by Patricia Robertson
They Shouldn't Make You Promise That, Lois Simmie's classic comic novel (recently reissued by Coteau), finds its humour in the mordant observations of its heroine. Life has pretty much come to a grinding halt for Eleanor Smith, nTe Barker, as we learn from her opening question¨"Whatever happened to Saturday night?"¨and her response: "The kids still have them." She means her three teenagers, Philip, Michael, and Kate, for whom the family is having dinner early as the novel opens "so [the kids] can get on with the interesting part of living that goes on outside the house." Inside the house is another matter; Eleanor's husband Hugh has "the permanent look of a man with gravel in his shorts," and Eleanor herself feels as though she's drowning in garbage, about which she has a recurring nightmare. Not the most promising material for comedy, you might think, as Eleanor sinks deeper into depression, knowing that "there's a crack in my soul and I want someone to mend it." Yet in this funny, touching, compulsively readable novel, the tragic and the comic modes are inextricably intertwined, and Eleanor wins us over by managing to be feisty, self-deprecating, and vulnerable all at once.
In the 1980s setting of the novel it's still a Fahrenheit world, Eaton's still exists, Eleanor's husband is described as looking like John Turner, and Eleanor herself doesn't work outside the home (though that seems unusual even for the eighties, given that her children are half-grown). Yet the dynamics of the novel¨the messy give-and-take of family life, the rigidities of a long marriage¨seem as timely as ever. It's January in Saskatoon; Eleanor notes that "the January blahs have struck again, and last year they lasted until June." Things are tense not only with Hugh but with seventeen-year-old Kate, and Eleanor has recently felt "a frightening unmaternal urge to punch her out." That frank acknowledgement of the murderous hate that can co-exist with love is bracing, and engenders our trust. With Hugh there are occasional moments of tenderness, as when Eleanor watches him pollinate his hybrid roses and says, "I have never watched him do this without falling in love with him." Actual sex is sometimes good too, about which Eleanor marvels, "considering the rotten state of our relationship." She tries to talk to Hugh about her depression, but he agrees to a psychiatrist¨portrayed here as a rather stale stereotype¨only when she starts staying in bed. A disastrous dinner party featuring Eleanor's outspoken friend Gena makes things worse; meanwhile Philip's girlfriend has dumped him, daughter Kate stays out all night and refuses to come home, and then there's Gena's new beau, Harold, an old friend of both women from their small hometown. He wants to marry Gena, and Eleanor, who's attracted to him, approves, but hard-drinking Gena is too busy grieving for her pilot husband killed in a plane crash some years before. Yet spring, both literal and figurative, is on its way, bringing death and rebirth, devastating change and new growth.
All this is heavily worked ground¨writers like Fay Weldon and Anne Tyler come to mind¨and it's to Simmie's credit that she manages to make familiar material yield fresh, laugh-out-loud insights. With her tart observations, her amusing fantasies, and her black sense of humour, Eleanor is a believable and sympathetic protagonist, although sometimes the deck seems a little too heavily stacked in her favour (it's hard to understand, for example, what she ever saw in humourless Hugh). Her ambivalent relationship with her daughter is convincing too, as is the girlhood friendship with Gena, with its memories of skating parties and giggling together in choir. It's puzzling, though, that as a late-twentieth-century woman she doesn't at least consider the other available options¨a job, a return to school, a different counsellor. There are times when Eleanor seems a little too self-pitying, a little too ready to blame everything on her husband.
The title is a reference to the marriage service, of course (Eleanor is attending her old church for a different kind of ceremony when she makes this observation), but it's one of the book's few missteps, suggesting a more sourly predictable view of the relationship between the sexes than is actually depicted. (Hugh may be an unappealing example of the male species, but Gena's friend Harold certainly isn't.) So ignore the title, and pick up this tightly structured novel for its wry appreciation of life's comic side, its wonderfully quotable apertus, and its hard-won wisdom. It's definitely the right tonic for almost any kind of blahs. ˛