All Times Have Been Modern

by Elisabeth Harvor
ISBN: 0670044407

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A Review of: : All Times Have Been Modern
by Sarah Selecky

Moving breathlessly through more than thirty years of the Kay Olenski's life in relentless present tense, All Times Have Been Modern reveals the intimate details of Kay's life as though we are right there with her. At 13, Kay is hooked on reading the racy scenes she can find in the books in the family library-scenes that turn her "into a ticking little time-bomb reading a booksexually ticking" The books seduce her first, but when this "sexual ticking" mixes with flirtation with a boy who is staying with her family that summer, Kay creates a blueprint for arousal that stays with her through adulthood. Years later, after her first novel is published and her first marriage ends, Kay moves to Montreal in order to find that peace of mind that will let her write again. It is not altogether surprising that our narrator meets and seduces a man in this new city. Kay needs solitude in order to write, but we also know that she writes out of her experience of passion. This is a story about writing as much as it is a story about love, and most notably, this is a story about how a writer tries to reconcile these two powerful forces in her life.
Galbraith is considerably younger than Kay, which is partly why their relationship is not sustainable. Theirs is a turbulent and dramatic affair full of late night talks in bed, romantic rendezvous in the country, angry fights in the kitchen, and sexual ecstasy. It envelops Kay and yanks her away from her writing: "Our first Monday back in Montreal we end up going to bed at five in the afternoon, the sun pouring in over us, my mouth moving over his body like a suctiony sea anemone, my mouth biting his fingers like a minnow, bites meant to express sexy ownership, and he's undersea life too, the little fishes that are my lips bumping against him, licking and nibbling. All day long, I dream of him and I don't even write anything that I'm happy with, I don't even have anything to write about except for my exhausting happiness-but it doesn't even quite feel like happiness, it's too agitated to be happiness or I'm too unaccustomed to euphoria or I just long for solitude, I don't even read any more, I've forgotten how to make even the most amazing book matter to me"
But things become even more interesting when we see the way Kay husbands her emotions after Galbraith ends the affair. Her jealousy and heartbreak become something else when she writes them down-they are the fuel for her second book. Halfway through, Harvor's novel seems to be less a love story and more an examination of how emotional intensity can be mediated through the writing life: "Only work on my novel got me through the winter's bluster and violent cold. And only work on my novel will get me through the recklessly fragrant spring, through the early summer evenings when I'm sure to be undone by some heartbroken song." Kay transforms her loneliness through writing about it, and as readers, we see how this is done.
Perhaps this is why Harvor chose to write in such a confessional tone, revealing Kay's vulnerability, her self-doubt, and so many of her detailed thought processes. Kay thinks like a writer-every part of life counts, because everything can be used in her writing. And as her readers, we get to watch Kay in action, observing the raw material of a writer's life as it is revealed to her. It is the way the light falls in Charlottetown, it's the memory of an elevator ride with her ex-mother-in-law, it's the loud man swearing on the neighbour's balcony next door to her apartment in Montreal. This life is Kay's, but we know that in some way it also belongs to Harvor. This is a novel about a novelist who transforms her real life into fiction, after all. And Harvor poses this question: If the essential love triangle is a struggle between passion, writing and life, how can a writer ever hope to resolve it? When Kay's landlord invites her to a friendly dinner, Kay admits her reluctance: "How can I convey my gratitude while at the same time turning him down so I can keep the evening free to work at my work? I feel a kind of hysteria from the thought of the squandered hours. After all, what is free time for, except to write? Write and make love?"
All Times Have Been Modern overflows with vivid details that linger long after you have finished reading them; you can recall Harvor's images with such clarity, it is almost as though they've become part of your own lived experience. This is the magic of reading something well written-it blurs the lines between what is true and what you know is imagined. Harvor has written a love story, but what is most compelling is her unflinchingly honest portrait of a novelist's life.

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