Quill & Quire
Trevor Cole’s refreshingly candid and complex portraits of contemporary masculinity have won a lot of praise and loyalty from a Canadian readership that, at least according to conventional publishing wisdom, prefers female-centric fiction. It’s true such novels often contain a male protagonist, but he is inevitably the type of reflective, moral, creative soul whose ethical tribulations make for good reading-club fodder.
Cole’s protagonists are neither particularly likeable nor admirable (they wouldn’t make good dinner guests), nor do they elicit easy sympathy from readers. They are largely defined by their obstinate rejection of the moral facts of life, preferring instead the comforts of lurid, ego-pleasing fantasies.
With Practical Jean, his third novel, Cole has turned his comic gifts to a female protagonist, one who embodies the traditionally feminine virtues of empathy, patience, selflessness, and practicality. By the novel’s end, however, Jean will have twisted those virtues into grotesque shapes that the charming lakeside town of Kotemee will never forget.
As the novel opens, “practical” Jean Horemarsh has put in countless hours living up to the cultural expectations assigned to her gender. The nurturing and patient wife of Milt, a good-natured but utterly useless supply teacher and general underachiever, Jean has lived a life of thankless service for as long as she can remember. Though chronically undervalued by her family, Jean doesn’t hesitate to surrender three interminable months to a crushing regime of home care during her mother’s protracted battle with cancer. When Jean returns home to her husband, she discovers a few cracks in the foundation of her plucky demeanour.
Jean’s only regret is that she didn’t suffocate her mother and save the dying woman a lot of useless agony. As she says to Milt, “You think about a lot of things when you’re taking care of your dying mother.” All that matters, Jean concludes, is to experience before death a “moment of beauty, or joy, something exquisite and pure.” Such a bizarrely romantic conclusion is in line with Jean’s underdeveloped non-practical side, normally expressed through her passion for making ceramic reproductions of plants and leaves (never flowers: too florid).
Back at the shop where she sells her creations, Jean cannot put the lessons of her mother’s death behind her. Watching a pair of spry elderly women browse the shelves, she tabulates the evidence of their diminished lives: “their limbs were stiff and sore, their eyes were weak, their skin had gone papery and lax, the internal systems of their bodies were no longer reliable.” Soon Jean is seeing the same forces at work on the bodies of her barely middle-aged friends: “Vicious, ruthless time was grinding away like a jackhammer, pulverizing bit by bit the foundations of their contentment.” It’s only a matter of time, she reasons, before her beloved friends end up as sick as her mother.
At this point, Jean’s practical and perversely romantic sides come together in a monstrous moment of revelation: “Death didn’t have to be slow and agonizing and bleak,” she concludes. Death can actually be a welcome gift delivered by a loving friend. And who better to deliver that gift than Jean? She resolves to kill her treasured friends, and to give each of them a “last moment of beauty” before the killing stroke.
Cole has great fun orchestrating the ensuing murders, in the process satirizing everything from small-town pieties to the latent competitiveness and jealousy that simmer beneath the compulsively affirmative surface of female friendship. Jean is as hopelessly narcissistic and aggressive as any of Cole’s male protagonists, but society’s double standards about female aggression force her to enact her rage in ways that parody the notion of feminine “niceness.”
The large cast of characters gives Cole ample opportunity to exercise his gift for comic portraiture. In one scene, an aging ex-boxer “bunche[s] up the heavy features of his face until they look like folds of pork”; in another, Jean responds to her brother’s observation that her sculpture, Mississippi Spleenwort, is “scary,” by snapping, “Well, it’s ferns. They’re prehistoric.” The sharp dialogue and even sharper character details ensure the novel’s intricately plotted scenes rarely lag.
Cole’s comic vision occasionally flags when sending up the mores of small-town Canada. A whiff of stale Leacock hangs over Kotemee’s too placid streets, and if it weren’t for the mention of cell phones and computers, a reader might forget what decade the story takes place in. The world has become a much uglier, less forgiving place since Leacock made his sunshine sketches of Mariposa, a fact not lost on the always practical Jean Horemarsh.
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“A jaw-dropping, near-perfect satire.”
should be a starred pick for every book club. . . . [A] biting and black comedy of middle-class mores gone murderously wrong [that] combines diamond-cut social satire with thoughtful contemplations of friendship’s burdens, meaning and purpose. . . .
This wise and funny writer finishes off his latest novel with an epilogue whose closing words will leave you laughing (or shuddering and laughing) for days.” — The Globe and Mail
“Funny and dark and occasionally surprising. . . . A darkly comic look at friendship and the sometimes dubious values of practical thinking.”
— Edmonton Journal
“Wickedly funny. . . . This has to be one of the darkest comedies written by a Canadian in my memory. Every page has a droll surprise, a laconic statement of absurdity, a deadpan wink at the world.” — SunTimes
“A clever and timely novel with plenty of bite.”
— Telegraph Journal
"[A] rare thing -- a novel that tackles a deep, dark philosophical question through seemingly banal events and leaves the reader pondering for days after reading the last page. . . . Thought-provoking."
— Vancouver Sun
"A deliciously dark comedy that feeds off our deepest, primordial fear . . . a mischievous, subversive tour-de-force."— Kitchener Waterloo Record
"With his diabolical deadpan, Trevor Cole reminds us that literary fiction can be at once thoughtful, provocative, and blackly funny. Practical Jean
is wicked smart fun."
– Annabel Lyon, author of The Golden Mean
may be the blackest comedy ever written about the white middle class. Hilarious and heartbreaking, piquant and poignant, it’s a grim pleasure to watch Jean Vale Horemarsh abandon herself to brutal altruism and to the fatal redemption of her dearest friends. Trevor Cole has deeded us an outstanding novel and done, memorably, what no one else has yet managed: taken the too-touted quality of practicality by the scruff and given it a killing shake."
– Bill Richardson, author of Bachelor Brothers’ Bed and Breakfast
"This wicked take on female friendship gives chilling new meaning to the phrase "tough love." Practical Jean
is Trevor Cole at his satirical best."
— Lynn Coady, author of Mean Boy
From the Hardcover edition.