ild falls in love with a man, and the man is seduced by the intensity he has generated. Then his attention shifts to someone else. End of story.
Canadian Elizabeth Hay's first novel has made its American debut and quite a debut it is. Spanning 30 years of Canadian and American history, Hay brings her readers through the devastation of the Saskatchewan Dust Bowl to the urban neighborhoods of World War II Ottawa and New York City and back again. This is no simple geography lesson either; it is a trip into the heart of two sisters and the man they both want but can only prevent the other from having.
Lucinda Hardy, the saintly and beautiful older sister of eight-year-old Norma Joyce is the glue holding her fragile family together. Norma Joyce's twin, Norman, has died of burns sustained while in his mother's care. The mother dies a few years later, choking to death on venison jerky. Their bleak father, Ernest, blames both his dead wife and the surviving twin for the loss of his son.
Maurice Dove is a scientist, an expert on weather catastrophes and prairie grasses who is sent to study drought-stricken Saskatchewan. Maurice is suave and accepting, with the gift of making everyone feel comfortable and interesting. Lucinda, the beautiful sister, expects that one day Maurice will return and marry her. Norma Joyce, the eight-year-old, makes other plans. She dreams of Maurice and imagines her own future with him. While Maurice studies weather catastrophes, he is unaware of the storms he causes in the Hardy family, especially when he leaves for more interesting work elsewhere, returns and leaves again.
Elizabeth Hay's story is at once heartbreaking, dramatic and familiar. The siblings love each other but compete for the affections of a man who is not serious about either of them. The sisters, their father and the various neighbors are well-drawn characters, complex and believable. They take on the characteristics of the settings. In Saskatchewan, Lucinda is all business, fighting the onslaught of dust with the harshness of the prairie. Ottawa, with its neighbors and friends, lush greenery and gardens, brings out the nurturing side of all its inhabitants. When Norma Joyce, 17 years old and pregnant, is forced to live in New York City, she becomes the hard-working city girl who carves out a place for herself under difficult conditions.
The descriptions of plants, landscapes and weather in the three locations enhance the already beautiful story. Even in urban New York City, Hay examines the varieties of plants that flourish in the harshest weather and under the most difficult circumstances. Hay's talent as a storyteller is a bit like John Irving's. She leaves behind seemingly meaningless details that end up being important to the later story.
It's hard to believe that this well-constructed, beautifully written and captivating novel is the first from Elizabeth Hay. After the book cover is closed, readers will find themselves longing for more from this talented author.
Robin Smith is a teacher in Nashville.