The Textbook of the Rose / Joann McCaig
Dunvegan, ON: Cormorant Books, c2005.
Another tale of a middle aged woman having a bit of a life crisis: but this one was much more satisfying for me.
It has heft, it struggles with the questions of love and relationship, power, friendship and more. Stella is a professor of medieval literature, and the novel's structure is influenced by medieval narrative conventions -- it begins with a prologue, proceeds through a series of passus, and ends with an epilogue. It's also shaped by taking the form of a romance quest, with mentions of Gawain and of the Canterbury Tales throughout. I found that this layered the story in a way that I found rewarding to explore, with deeper meanings echoing through the pages.
Stella is in her forties; she has an ex, Jake, who left her for a younger grad student. She has two children. She has a love affair with a much younger man, an innocent, halfway through the book. Or does she? The way Stella tells her story, revises her story, recants and reasserts what is truth, makes reading this a continual fascinating puzzle. What is going on and why is she telling us what she does? It's not so much that she's an unreliable narrator or that she is delusional -- not at all. It's the shaping of her story to hold meaning for her, taking imaginative flights into what could hold meaning and shaping them to fit her reality. The interplay of structure and story really appealed to me, and I enjoyed the surprises and doubling-back within the narrative.
Stella has friends and acquaintances within her work world, many women, and they get along for the most part. They are able to share their experiences and feelings about the way their disciplines are changing, what the new trends in scholarship are and how that makes them feel about the security of their positions. They also frankly discuss the place of older women in their situation.s and ponder what is to be done. I liked the fact that Stella didn't see every other woman as a rival, even with the betrayal of her protege, the promising grad student who ended up leaving her studies to start up a relationship with Stella's husband. And even that grad student isn't portrayed as an evil villain but has some complexity to her character.
This novel has enough plot to keep you reading -- a good main character -- fairly straightforward language even with the medieval influence -- and a nice sense of a prairie summer particularly in the middle sections. I enjoyed this and think it will be one I'll read again.