this is not a review: ‘a serious widow’, by constance beresford-howe

Like many people, I fell in love with Beresford-Howe’s work after reading her gorgeous The Book of Eve. She writes so well about the experience of womanhood, of middle age and beyond, freedom often being a theme. Like ‘Eve’ (a senior citizen who reinvents herself)… the title character of A Serious Widow  (Rowena) finds herself suddenly ‘free’ of a loveless marriage. Unlike Eve, however, Rowena is more bitter than celebratory and that seems to make at least some of the difference.519ty8GB2NL._SY346_

Turns out that Rowena’s husband has for decades been leading a double life and has a whole other very normal family in Ottawa, where he spent one week a month ‘on business’. Rowena discovers this only after his death. The other family is equally clueless about the duplicity but, unlike Rowena, the other wife was The First Wife, making that family more legit. At least as far as the estate goes.

To further complicate matters, no will can be found.

The premise of the book is pretty much to find the will and in the process Rowena finds her sense of self. As with Eve, she takes up with a few unlikely-but-nice, usually older, frumpy chaps but who surprise her sometimes in Fabio-like ways.

I thoroughly enjoy Beresford-Howe’s writing and her style and respect her feminist leanings at a time when such leaning may not have been entirely popular (I read somewhere that she was a tiny innocuous-appearing firecracker of a thing who quietly, yet fiercely, stood for what she believed in— including Canadian spelling when publishers tried to convince her to go U.S.). While I’d recommend the book, I’d add that I’d have liked it better as a novella. Not everything needs to be a full length novel. (And do not get me started on foie gras books, i.e. those stuffed mercilessly with fatty content…)


Despite my opinion on the unnecessary word count, there is indeed much loveliness in the book. Relationships mostly between older people, and parents and grown children. It would appeal to anyone who liked Hotel du Lac, for example, by Anita Brookner or, more recently, And The Birds Rained Down, by Jocelyne Saucier, where themes of change, aging, loss are not seen as a negative but merely part of life to be lived with as much pleasure as the bits that preceded it. And often more.

This from a scene where one of Rowena’s lovers tells her what it was like entering his mother’s room after her death.

“She looked exactly as she did when I left her just a few hours before, as if she were asleep. But it was different, because she wasn’t there anymore, Rowena. She’d gone—somewhere. For good. No mistake about that. Nothing could possibly be more empty than that room”

And later, in the same scene, this from Rowena’s pov after her bereaved lover has finally found sleep:

“With care I draw off his glasses and tuck the afghan around him. Outside like another voice the November wind shakes the windowpane. Wiping my own eyes, I turn out all the lights and leave him sleeping there. Sooner or later, one way or another, I think, we’re all orphans. It should make us kinder to each other than it does.”

I’ve been reading and re-reading Beresford-Howe for years and was sad when she died in 2016 at age 93. I’d always meant to write her a note to thank her for her work. (I wonder now, what was my plan? To wait until she was 94?) Ah well, this post will have to do instead.

this is not a review: this is a list of unexpected literary connections having to do with escape, rum, and well-intentioned budinskis


Somewhere in the process of my December reading it occurs to me that three very different and unlikely books share a series of similar elements.

Don’t you just love it when that happens, when you think… rum, again?? And it all begins to feel like a kind of reading serendipity is happening.

It begins with The Book of Eve, by Constance Beresford-Howe. Written in 1973… it remains the classic, in my opinion, running away story. Woman fed up with boorish husband, chooses instead to live in a damp bare bones Montreal basement apartment, with a feral cat outside a window that’s impossible to open and a slightly mad, slightly inspiring Hungarian living upstairs. Hard to see as uplifting but of course it is. She is free, not of life’s yins and yangs, but free of those yins and yangs where the source is boorishness and which grate as intolerable because they are the yins and yangs of a life that is not of her choosing. Makes such a difference. The upstairs Hungarian is the well-intentioned budinski. There is rum (or is it whiskey?), also sherry. There is scavenging in order to survive, there is rain and redecorating with scavenged objets that indeed become a kind of art representing this new life. There is the confusion of what I have done? and there are answers.

— The book to read if you, too, have dreams of living in a damp basement apartment with not a lick of money other than what you can pawn your scavenged bits for. Or if you merely admire simplicity and living one’s truth.


Next up, One Woman’s Island, by Susan Toy, which surely calls to me as an antidote to all that damp draftiness (see above). The story takes place in the Caribbean on the island of Bequia, which is an almost character itself in the way Toy offers not only island customs and sounds, fragrance, colour, but the lilt of language, the tinkle of ice in a rum-filled glass. She also gives us a peek at the ex-pat experience in all its happy hour island vibe and the sense of finding like-minded souls, but also the sometimes sense of claustrophobia, lack of meaningful ways to spend one’s time, and the major adjustment to another culture. The story is about a woman who leaves Canada after the death of her husband and heads to Bequia where she rents a house for six months, intending to simply relax. Turns out relaxation is limited given the dinner and drinks invitations from ex-pats, the occasions of possible murder, various other dangers and intrigues, and her own well-intentioned budinski tendencies toward a neighbouring family. Toy has a dry sense of humour that infuses the narrative voice with a conversational tone and makes for an easy, enjoyable, and compelling read. Also, Toy’s respect for the island comes through in the way she weaves references to serious issues such as literacy, island politics, traditions, and warns of the need for ex-pats (and tourists) to understand that life for the locals, while appearing to mainlanders as possibly needing improvement, is a life the islanders love. Budinskis butt out.

— The book to read if you want a sweet slice of winter armchair travel. (Also, Toy, who actually does live part of the year on Bequia, and is a bit of a foodie, infuses much cooking and eating throughout the book and thoughtfully includes recipes for items enjoyed by the characters at the end of each chapter. I will try several.)


Finally,  Lynn Coady’s Watching You Without Me,  The budinski connection is huge here. His name is Trevor and he’s employed to take Karen’s intellectually handicapped sister Kelli for walks twice a week. Karen has been living in Toronto for many years but comes home to Nova Scotia after the death of her mother, in order to look after Kelli and make arrangements for her future. Trevor, the personal support worker, has an excellent relationship with Kelli, who clearly adores him and vice versa. He is helpful re info on the home care system and long term care residences, all of which Karen is grateful for. Until. Without giving too much away, let’s just say Karen learns she should have followed her own instincts, and this is where the escape element comes in. Although I won’t say in which direction said escaping occurs. I will say that rum features large throughout.

— The book to read if you’re a caregiver. A manual of both what to do and not do.



savoury sentences from several sources, part 3


“I imagined her at her closet, deciding what you’d wear to go learn something about your child that just might break your heart.”

from We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,  by Karen Joy Fowler


“She said it with just a hint of bitterness in her voice, enough that I could taste it, like a squeeze of lemon in a glass of milk.”

— from ‘Serendipity’ in the collection Flesh & Blood,  by Michael Crummey


“She had no children and beautiful shoes in a range of colours, and each pair had its own matching bag.”

— from ‘The Green Road’,  by Anne Enright


“It surprises me that he could have seen any delight in Toby Whittaker, an exhausted-looking young man who, after shaking hands, said not a word from first to last, but whose silence emitted a faint air of disaster and gin.”

— from ‘A Serious Widow’,  by Constance Beresford-Howe


“Recently, everything around me felt familiar yet amiss, like the first time you ride in the back seat of your own car.”

— from  Let the Northern Lights Erase your Name,  by Vendela Vida


“The smoke in the dark looked like a dove that whispered the future to saints in paintings.”

— from Lullabies for Little Criminals,  by Heather O’Neill


“Home was something that you could fit into a suitcase and move in a taxi for ten dollars.”

— from Lullabies for Little Criminals,  by Heather O’Neill


“The mixture of cafe au lait and impatience was producing an exquisite vibration.”

— from Still Life,  by Louise Penny


“The problem is he married a Pole. Turns out she doesn’t know her arse from her elbow. Doesn’t even keep Keen’s mustard on hand.”

— from Are you Ready to be Lucky?,  by Rosemary Nixon


“That was the trouble with grown-ups: they always wanted to be the centre of attention, with their battering rams of food, and their sleep routines and their obsession with making you learn what they knew and forget what they had forgotten.”

— from Mother’s Milk,  by Edward St. Aubyn


“They were not merely sentences but compressed moments that burst when you read them.”

— from the essay, ‘Thank you, Esther Forbes’, by George Saunders


More sentences here 710px-Woman_reading,_1930s

and here.