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Comedy and tragedy, charming and thoughtful

Dance, Gladys, Dance, by Cassie Stocks, NeWest Press, 341 pages, $19.95

Cassie Stocks' debut novel, Dance, Gladys, Dance, is a quirky blend of comedy and tragedy with an intriguing dose of the other-worldly. Frieda Zweig, the 27-year-old main character, is flailing about in life, and when she starts conversing with a ghost named Gladys, she gains some valuable life lessons.

Frieda thinks she needs to adopt a so-called normal life. At least that's what her parents and best friend Ginny tell her. But Frieda struggles with how to live. A major stumbling block is that she has the mindset of an artist. She used to paint, but gave it up along with a millionaire boyfriend named Norman. He's a nice guy except for the fact that his fortune is made from a porn empire his father created. Frieda is concerned about the exploitation of women, so Norman's business bothers her.

Stocks carefully weaves Frieda's story with that of Gladys by often resorting to cliff-hanger pauses in Gladys's narrative, and as a plot device, the structure works. It also works as a thematic device, because Frieda needs time to think about her future. And while she negotiates the past via Gladys and the problems women faced, she is busy fashioning a new life for herself through serendipity. She has responded to a classified advertisement about a 78-rpm record player, but when she shows up at the house to look at it, she discovers the ad is for a room to rent in the house of a widower named Mr. Hausselman.

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Creating utterly charismatic characters is Stocks's greatest strength. Mr. H (as Frieda calls him) and Frieda become friends, and added to the enticing jumble of characters are Miss Kesstle, Mr. H's neighbour, and her cat Beethoven; Norman's nutty mother, Lady March; Mr. H's estranged son, Whitman; a screenwriter and addict named Marilyn; and a street kid named Girl. The novel bursts at the seams with imagination, and just as one must suspend one's disbelief at the theatre, that's the best way to approach this novel.

The humour and zaniness of Dance, Gladys, Dance is counterpointed beautifully by the problems of the characters. Mr. H. is valiantly fighting to keep the arts centre alive. Marilyn and Girl are simply trying to survive. Gladys wanted to dance. And on some level, most of the characters are connected to the artistic or creative world. Sexuality is important and is seen as a source of pleasure, although punishment is meted out for what some believe is inappropriate behaviour (especially in the case of Gladys). The boundaries on female freedom lead Stocks into the occasional didactic lapse, but overall the novel is certainly engaging enough to overcome the small lectures.

Along with developing innovative characters, Stocks tells their story in a sparkling manner that combines both their pain and their pleasure. Frieda is a terrific narrator as she combines wit and a slightly jaded perspective: "No more Frieda Zweig the Artist. Abstract depictment in exchange for appropriate deportment. Who was I going to be? I was more inclined towards inertia than upward mobility and didn't like most people enough to devote my life to helping others less fortunate than myself. I'd work somewhere, I thought, watch TV in the evenings, and become wholly involved in the lives of non-existent people."

It's clear that anyone who can articulate that plan is unable to do it.

Dance, Gladys, Dance is a lovely demonstration of the importance of creating, whether it's art, friends or food. Connection – reaching out to others – is the ultimate value of this charming and thoughtful novel.

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