Practical Jean Paperback – Sep 6 2011
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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.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“A jaw-dropping, near-perfect satire.”
“Practical Jean 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 (Owen Sound)
“A clever and timely novel with plenty of bite.”
— Telegraph Journal (St. John)
"[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
"Practical Jean 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.
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Top Customer Reviews
It flips Jean, it makes her see her world through the focus of happy lives and unhappy endings. So Jean, artist and now practical woman, takes it upon herself to help her friends live only the former.
Cole's gentle humour is tinged with a layer of understanding that makes the story bittersweet rather than ribald, though there are so many funny parts in it, such wonderful visuals and sensory details. We find ourselves rooting for the success of Jean's mission, cheering her on as she proceeds, dreamlike, through her plans.
I consumed this book, ripping along, desperate to see the next vignette, urgently wishing Jean to escape her ultimate fate. Highly recommended. Just don't get any ideas....
Her love of her friends leaves her no choice. She becomes a serial killer. Before she kills them, one by one, she feels compelled to give each one a wonderful event, a "gift", before she dies. And when she finds out that her husband developed an interest in another woman while she was with her sick Mother, she decides her friend is not
worthy of her "gift" and lets her live.
Cole has an uncanny knack for understanding women. He gets into their thoughts and knows how they operate.
While this sounds like a "dark" story, it is actually light and enjoyable to read. Cole strings his words together so smoothly that it is hard to put the book down. His characters are well developed and interesting. In fact, I liked Jean so well that I was hoping there was a chance she would get away with what she did.
After reading "Norman Bray...." and "Practical Jean", I can't wait to see what Trevor Cole comes up with next!
Jean owns a pottery and ceramics shop and is married to Milt, a substitute teacher. Jean has stayed with her mother for three trying months until her mother dies. Seeing her mother aging and suffering so much, Jean was affected greatly. After the funeral, Jean returns to her life with her husband Milt, a changed person. She is filled with doom and gloom. She tells her husband, "what's the point of anything? You live and then you die. Nothing matters. I should have killed my mother before she got so sick." What happened after Marjorie's death ... happened.
At first, Jean is a likeable character and is well liked among her friends. You may say she's a little weird and I'm referring to her obsession with leaves, not flowers, but leaves of any kind. When creating her porcelain designs, every design has leaves. The leaves are made so fine that they break off and disintegrate, but nevertheless she continues to make them.
After her mother's death, Jean has a different view of life. It's a rather twisted view. Now she sees things in a PRACTICAL JEAN way. She doesn't want her dear female friends to ever have to go through aging and suffering like her mother did. So now, Jean has a plan in mind.Read more ›
That Fran... She's a devoted one. How sad and desperate she is for recognition and love.
This is by no means a light read, but the rollercoaster of a narrative was truly spectacular and difficult to put down (the only reason why I had to put it down is because I am a student and, sometimes, I needed to read other things. Haha). As my father died from pancreatic cancer, I uncomfortably identified with the imagery of a human being succumbing to such a horrific disease when Marjorie's last months were described. In that way, it's not a huge jump to be able to say that one could identify with Jean's desperation in wanting to save her friends. Nevertheless, for all of Jean's manic attention to detail in her art, she failed/fails to see the beauty in everyday life, despite our aging and decaying bodies—beauty that merits living every moment to its fullest and living for as long as our bodies will permit. She is quite the multi-faceted figure!
I highly recommend Trevor Cole's book. It's a fascinating read and a unique depiction of how even the most profound benevolence can become darkly twisted.
Most recent customer reviews
Trevor Cole is a hell of a talent, funny, witty and dark, and I adore him. I like this book!Published on May 12 2013 by Suzanne Taylor
I found the story to be lacking and shallow. I've read black humour that actually had strong humour within it, but I found Practoical Jean to be less than mildly funny. Read morePublished on Jan. 21 2013 by Cindy
If all life is suffering, then Jean Horemarsh is the antidote. And one best avoided. This is a dark, humorous, Twain-like tale of logic taken to its absurd conclusion, but I... Read morePublished on June 14 2011 by Philip E. Nast
I chose this novel for my book club pick. I have to say...I found it to be an entertaining read. From the first paragraph you are not lead into the plot... Read morePublished on Feb. 22 2011 by Rachel Veiner