At the end of David Bergen’s novel of sensibility, The Age of Hope, the eponymous Hope realizes that she “belongs to a whole herd of grey-haired women in running shoes who apparently did not exist,” invisible to the dismissive contemporary world.
That moment of recognition is no epiphany for Hope. She is well aware that hers has been a life lived on the verge of significance, never quite in the centre. “Hers was a plain life, full of both poverty and pride,” readers are told, before the novel goes on to unfold that same life as complex and contradictory.
Hope grows up in Eden, Man. (as heavily symbolic as Hope’s name), an ordinary girl who believes that she is “different.” After high school, she studies nursing, but leaves her training to marry. A beautiful woman, she does not relish her looks so much as take them for granted.
Her steady and kind husband, Roy, runs a successful car dealership in Eden, while Hope plays housewife and births four children, whom she handles with a mixture of remoteness and interference. Hope is a worrier, and she worries especially about what other people think. She begins to feel depressed and lonely, which Roy does not understand; he is busy getting ahead in the world.
Hope’s quotidian existence is interrupted by occasional breakouts that signal her discontent. She picks up hitchhikers, yearning for “spice” in her life. She makes friends with a “liberated” woman who introduces her to 1960s ideas. She suffers a mental breakdown and spends time in the Winkler Mental Health Centre, where she has electric shock therapy. But always she returns to her position, and resumes her symbolic role.
Meanwhile, Roy grows prosperous, almost-rich, then goes bankrupt and loses his business. He and Hope move to Winnipeg and try to reinvent themselves; Hope even works for a short time as a housecleaner. Throughout her life, she worries about her children and grandchildren, but is never quite able to fathom their lives. Once her husband dies, she does achieve a static happiness, the freedom of not having to take another into account.
It is a widely held belief that women who came of age in the 1950s led lives of quiet desperation. They have become the subject of misery-leavened-by-rebellion fiction, a genre to which this novel belongs. The pleasure of reading about such lives is in the fine balance between that quotidian life and the writer’s ability to translate that life.
The Age of Hope tracks Hope’s days, lighting on key moments but otherwise flitting over the surface of events. The reader yearns to be submerged, a delicious, headlong plunge into detail that would invigorate Hope. Instead, her story is too deliberately plotted, as if such ordinariness must be marinated in absence and then suddenly served with hot peppers.
This is a woman who prays when she thinks she needs to, who is obsessed with her looks but cannot suppress her sweet tooth, and whose life-lists (active and passive) are interchangeable. Hope’s contradictions are the essence of her character, subtle and ironic when successful – “She didn’t want to be a bother. She loved the attention” – but insufficiently amplified by her chronicler.
Bergen is an inside observer of Mennonite culture, and his depictions of Eden’s limitations (frugal to the point of parsimony, narrow to constriction), are precise and persuasive. Particularly astute is his analysis of the relationship between money and faith, that “being blessed and being religious” bestow prosperity. His acerbic dissection of “wealth as a sign of god’s blessing” in an “all-white town” is deft and telling.
Equally effective is the way that Bergen connects Hope’s yearning for adventure with automobiles. She loves to travel, and the best parts of the novel are related to driving, her love of movement, and how cars were a marker of freedom and escape for women of her generation. Hope’s digressions from conformity suggest themselves as vignettes of exception that do not amplify her character but contradict it. She is allowed to stray with such parsimony that she feels inauthentic, a character constructed on the basis of what men think women care about, rather than what women really care about.
And there may be the crux of this novel’s success and failure. Look for a plethora of books about women contemplating their lives: Middle-aged women are the readers, the thinkers and the purchasers of books. They are the market. If only Hope could redeem her marketeer.
Aritha van Herk is a middle-aged woman who yearns to be invisible. She lives and writes in Calgary.