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Clara Callan
Richard B. Wright
London: Flamingo (HarperCollins), 2001.
£7.99, 415 pages, ISBN 0-00-714487-3.

Joelle M. d’Entremont
Université de Rouen

I haven't heard such buzz regarding a male writer writing “realistically” from a woman’s perspective since She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. Clara Callan, by Canadian author Richard B. Wright, has won two of Canada’s pre-eminent literary prizes—the Giller Prize and the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction—and has been an international bestseller. The novel, mostly set in Whitfield, a small town in Ontario, Canada, spans the years 1934-1938 and ends with an afterword set in present day Canada. The novel consists of diary entries of the protagonist, Clara Callan, a single woman in her early thirties working as a schoolteacher and living in her dead parents’ house. Correspondence in the form of letters adds to the first person narrative of Clara’s journal, mostly to and from her sister, Nora, an aspiring actress seeking fame and fortune in New York, and Evelyn, a brash New Yorker who is a writer for Nora’s radio soap opera.

Wright creates an intimate and personal atmosphere using journal entries and letters to tell the story of Clara Callan. From this perspective, it is “realistic” in that women, in general, tend to be more apt to keep journals and diaries to express their innermost thoughts and feelings. Oprah Winfrey (watched mostly by women) continuously encourages her following to use journals as a way to express themselves. Apart from this aspect, I kept asking myself throughout the novel whether the characters accurately depict the feelings, actions and thoughts of women. I reviewed an excerpt with my third year English students and examined this question of what it means to write realistically from a woman’s perspective. I have read novels written by men which were not realistic portrayals of women’s lives, however, the same can be said for some novels written by women. Regardless of the author’s gender, what can be considered a “women’s perspective” anyway? Many people defend the existence of a unique women’s view of the world, and to some extent I agree, however, can one surmise all women characters should be created a certain way or they will be deemed “unrealistic”? While this issue is beyond the scope of a book review, I can safely say the circumstances Clara, Nora and Evelyn find themselves in are unique to women and women’s lives and Wright can be credited for having developed characters this reader could care about and relate to.

First person narratives can be powerful and have tremendous impact on readers. The minute I began to read the novel, I slowed down and began to savour each word as I could tell this book would become an “experience”. It felt like finding an old tattered diary and some dusty old letters in an attic, sitting in a ray of sunlight and being transported to another time and place. Not only does Clara become a “real”, living, breathing person, we are being continuously offered impressions of how others in her life perceive her. This adds to the richness and complexity of Clara’s character development.

As I picked up the novel, I thought if this turned out to be another “Bridget Jones-type” stereotypical depiction of single women as desperate, neurotic and ticking biological time bombs, I would throw it out the window. Being a single woman in my early thirties and having grown up and lived in small-town Canada, I find Clara Callan a complex, accurate and realistic portrayal of most single women I know and of the small-town Canada experience (if not of most of North America). Either Richard B. Wright has lived in a small town himself or he has well-researched the small-town experience, not always well understood by city dwellers. Add the single, female and educated issues and you often get the isolation and alienation of being “alone” in communities that value couples and families above all else. All of the aspects of small-town life are here: lack of privacy, boredom, few single people, having to hang out with much older women (most women our age are looking after babies), lack of access to culture and the arts, lack of interesting things to do, rarely having the opportunity to meet new people, restrictions on behaviour. In other words, you simply do not “fit in” and this is apparent in Clara’s case in the following passage:

On Friday evening I went with ‘the ladies of the village’ to a performance of The Merry Widow at the Royal Alexandra. I don’t know why I went, I don’t really care for Lehar’s petty tunes and I felt a little misplaced travelling with a dozen older women and their husbands. Three carloads of us! Ida Atkins is after me to join the Missionary Society. ‘Dear Clara, it would be so good for you to get out. All alone in that big house now. And we do need some young blood’. That’s true, I suppose. Except for poor Marion, the ‘ladies’ are all in their forties, fifties and onwards. Am I now at thirty-one perceived as a member of this group? I expect I am, though I can’t help thinking I’ll grow old before my time if I join the M.S. The thought of setting aside Tuesday evening for the next thirty years is dispiriting, to say the least.

So why does she stay? As many people who have grown up in tight knit, enclosed small towns, who would benefit greatly from the opportunities of larger centres but stay because of security or fear, often develop a love-hate relationship with the community. Clara expresses this love-hate balance throughout the novel. In fact, Evelyn sees Whitfield as “anytown” in North America with the characteristic “Chestnut Street” where everyone knows everyone else's business.

Marion, Clara’s childhood friend and apparently the only other single woman Clara’s age in Whitfield is a contrast to Clara’s personality. Marion reminds me of those women in my home community who puzzle yet amaze me. Although Clara chooses to live in Whitfield, she is one of those people who stay because they are afraid. While Clara’s personality is pensive, philosophical and somewhat melancholic, Marion represents those individuals who genuinely appear happy living in a small town and rarely ever meet new people or expand their horizons. These women often live with their aging parents, do not date (very often anyway) and seem quite content with their lives. Sometimes I think Wright must have lived in my town! While Clara ponders life, meaning, loss and love (or lack thereof), Marion does not appear interested or capable or these larger life issues and is perfectly happy with choir practices, occasional “outings”, Sunday drives and adolescent-like crushes on stars. I often wondered as I read the novel if these characters were based on true people. Of course, one of the main themes of the novel is that we rarely see the inner workings of people, what is real and what is window dressing.

Nora, Clara’s sister, left Whitfield for the bright lights and excitement of New York City. Although Clara and Nora’s personalities are quite different, shared experiences of loss, trauma and heartbreak solidifies the sisterhood bond. Nora, also single, is in her thirties and looking for the “house with the picket fence and 2.5 children” dream / myth. The two Americans in the novel, Evelyn and Lewis Mills are portrayed as the stereotypically loud, brash Americans. The Canadians are generally very nice and even when they are nasty, they leave mean anonymous notes rather than become direct and "in your face."

Richard B. Wright has created a rich world of women’s lives with themes of loss, isolation, identity, loneliness, sexism, violence, friendship, love and the passage of time. The author is subtle, he steers away from the obvious, and keeps the reader fascinated and titillated throughout the novel. Whitfielfd could indeed by “anytown”, and Clara “many women”. Although the novel is set in the mid to late 1930’s, it could also be “anytime” as all of the women’s issues presented are still relevant today. It is this timelessness that will ensure Clara Callan will not lose its appeal for many years, if not decades.

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