Ellen in Pieces by Caroline Adderson

January 5, 2015 § 2 Comments

What separates a good book from a mediocre one? For me, it’s always the writing, the individual sentences. Caroline Adderson recently remarked, in a Globe and Mail interview, that the best literary advice she’s ever received is that “character is more important than plot,” but I suspect if she were giving the advice it would be more along the lines of an answer she gives later in the interview to the question “What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don’t ask)?” Adderson replies, “Nobody has ever asked, ‘Is the moment when you transform a mediocre sentence into a better, truer one the absolute best moment of your day?’” And I suspect for Adderson it really is the best moment of her day.

I read a lot of novels that make my heart sink, and usually it’s simply because they are not finished—because they need hours and weeks and months (and if they’ve already had it, they need more) of concentrated attention to nothing but words and sentences. Ellen in Pieces, Adderson’s fourth novel, uses language so skilfully, so lightly and yet fully, that it is wonderful yet somehow invisible. It dances along the line between good writing and over-writing, but what keeps it good, in other words controlled, is that any exuberance, any flourish, is always perfectly in keeping with the character.

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The novel’s protagonist, Ellen McGinty, is impulsive, a little self-obsessed to the point of occasional obtuseness regarding other people and their inner lives and emotions, and mostly doing the best she can with what she’s been given. Her relationship with her ex-husband is hardly any less charged than it was the day they met, and its history unspools tensely through the book. When Ellen’s world is thrown into crisis, this relationship undergoes yet another evolution.

The book is in pieces, as Ellen is too (both because of the crisis but also because of the way she is shown in different contexts and different relationships) each one a separate incident in Ellen’s life, broadly chronological but with some flashbacks and twists. It opens with a story that will be familiar to readers of Eighteen Bridges: “I Feel Lousy,” in which Ellen learns that her younger daughter—the promising one studying to be a doctor—is pregnant after a one-night stand she had mainly for the sake of experience.

Towards the end of the book we start to see Ellen from the perspective of the other characters, which are less vibrant, more tentative than Ellen, with all her anger and raw emotion. In some ways I missed Ellen, because these insertions felt more like separate short stories—related, but sometimes not even about Ellen and instead about that particular character’s life away from her. At times I wondered if this was more a lesson for Ellen than for the reader, as Ellen is accused by her friends (and I confess I didn’t always agree with them) of lacking a developed theory of mind (I paraphrase). The novel is about Ellen, after all; surely she’s allowed some leeway in terms of self-centredness.

This is the first book of Adderson’s I’ve read, and an author of whom the phrase “deserves to be better known” seems highly appropriate. Ellen in Pieces is one of the best Canadian novels I read in 2014.

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