreal, his characters could be residents of any affluent community in Canada. Spoilt dowagers accustomed to getting their own way use bad manners and intimidation. Elderly parents, if they are not dominating themselves, are dominated by their children. For all their wealth, many of his characters have little taste or substance. Romance belongs to their past, though sex is as important to them as money. Yet his protagonists have unexpected and uncomfortable self-appraisals and often achieve small self-redemptions. In each of his novels there is a scene that includes the same proverbial "authorial message", in which a young man is advised to ignore family expectations and select the vocation he truly wants.
As in all comedies of manners, the predominating theme is the exploration of social convention rather than of character. The narrowness of the social conventions Phillips describes will limit the appeal of this book. Canada has always had a comparatively fluid social structure, and in recent decades the forum for jockeying for social position has moved more overtly into the corporate environment. Insofar as comedies of manners have developed in Canadian fiction, they are often more concerned with the clash of regional and ethnic mores than with class. The notion that everyone knows his place, or ought to, has become obsolete, and individuals with nostalgic yearnings for such a past now seem hopelessly antiquated. But Phillips constructs a world where many of its inhabitants have been able to shelter themselves from the social evolutions of this century, making them ingrown and-when snobbish-silly and self-satisfied.
Much of the novel's plot revolves around the conflicting views others have concerning Gemma's place in the Chisholm household and the real possibility that she may achieve the influence over her charge that other members of the family have previously exercised. But her mastery over Helen Chisholm is won with remarkably little resistance from the matriarch herself, and none of the other characters are eccentric enough to be comic foils. Moreover much of novel is composed of Gemma's descriptions of her superior consumer choices and the meals she made during her stay as Helen Chisholm's companion. The reader almost expects an accompanying cook-book. Fortunately, Phillips supplies a few minor moral crises that force Gemma to do some serious soul-searching while enabling him to gently allude to the ethical issues of violence against women and the neglect of the elderly.
Phillips has written several more substantial novels. He demonstrated his capacity to probe psychological depth in his first, Sunday's Child (1981), in which a world-weary gay lawyer contemplates his life as he literally gets away with murder. Where There's a Will (1985), also set in Westmount, remains a hilarious tour de force. Phillips's latest offering is aimed at the reader who does not want angst or a demanding work of fiction. And he is clearly aware of this. At one point Gemma advises Helen's grandson to treasure his opportunity to study eighteenth-century fiction because "long novels, serious long novels require time; and the older you get the less willing you are to make that kind of long-term commitment."
Television, which has also contributed to the shortened attention spans of contemporary readers, is another influence on novel's style, pace, and cursory characterization. Gemma's machinations among the old owe much to situation comedies like The Golden Girls. But then five years ago, one of Phillips's short stories, Matthew & Chauncey, was adapted for Quebec television (in French). Clearly, film producers have a use for light comic fiction. And one suspects that Edward Phillips is also keenly aware of this.
Belinda Beaton is a Toronto writer who often visits the aforesaid Anglo enclave. She is a graduate student whose thesis will be on nineteenth-century urban planning in London.