Which kind of retirement would you choose: a secure, middle-class existence surrounded by familiar, much-loved objects, yet confined to dull servitude nursing your cranky, arthritic spouse¨or, an unplanned escape into unpredictability and poverty, an adventure characterized by the loss of your former life and of all that you have known yourself to be?
Eva Carroll, the heroine of Constance Beresford-Howe's novel The Book of Eve, opts out of a safe retirement at the age of sixty-five, leaving behind her boring role of devoted housewife and nursemaid. Her story indulges a fantasy shared by many of us, of running away from home to recreate our lives in ways we imagine will be more satisfying. Eva's impulsive yet determined departure represents an abandonment of her lifelong devotion to pragmatism and common sense. Luckily for Eva, this adventure becomes the most rewarding experience of her life¨but the ride is not always easy. As the novel unfolds, everyday concerns intrude on the fantasy: the realities of a tight budget, fending off illness in solitude, coping with loneliness and confronting the physical indignities of advancing age. Thanks to the humour and frankness of the first person narrative voice, we are happy to tag along on the emotional and physical journey of Eva's first six months of creating a life of her own.
Walking out on her husband of forty years and their home in a well-to-do Montreal neighbourhood represents both Eva's fall from grace and her rebirth. Eva commits a sin in her own mind: she abandons her domestic responsibilities and duty as wife, mother and grandmother, turning herself out of the Eden of her comfortable, sheltered lifestyle. She flees, by default and through a self-confessed lack of imagination, to the "wrong side of the tracks" just a few miles away and enters this underworld populated by the dispossessed, the lonely, the strays, for which Eva's prior experience has left her unprepared.
Here, in a run-down neighbourhood in the city's easy end, not only do poverty and uncertainty await, but also unexpected gifts of understanding, even wisdom. In her newfound solitude, Eva confronts the lovelessness of her marriage and the emotional destitution of the sensible choices she has made. Here also, in the cheap basement apartment on which she spends most of her monthly old-age pension cheque, Eva unfolds pleasures in living that she hardly remembered existed: The pleasures of physical touch and tenderness offered by an unlikely lover, a fellow tenant seventeen years Eva's junior, and the pleasures of being looked after by this generous, gregarious, complex man; the pleasures of being needed by a grateful little boy whose parents have practically abandoned him; the pleasures of solo forays into the empty streets and public places in the early hours to find treasures that others have unwittingly left behind; and the tantamount pleasures of privacy and free time, her own space, afternoons spent reading, snoozing, reflecting, in the back alley under the sun. Eva's adventure demonstrates that we are never too old to learn from the past and to begin anew.
This is not a new story, nor is the novel itself new. But the quest is as fresh today as it was when the book was first published in 1973. At that time, Beresford-Howe gained widespread praise and attention for the bold feminist undercurrents at work in her writing. In the early 1970s, Eva's radical departure was heralded by the feminist movement as a truly unconventional fictional example of how female roles could be redefined. Now reprinted in an attractive edition by McClelland & Stewart, the 2001 release of this novel is particularly well-timed. While an unconventional woman is no longer the exception, an unconventional aging heroine still is. The fantasy enacted by Eva appeals to both young and old, while the depiction of the troublesome practicalities associated with advancing age speaks directly to seniors and the "sandwich" generation. Beresford-Howe, in her humorous and inventive fashion, leaves no one out, also giving voice to Eva's baffled middle-aged son whose mother has run away from home instead of slipping comfortably into retirement. Clearly, we need more stories that provide a window on the experiences of seniors and their families. This novel helps fill the gap, revealing the body as a container for the ageless heart inside.
Beresford-Howe was much younger than her protagonist when she wrote The Book of Eve. But the portrayal of an older woman is convincing: Eva's character is imbued with a quick wit, and she habitually uses quirky turns of phrase that readers will find endearing. Eva's narrative sounds old-fashioned, and that is part of this novel's appeal, especially for those who may have overdosed on too many post-modern oeuvres. Beresford-Howe is an avowed, unabashed admirer of Victorian novelists like the Brontds, Anthony Trollope and Charles Dickens. Reminiscent of some well-loved nineteenth-century novels, the narrator develops an easy, intimate, often direct rapport with the reader. Our heroine also maintains an open-ended conversation with God, and we are eavesdroppers on that often comical monologue, which is more a series of questions and half-answers than a confession.
The divine connection¨and comedy¨is of course no accident. Beresford-Howe weaves the biblical theme through the book, which is the first in a trilogy that she termed "The Voices of Eve". Subsequent works in the series include A Population of One (1977) and The Marriage Bed (1981). The latest novel, A Serious Widow (1991), might also be included in the series. Each of these books fictionalizes a distinct approach to finding fulfillment, by sometimes embracing, sometimes rejecting traditional roles for women. Beresford-Howe's female questers probe metaphoric questions such as, what kind of garden would Eve design? What might tempt her to leave? In enlivening each of her heroines with a unique perspective, Beresford-Howe, in her words, "upside-downs" expectations.
Some readers may find disappointing Beresford-Howe's nineteenth-century insistence on resolution. While Eva can tolerate the aimlessness of her days, the author will not let her get away without tying up all the loose ends of her mental and emotional journey. Apparently this odyssey must end with Eva committing to an unambiguous future¨living either "happily" or "unhappily" ever after. No sooner has she made the choice of whether or not to return to her husband, than the novel veers off on another course. Eva proves remarkably flexible in reversing direction¨but perhaps only because the new direction seems definite in its own right.
Eva's story is amusing and brave, engaging and moving. The Book of Eve is the first of Beresford-Howe's novels where her distinctive humour and playfulness, hallmarks of her subsequent books, are much in evidence. Beresford-Howe has a knack for blending the literary with the popular, a quality which provides wide appeal and immediate accessibility to her writing. Satisfied readers will be prompted to rediscover Beresford-Howe's seven subsequent novels, as varied in focus and range as their quietly subversive creator. The reprint of this book will find an appreciative audience among both old and young, shattering as it does the myth of dull grandmothers. Instead of facing her approaching old age with quiet desperation, Eva reinvents her retirement, turning the inevitable decline into discovery, and replacing resignation with rebirth. ˛