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on September 14, 2006
I was reminded so many times while reading A COMPLICATED KINDNESS of the book THE BARK OF THE DOGWOOD with its themes of family dysfunction, memory, repressed memories, struggles to freedom, and a host of other scenarios and ideas that played throughout this novel. Set in Manitoba, Nomi is the main character who struggles with her famlies religious zealousness and fragile existence. Dealing with the Mennonites and a coming-of-age tale that is anything but unusual, you'll find yourself drawn to this story in a way that won't let you put the book down. But the novel isn't all darkness. There's a great deal of humor and wit in it. If you liked the novels THE KITE RUNNER and BARK OF THE DOGWOOD, then this book will work for you. Of couse, the settings are entirely different for all three, but the same themes of struggle are there. Great stuff, all.
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on October 11, 2004
I found this book fascinating. On first reading, this book seemed to be one teenager's long downward spiral into depression, interspersed with a few beautiful or humorous moments. But a shadowy glimpse of a some more complex themes drew me back to it for a second reading, where I was delighted to find the writing tight and full of well-chosen imagery and recurring themes.
The narrator, Nomi, writes near the beginning: "People here just can't wait to die, it seems. It's the main event. The only reason we're not all snuffed at birth is because that would reduce our suffering by a lifetime. My guidance counsellor has suggested to me that I change my attitude about this place and learn to love it. But I do, I told her. Oh, that's rich, she said. That's rich."
Nomi chafes against the inflexibility and lack of forgiveness in many members of her religious community, but as she struggles to understand the undercurrents which have driven her mother and elder sister into the void beyond the town, she begins to be able to tap into the honesty of her family to imagine something bigger and better than the only place she knows. "I have a problem with endings," she writes, and she cannot satisfy her English teacher by drawing her essays to a neat close. In the same way, she can't seem to accept her pastor uncle's neat package of rigid definitions explaining her existence, with no mysteries or forgiveness for weakness. When a nurse at the hospital criticises her invalid friend Lydia for being so needy, Nomi objects 'But isn't that what a hosp...(ital is for?)" When the church throws out a man for being unable to overcome alcoholism, the reader wants to ask, "But isn't that what a church community is for?" Nomi has an innate sense that something is fundamentally wrong with her environment. But she recognises kindness, too, "in the eyes of people when they look at you and don't know what to say." Her uncle, "The Mouth", always knows what to say, and it never fails to be irrelevant and discouraging. But she values those whose love and concern go beyond the limitations of their prescribed answers, who can only love her and feel confused, without lashing out because they feel threatened by her ragged search to unite her family and find healing.
Nomi's dad, Toews' best character, embodies this combination of deep love and confusion. He holds rigidly to the prescribed order of the community while gently falling apart with grief. Wonderfully complex, Ray wears a suit every day, even gardening, wins an award for perfect church attendance and listens to the radio hymn programme every night. But he spends nights secretly rearranging rubbish at the dump and slowly selling off the household furniture while letting his daughter see, with a sad and affectionate humour, that he doesn't know the answers.
Toews addresses two different kinds of nostalgia: the oppressive desire of The Mouth to cling to concrete vestiges of a past lifestyle, such as the town's windmill, and Nomi's fond remembrance of living people and experiences in the community that are both shared and uniquely hers. Even though I desperately wanted to tell her at the end of the book, "fly away!" I was moved by her dad's loyal attempt to encourage and empower her in the only way he knows how.
I think readers who are confident they know everything about God already and have set answers to life's questions will struggle with this book and find it irreverent. But I think other readers will be inspired by Nomi's quest in faith to find acceptance, forgiveness, joy and a love which extends beyond tidy definitions.
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on January 21, 2006
I can't belive all the negative reviews. I loved this book. I've lent it to 5 people (all of them loved it) and I have a few more friends inline to read it. I laughed out-loud many times, my family even has little inside jokes about some of the characters. "Hide the sponge" is enough to send us into fits of giggles.
I loved the way the novel was written. The jumpy, sometimes confusing style reflects the way a young girl would tell a story. Listen to how teenage girls speak- Toews nailed it. It isn't the story of a grown woman looking back on her childhood, it would have spoiled the story had it been written in an adult tone.

The novel struck a chord with me as my family was disowned by the Mennonite community about 60 years ago. I had always wondered what it would have been like if I had been raised a Mennonite. This novel did a wonderful job of answering a lot of my questions. It's hilarious and heart-breaking at the same time. Oh, so highly recommended!
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on July 14, 2006
Miriam Toews' novel, A Complicated Kindness, is an intriguing, almost voyeuristic look into an unfamiliar culture. It is essentially about a young girl's life growing up in an oppressive, small town, where her family and community are trapped in legalistic religious traditions. It is an example of how, in this case Christianity, but any religion for that matter, can destroy a family and community when the essential love, hope and forgiveness are removed from the tenets of their faith. Still, Toews is careful to show that even the most messed up religious fanatics have their own brand of kindness--however complicated it may be. The book held my interest throughout as I felt a strong empathy for the heroine and her family. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading about religion gone amuck, other people's culture, or a young woman coming of age in difficult circumstances. Here's a warning though: it is not for those looking for an uplifting, light read or a tidy and hope-filled ending, as it is injected with sardonic humour and biting realism throughout the book.
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on June 20, 2010
I have picked this book up 3 times and tried to read it, still trying to get through it. It is just not grabbing me from the start.
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on November 24, 2004
Boy, what an appropriate title for this book. Really, this novel is a study in the contradictions of life: moving ahead into adulthood vs leaving behind childhood with its odd combination of security and non-security. While reading about the downward emotional spiral of a teenager may not sound like the thing you'd want to take to bed each night, trust me, this is one powerful and excellent novel. I was reminded at times of the books of Wally Lamb or even Jackson McCrae (think Lamb's "Shes Come Undone" or McCrae's "The Children's Corner"), but in the end "A Complicated Kindness" really stands on its own. What's also amazing is that it can be read by adolescents and adults alike, and each will probably get something great out of it.
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on June 17, 2005
It's hard to pan a book I set out to like, but despite the awards, this book does not deserve the listing among the Canadian greats. Set in a small Mennonite town on the Manitoba prairie, where all is controlled by the rigid expectations of the religious community, Nomi searches for meaning with typical adolescent angst, but some less than typical issues of family and faith.
Although Nomi offers a good take on the adolescent voice, she never transcends the dead, uncaring, whine. As a result I lost patience with the affected boredom after about chapter 2. Many wonderful books offer a child's or adolescent's look at life, but most offer a sense of the individual's strength, or grace or intellect to engage the reader. This book never allows you to see the strength or beauty of the repressed soul underneath.
At a book club meeting comprised of a mixed group of readers - some of us prairie girls, some Mennonite, most not, we could not understand the awards that had been give to this book. We wondered if it's major draw was the antagonism towards religious communities which is so prevalent in the modern media. There are many better books that deal with the issues of isolation, repression and hypocricy that can exist in these communities. The characters in this book are often cardboard stereotypes - the repressive religious leader, the philandering teacher, even the rebellious daughter and her shallow boyfriend.
More profound conversations and language could be heard in the boysroom of the local highschool. Although the intent of the author may be to reenact the tedium, hopelessness and stilted conversation of an isolated teenager's life - you need more than that to keep a reader occupied.
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on August 17, 2004
This very excellent funny and heart wrenching narrative captures the essence of adolescence: how stifling social pressure to conform can be, the longing for adulthood mixed with the fear of leaving childhood behind, the confusion upon discovering how ridiculous and contradictory many aspects of adult life are, the recognition of the randomness of life (and death and love and loss) while trying to come to terms with the meaning of your own existence.
I agree with the first reviewer, I am compelled to re-read the book again immediately.
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on April 24, 2014
I thought this book was good. It was entertaining, and yet the feel of it was kind of depressing. Entertaining with the dark humour, (too dark for my tastes), as well as the shockingly accurate depictions of small town life, truly eerie!
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on July 18, 2004
I finished reading this book over two weeks ago and I can't seem to get it off of my mind. This is definitely one of the most amazing novels I have ever read. I find that it captures you in the narrative so well that it's hard to decipher reality from fiction. I was over half way finished when I realized that Miriam Towes was the author of Summer of my amazing luck. In my opinion this book is an epic compared to her other works. I'm seriously contemplating picking it up and reading it from beginning to end once more.
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