Then Again by Elyse Friedman

Seldom, I believe, has a writer been as poorly served by her book covers as Elyse Friedman. Waking Beauty, a darkly thoughtful exploration of the unfair advantage beauty bestows upon the (unworthy) recipient, had a pink-and-white-and-blonde-and-sparkly cover, thus dooming chick-lit fans to chagrin even as readers of literary fiction averted their eyes.

Then Again, with a smart, punchy title that can be interpreted in at least two different ways in the context of the  plot, written with a precision that would make a watchmaker glow, features a split image of a pallid, glowering girl on its cover. Everything about it–the girl’s faintly repellent gaze, the gimmicky shot , the shiny stiff paper of the cover– begs that the book be tossed aside. Which I would have undoubtedly done had I not LOVED Waking Beauty.

Tom Robbins once famously said, “It’s never to late to have a happy childhood”.  What if someone took that to heart–a someone with the wealth and connections of a successful Hollywood screenwriter–and decided to relive his childhood for an entire weekend, literally? The reluctant participants in the scheme include the screenwriter’s sisters Michelle (the novel’s narrator), and Marla.  The trio’s parents are dead (natch), but Joel the screenwriter has arranged for a faux mom and faux dad. The Toronto house the siblings grew up in twenty years ago is recreated down to the avocado green carpet and the struggling tree out front.

What a setup. And Friedman has the prose skills and the sheer balls to carry it off.  The narrator’s voice alternates between syrupy sentimentality and hard-edged observation, and this pairing works beautifully with the theme of revisited adolesence. The novel’s pacing is impeccable, skittering between past and present till the two fuse in an explosive climax. The delight of such a book lies as much in the big idea as in the tiny details; I was reminded on more than one occasion of the film Goodbye Lenin . I leave you with this image from the novel. “…Canadian movies, publicly funded and carefully crafted–like chilled white pie crusts, pinched and perfect…”  I’m going to tear off the miserable front cover of Then Again and replace it with a gilded portrait of Friedman.

This review-ish piece is my contribution to John’s Read a Canadian Book Month challenge.


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