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Dogs, Houses, Gardens, Food & Other Addictions

by Sondra Gotlieb
275 pages,
ISBN: 1552783103


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Arranged in Winnipeg
by Sharon Abron Drache

Disappointing, sums up Sondra Gotlieb's attempt at memoir writing, because almost every chapter reads as a "work-in progress," similar to what she describes as her newly-acquired interest in gardening. Unfortunately, what readers get is a book of lists, highlighting the areas of her life that Sondra chooses and yet refuses to examine in depth.
Sondra Gotlieb Could it be that the person she has always been and the person she has become, have fully blended, since by her own admission she made the most important decision of her life¨to marry Allan Gotlieb, referred to in the Canadian Encyclopaedia as "the toughest international lawyer that Canada has ever produced?"
The main glossed-over point is that Gotlieb is first and foremost an accomplished writer/artist. That she began with cookbooks (three published in the 1970s) because she rationalized that they were safe territory for a woman married to a high profile civil servant, and subsequently switched to fiction (True Confections, 1978 and First Lady Last Lady, 1981),when Allan was Canada's undersecretary of state for External Affairs, and ended up by writing articles for The New York Times and The Washington Post, when her husband had his most powerful job as Canada's ambassador to the United States (the latter collected and published in 1985 as Wife Of ...An Irreverent Account of Life in Washington), is a remarkably astonishing tribute to her artistic dedication.
Sondra Gotlieb, the writer dynamo, eight years Allan's junior (Sondra was born in 1944; Allan in 1936), an 18-year-old child bride from the fabled northend of Winnipeg, chose to marry someone from Winnipeg's southend, who also happened to be a Rhodes scholar and Oxford don. Certainly, Sondra was as intent as Allan on crossing borders in her own hometown, before they both moved on from their shared cherished birthplace in Western Canada.
The memoir gets off to a good start when it struggles to get beneath the superficial differences in their backgrounds. The "Food Came First" chapter, describing the warmth of Sondra's north-end home, where you didn't have to entertain people because they were always dropping in, and her mother making two suppers instead of one, and never complaining, is especially evocative.
"Mummy's friends called her Fanny the Feeder¨she had more things in her fridge than anyone in Winnipeg, all homemade. My brother and I used to stare at the inside of her fridge as if it were the Ed Sullivan Show."
Of her father, Gotlieb writes: "He became an agricultural chemist. He even developed some kind of barley during the thirties that withstood Manitoba winters. My mother displayed the plaque he received in honour of his discovery until her death." And then the final sentence of this wondrous opening chapter. "Today, forty-seven years after I left, Winnipeg to me is not a real place but a cemetery, an infinite source of memories and an unwritten book of rules, values and prejudices that I cling to, for better or for worse." With this bold and promising revelation, the reader's disappointment begins....
Had Gotlieb continued to probe the bounty of Winnipeg riches in the manner of Irving Layton, who wrote his memoir, Waiting for the Messiah when he was 73, readers would have a "real" memoir, not a miscellaneous collection of Sondra's draft notes.
Instead, readers get a crash course in the troubled start of the beginning of Sondra and Allan's married life and a few cautiously-selected differences between her and his parents. Suffice to say that Allan's parents' house on Elm Street in the southend was a place where people never dropped in. And while Allan's mother has a name, Sally, and she aspires to a leading role in World Zionist circles, Allan's father, like Sondra's, remains nameless. The undercurrent of the strong Jewish matriarchs in both households is ominously foreboding.
In Sally Gotlieb's house, you always got roast beef carved from a huge joint sitting on the sideboard. "Allan's father, who liked his meats, worked out a deal with the city's leading kosher butcher that enabled him to buy delicious non-kosher cuts of beef with a kosher label." Here I wonder if the hind quarter as opposed to the front quarter was noticed by any of their invited guests, including Golda Meir (whose last name is misspelled¨Meier).
Whatever the acclaimed nuances of Fanny's and Sally's personal styles of entertaining, both the south-end and north-end Winnipeg homes were gathering places for people not only to break bread, but to share important ideas, and monumental examples for Sondra and Allan to aspire to, especially during their Washington years. "The Salonista," the grittiest chapter in the current offering, acknowledges: "Both Allan's parents and mine were Western Canadians. Open House was far more common for them than among Easterners."
Equally disappointing is the lack of depth in the coverage of the Washington years, when Allan was Canada's ambassador to the United States. There are a few lines about the real work they did as a couple, which awkwardly slip by, just as Sondra winds up the description of their eight-year stint in the American Capital. "I no longer felt stressed by being in the eye of the media. Allan's tensions were also subsiding after the feverish free-trade negotiations were brought to a successful conclusion, and above all our daughter, Rebecca, was recovering her health after a perilous operation in Pittsburgh."
Allan's important contribution to the Free Trade negotiations are as hidden as the reasons for Rebecca's operation. One more sentence, and he has retired from the diplomatic circuit forever, to resume "lawyering" in Toronto.
"As good as it gets", referring to their combined accomplishments as ambassador and ambassador's wife during the Washington years, is the description of selected pleasures and annoyances of the leading Georgetown hostesses and their "Powerful Job" hubbies. Sondra makes a point of singling out the more interesting hostesses, who "were literate, and considered themselves bluestockings." Evangeline Bruce had edited the letters between Napoleon and Josephine, which were published by George Weidenfeld shortly before she died (the suggestion is that she had to wait almost until her death for this to happen). Susan-Mary Alsop also wrote many books, including the acclaimed Letters to Marietta (about her friend Marietta Tree). The list goes on. The sadness of the women revealed here stemmed from the orchestration of almost every aspect of their lives in accordance with their husband's needs, despite their separate accomplishments, and Sondra, without saying so, seems to be suggesting that her lot, was not much different.
When the careful reader considers how little is said about the Free Trade agreement, which was signed when Allan Ezra Gotlieb was one of the key players, he/she may think of what began happening when north-end Winnipeg met the southend some 47 years ago. The resulting union was a precursor to the quasi-marriage of Canada and the United States, via a treaty, facilitated by Canada's then-ambassador in Washington, whose wife, the "reverent" Sondra, graciously muzzled herself as a writer for the sake of something she believed to be more important.
A decade from now, perhaps Sondra Gotlieb will tackle this great Canadian love story in fiction¨it will likely satirize how well marriages work, when the people in them come from the same Western Canadian city with a defined north-end/south-end border. ˛

Sharon Abron Drache's husband emeritus, Arthur Drache, was raised in Winnipeg. However, she is from Toronto. Her most recent book is The Golden Ghetto.
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