Thursday, December 02, 2010

Penelope's Way

Regina: Coteau, c2000.
308 p.

Penelope Stevens is trying to puzzle out the meaning of her life in various ways. She talks with her oldest friends over coffees and potluck dinners, she takes a community college course called "Science for Seniors", she muses and reflects on all the elements of her past to draw out their significance. Her consideration of issues knows no bounds: her mind ranges from biology to social influences on gender, from societal violence to the love of husband, children and illicit lovers. Chance, randomness, cause and effect, Time...she ponders many Big Questions. She is a perspicacious and energetic questioner, and fortunately she is also able to leaven all this inquiry with a strong sense of the ironic and humorous in human relations. Her habitual walks around Vancouver allow for a strong sense of place to come through, and also allow her sharp observing eye to have lots of material to investigate.

The book is structured around Penelope's 70th year; beginning with November, each chapter covers a month's worth of mental, physical and social activity. She has two adult children whose sibling relationships are shifting, a young grandchild, and a group of very old friends whom she simultaneously likes and dislikes -- one of whom shuffles off the mortal coil during one of their regular potluck dinners. The novel deftly weaves Penelope's history and present circumstances into one singular present: as with most of us, the person in the mirror is a shock sometimes, when one still feels 18 or 25 and is met with a white haired person looking back. The vibrancy of Penelope's mind, the sharpness of her observations and the good-hearted optimism within which she operates all combine to make this a marvellous read. I loved it, and I know that the wide ranging subject matter that Blanche Howard has tossed in requires deeper reading -- a reread will be necessary. There is so much philosophizing and discussion of people at such different stages of life, and questions of personal agency in our own lives.

I found this book fascinating, for the wonderful characters, for the setting itself, and for the sweep of personal history that is included so naturally and comprehensively. The writing is assured, full of forward energy and amusement, while not being coy about any of the subject matter. I had only known Blanche Howard as a friend and collaborator of Carol Shields before I read this; now I have a feel for her style and clever writing, and will definitely be on the lookout for more.

Recommended, especially for anyone looking for a book about older women who are not dour or miserable -- rather, who have lived and are still living a full life of intellectual curiosity and engagement with the world around them. Lots of fun and such a congenial narrator!

Blanche Howard is an acclaimed, award-winning author of four novels, including The Manipulators, Penelope’s Way, and A Celibate Season which she co-wrote with Pulitzer Prize winner Carol Shields. (Blanche wrote the woman’s voice and Carol wrote the man’s voice.) She also documented a remarkable 30-year friendship with the late Carol Shields in A Memoir of Friendship: The Letters Between Blanche Howard and Carol Shields.


  1. Wonderful review! Can't remember if you've read her collection of letters with Shields, but it tells the story of the publication of this book and it's pretty interesting.

  2. Kerry - no, I haven't read the letters (yet) but now I want to get a copy just so I can find out about the story behind this book. Thanks for the tip!

  3. Blanche Howard2/10/2013 10:57:00 pm

    Dear Kerry - Thank you for the wonderful review. I couldn't agree more, since I am the author, and I appreciate your thoughtful analysis. Blanche Howard


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