by France Theoret,
313 pages,
ISBN: 2894190999

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Brief Reviews - Fiction
by Jennifer Duncan

Laurence, the title character of French-Canadian writer France Théoret's eleventh book (Mercury, 206 pages, $18.95 paper), skillfully translated by Gail Scott, is a thoughtful, determined young woman from a rural Quebec, Catholic family who resists marriage to man or Christ and becomes a nurse in Montreal. As she survives the 1920s, the Depression, and the Second World War, she overcomes not only restrictions placed on her gender, but also grim and unrelenting poverty.

In defiance of the "show don't tell" rule, Théoret shows very few of the scenes-to the extent that there is no direct dialogue. This emphasis on narration as opposed to dramatization prevents the reader from being in the room with the characters. Instead, the reading experience is filtered through the narrator as she unfolds the sweeping chronicle before her like a map and traces its topography with a deft and probing finger. Psychological and intellectual motives and influences become foreground, and action background, as in true French tradition.

What is striking about this Bildungsroman is how intricately it examines the way women explore and exploit the limited terrain available to them to free themselves from their roles. Laurence emulates male role models like her brother, Edouard, and her lover, Dr. Lenoir, to learn independence, but always with full consciousness and control over what she chooses to embrace and what she rejects as irrelevant or damaging to her experience as a woman.

In the same spirit, she engages with Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. By personally relating to Valjean, and without identifying with the female characters, Laurence is able to understand her context and self in a way that is deeply transforming. This is one of the most significant and enthralling features of the novel: Théoret provides a unique and penetrating description of the way women develop techniques of double-reading to enter patriarchal texts, and of the way reading gives a text the power to awaken and change consciousness.

What is disappointing about Laurence: A Novel is the switch in focus from Laurence to Odette, her sister and protégée, and Paul the Gambler, Odette's husband. As the couple starts a family, Laurence becomes a secondary character-a single woman in her thirties working away to build a nest egg for old age. The novel ends abrup-tly with a domestic spat between Odette and Paul. The narrator basically abandons Laurence as if she were indeed an old maid who can no longer be of interest.

Frankly, I hurled the book at the wall. The only other book to inspire this reaction has been Kate Chopin's The Awakening, whose emancipated heroine kills herself. However, despite the failure to imagine a vivid future for her heroine, Théoret incisively maps Laurence's history, traversing the interior and exterior contour with supple yet decisive language and at a cantering pace. I put the book back on the shelf. 

Jennifer Duncan


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