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book review

Chow’s apparent integrity elevates what could otherwise be a catalogue of lefty stereotypes.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Nothing in this highly uneven memoir, not the awkward love letters or the overenthusiastic testimonials from her friends and allies, can convince me otherwise: Olivia Chow would get my vote as mayor of Toronto.

Parts of My Journey attempt to dissuade me: There's no shortage of the smug benevolence that drives her enemies further and further to the angry right, and she's forever plotting to educate unknowing people toward her idea of goodness.

Yet I also see in her book what I already believe: she's calm, rational, politically shrewd, unrivalled in her work ethic, eager to find common ground with her opponents (particularly when she's lured them into her territory), and perpetually on the side of the angels. Children, old people, aspirational immigrants, people who've been wronged by the system – she's proved as a school trustee, a city councillor and an NDP MP that she'll do everything she can to make their lives better.

In her optimistic worldview – but it's also the pragmatic argument she uses to counteract the charge that she's an irresponsible tax-and-spender – we all benefit when the least among us are lifted up. Well-fed children have a brighter future, subsidized childcare allows mothers to leave welfare and join the work force, refusing to fund home care for the elderly is a "false economy" – a favourite slogan Chow deploys against her tax-cut naysayers – since it shifts the financial burden to more expensive nursing homes.

These are cogent arguments that Chow has been making for years, sometimes successfully, so there's a kind of logic to giving them so much space in an autobiography. And yet, if only at the literary level of a story that claims to be personal, it all feels too calculated and abstract. My Journey is a chronicle of grief, an immigrant's coming-of-age tale, and a memoir of romance, but it's also an activist's apologia pro vita sua – a campaign document designed to pre-empt the attacks she'll face if tries to persuade Torontonians that governments should take a bigger role in their lives.

Like her soulmate Jack Layton, whose aura hangs heavy over My Journey, Chow doesn't acknowledge much distinction between public and private life. Which makes her the exact opposite, in this as in so many other ways, of her putative rival Rob Ford, the man who wants to rope off almost every dark corner of his well-publicized private side.

It's a classic difference between left and right, between the always engaged progressives and the small-government privatizers who insist that business and family and friends occupy a separate, higher reality from the political sideshow. "Our idea of a romantic evening often involved working on a political strategy or policy," Chow writes of her early bonding with Layton.

So you can see why she thinks the political and personal should elide effortlessly in My Voyage. But the book itself tells a different story.

The most engaging parts of her memoir are those where she ditches the numbing generalizations of progressive politics and simply remembers the fine details of life: Her spoiled and rebellious childhood in Hong Kong's Happy Valley apartment blocks is the most vivid part of the book, and when her unhappy, abusive father suddenly moves the family to Toronto in 1970 – to escape the threat of violence from Mao's China – the suddenly shy 13-year-old new Canadian has to learn to remake herself.

Maybe every politician who's bidding for our vote should have to write down what they did in their teenage years to earn our trust and respect, to prove their humanity. Chow was a cashier at Shoppers Drug Mart, waited tables at a fish restaurant, staffed a suicide hotline, worked as a junior forest ranger in the wilderness north of Lake Superior, lived platonically with a boyfriend in accordance with her Chinese Baptist fundamentalist principles (fundamentalist Christian – who knew?), and studied both existentialism and sculpture. She later made a living selling her sculpted polar bears, eagles and beavers at Toronto hotel gift shops.

All over the map, in other words. "We are made richer through our diversity," Chow says at one point, as if she were describing the quality we should be seeking in a leader and not just falling into automatic-pilot mode to praise her version of inclusivity. She's an expert white-water paddler and a long-distance cyclist. She organized round-the-clock care-giving for both her father and her mother while working as a fulltime-politician. She fought thyroid cancer, and still suffers the effects from a troubling bout of paralysis called Ramsay Hunt Syndrome.

I'm happy to vote for this person. I just wish that the political parts of her book didn't conform quite so much to the smug stereotypes of lock-step progressiveness – I'm still not convinced that rave culture is all about peace, love, unity and respect, for example, and always feel suspicious when an obviously controlling politician tells me her job is to help the vulnerable "find their voice."

Find your voice, Olivia. There's still time.

John Allemang is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail.