Quill & Quire
In their introduction to The Oprah Affect
, a collection of essays that analyze the impact of Oprah’s Book Club on popular and literary culture, editors Jaime Harker and Cecilia Konchar Farr argue there’s nothing new in the hit segment’s polarizing effect on both readers and critics. Since its inception, the novel has tended to divide devotees into irreconcilable camps, with each side clinging to its own narrow definition of a good read. On one side, according to Harker and Farr, are those who “seek books grounded in shared aesthetic … values,” those who prize the formal or “literary” over the sentimental. On the other – cue the theme music – are readers “who want books that engage them emotionally or socially,” novels that they can “take personally, novels that speak to, challenge, or transform their lives, novels that entertain them with stories or call them into political or social awareness, even action.” A quick scan of Lori Lansens’ book jackets and the multiple accolades printed there place her, it would seem, firmly on the side of the millions of Oprah’s Book Club members who want their fiction big-hearted and story-driven. Her second novel, The Girls
, was selected for the Richard & Judy Book Club, the U.K. equivalent of Oprah’s literary love-in. Mary Gooch, the heroine of Lansens’ latest novel, The Wife’s Tale
, is a typical Lansens protagonist – damaged, alienated, and resourceful, and her road to self-actualization is blocked by a box-store-sized stack of obstacles both external and internal. Chief among those obstacles is Mary’s weight, now topping the 300-pound mark on the eve of her 25th wedding anniversary. Lying naked in her nearly dark bedroom, waiting for her truck-driver husband Jimmy to come home, Mary gazes into the mirror, and sees a body “so gilded with fat that hardly a bone from her skeleton could insinuate itself in her reflection.” Mary has tried every diet and life resolution to shed her excess weight, but an irresistible hunger drives her to the kitchen to binge at all hours. Mary is stricken with hunger, but for what she can’t name or define – food makes do as a substitute. When Jimmy fails to return home that night or the next day for the couple’s anniversary party, Mary’s sad but predictable life is knocked off its moorings. The disappearance is soon explained by a vague letter from Jimmy, who has gone off to parts unknown to find “some time to think.” He promises to contact Mary eventually and informs her that he’s left the $25,000 he won from a scratch lottery ticket in their shared account. The stage is set for Mary, who barely knows how to use a bank card and has rarely set foot outside her small Ontario town, to embark on a journey both literal and spiritual. She travels to Toronto in search of Jimmy and then flies to Los Angeles, where his mother lives and where Mary meets a cast of misfits, searchers, and unlikely guides and friends. Mary’s mission to find her husband may be thwarted time and time again as the novel builds to a satisfying climax, but in the process she picks up a lifetime of lessons about her strengths and limitations. Lansens’ novels, for all their attention to characterization and period detail, and their refusal to shy away from such painful issues as racism, abuse, alienation, and poverty, are actually retellings of the classic Hero story, with a flawed individual undergoing a series of trials before eventually claiming his or her destiny. The Wife’s Tale
falls comfortably into this category, and for the most part, that’s a good thing. Lansens, who has written several screenplays, has a knack for satisfactorily ending one scene while creating anticipation for the next – an underappreciated skill alien to many Canadian novelists. Mary’s adventures may tend toward the mundane and domestic, but an irresistible narrative thrust and character arc carry the reader from chapter to chapter. The early sections, which introduce readers to the daily humiliations of morbid obesity, are fascinating, touching, and unflinching, and set up readers for Mary’s triumphant rise. Better still, Lansens is not above sending up the conventions of the archetypal Oprah book, going so far as to have Mary initiate her first airplane flight by buying a handful of gold-stickered novels that “promise laughter and tears.” Opening the first of the novels, Mary is “instantly and gratefully transported to another place” by a “masterful storyteller.” A few of the novel’s Los Angeles chapters are uncomfortably stuck between fable and psychological portrait, the character strokes too broad in some sections, too fine in others. Jimmy is perhaps a little too understanding of his wife’s weaknesses, too much the ideal husband, to function as a completely believable character. That oversight may be intentional, though. After all, a truck driver named Jimmy Gooch is probably not this novel’s targeted reader. THIS REVIEW HAS BEEN CORRECTED.
The print version of this review incorrectly stated that Oprah Winfrey owns the film rights to Lori Lansens' novel Rush Home Road
regrets the error.
"Like short-story queen Alice Munro, to whom she is often compared, Lansens demonstrates a singular gift for discerning both the ordinary and the extraordinary in small-town life and small-town people."
— Winnipeg Free Press
"A persuasive, dynamic storyteller, Lansens leads us through flashbacks into the world of a lonely, always-hungry child, who grows into a dutiful, anxious, hungry adult."
— The Toronto Star
"[Lansens’s] gift, and it’s to be cherished, is one of deep engagement with her subject, and empathetic involvement that broadens to draw in the reader."
— The Globe and Mail
"Heartwarming. . . . It's the urgency of this quest, along with Lansens's great capacity for humour and insight, especially as pertaining to the complex world of human emotions, that makes this book so riveting and compelling. . . . Lansens's equation of middle age with a second chance is a cheeringly attractive proposition."— The Gazette
"A sensitive but deliciously comic account of Mary’s fight against the ‘obeast’ that has lived inside her since childhood, The Wife’s Tale
offers more than self-improvement: there are loving reflections on marriage and family in small-town Ontario, hilarious travelogues about American obsessions . . . of course, there’s plenty of self-discovery too."
— The New York Times