Women and girls, their view of their bodies, clothes and social obligations, their joys dashed by failure to measure up to impossible standards - these issues fuel Hilary Scharper's uneven yet often moving story collection.
Grace Morrison, fading Toronto chatelaine, has been around the block a few times. Her block being one of the tonier in Toronto's Annex, the dents and scratches of her years have been borne with a stolidity matching the Edwardian façades - until tonight. Dutifully, Grace is joining husband Henry at his club's annual Christmas dinner. Dark suits and sleek gowns will mingle in a cavernous ballroom at the Royal York, but the hurdle still to be negotiated is the image in her dressing-room mirror - in this case, the familiar bulge spilling over the waistband of her panties. As she glances at Henry, naked and shaving beyond the open bathroom door, his love handles strike her as "full-fledged saddlebags."
- Dream Dresses, by Hilary Scharper, Seraphim, 224 pages, $18.95
At dinner, Henry virtually ignores her to flirt with a young guest, bringing Grace quickly to a contained boil. Famished from a day of fasting, livid at Henry, betrayed by an expensive dress that only emphasizes her spare tire, she can't even enjoy the juicy cut of prime rib that might have salvaged her evening. In the car heading home, her unspoken ire ramps up, until Henry, out of their separate silences, raises an old memory, the much-revived but dearly loved "script" of their first encounter. Narrowly skirting pitfalls of easy sentiment, Scharper tenderly portrays this couple's anchoring core of mutual regard.
A story examining adolescent sexual dilemmas doesn't quite get inside the unformed personality of its protagonist. Clara's inner thoughts and emotions are delivered with incongruously authorial prose: "She felt the terrible weight of her future bearing down into her soul. ... There was no clemency." Scattered text message dialogues ("chil grl! this is 4 u") and an all-girl lingerie party help to aptly lower the tone, but then Scharper comes front and centre again for her writerly climax: "The universe shattered and shifted around them, refusing to pause in its movement, rushing headlong to seize a precipitous balance." Happily, the final mother-daughter tableau rings quietly authentic.
With the story of Victoria, in Grade 3 at a regimented Catholic primary school, the prose leaps again to a literary pitch ill matched to the perceptions of a child: "Victoria had a menacing feeling that formidable forces were busily constructing a cordon around her. ... She desperately tried to find a point of reference, to find some compass of self as it encircled her." Scharper's intent is to show a childhood crushed by heartless social codes, but this girl's charms are suppressed as much by her author as by dour parents and crusty nuns.
At 30 pages, the longest story follows a mother and her newborn as she attempts to shed pounds while trying to bulk up her underweight child. Distracted by her own bodily obsession, Valerie is a little too casual about monitoring her son's weight. When little John Michael, still too thin, dies one night in the care of a babysitter, it's hard to feel the loss because the tragic moral is so bluntly underscored. As Valerie sobs, cradling the dead infant, final words beat out a redundant, "John Michael was really truly gone."
Two aged sisters in a seniors building offer a welcome comedic turn. The blue-haired ambience is pleasingly detailed, right down to wads of "slightly moist Kleenex and decaying cough lozenges" in capacious handbags.
Perhaps the best entry comes in the book's least demonstrative prose. Lei is an immigrant seamstress in Toronto, her adored mother recently deceased, her daily lot tied to the small Spadina garment factory where she sews beads onto pricey gowns. Here, the tone and dramatic arc are carefully wrought, Scharper's controlled expression and understatement touchingly illuminating Lei's life.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.