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the daily review, mon., mar. 14

Jill Sooley

Hatching, matching and dispatching is the theme of Newfoundlander Jill Sooley's first novel, The Widows of Paradise Bay, with a big emphasis on the dispatching part.

Prissy, Lottie and Georgia are all bereft over the loss of their husbands. They're all under 40 with plenty of time to rebuild their lives, but getting to that realization is what drives this novel.

Lottie is grieving the loss of the no-good, alcoholic, severely depressed Ches, whom she never really loved but whom she married after getting pregnant just after high school.

Although five years have passed since Georgia lost her beloved Joseph, she is still actively grieving and lonely beyond belief, an obvious fact to any onlookers, but one that she thinks she keeps well hidden.

The prodigal Prissy has returned to Newfoundland from Toronto, fleeing the harsh reality that her husband Howie has had an affair. In tow is her rebellious son Quentin, who has all the typical negative reactions to rural life.

At the outset, all three women are completely incapable of true introspection, and blame their spouses and others for their misfortunes. This makes none of them all that likeable, and it becomes difficult to muster up much empathy. As the story progresses, though, and their friendships renew and become stronger, each has her own revelation about the state of her life.

Of course, everyone knows everyone else's business, so when Prissy arrives home, she discovers her mother has published Howie's obituary in the local paper, and planned a memorial, which she says is preferable to revealing the infidelity. Prissy is too upset and tired to cross her mother, so they go ahead with the ruse until Quentin reveals the truth. When he goes on a drinking rampage and gets hauled off to jail, Howie has to come and get him. Of course, all the mourners who gathered and brought food and sympathy are at first peeved, and then just plain curious. Tongues wag.

Meanwhile, Georgia - who gets herself into her own little jam, which has her preparing for a new little life in her home - has decided the women should begin a support group. Lottie, in a surprise show of self-confidence, runs with the idea, publicizes it on the radio, rounds up a number of other young widows and ends up securing government funding for the official WHOW: Widows Helping Other Widows.

The story is sometimes a good time and sometimes sad and poignant, though you're left with a feeling that it was supposed to be funnier. Sooley's chosen structure, of chapters corresponding with the individual thoughts and stories of Prissy, Lottie and Georgia, is limiting. The novel doesn't pick up steam until half-way through, when the dialogue livens because it lets in more voices.

Of particular delight is Charlie, Prissy's foul-mouthed brother, and Clare, her overbearing, chain-smoking mother, who spends her time preparing for her imminent death. This is something that annoys Prissy no end, until she realizes that the coffin Clare has requested, and that Charlie and Quentin build and present to her at Christmas, will indeed be needed sooner rather than later. The widows, who are all under 40, seem much older.

The Widows of Paradise Bay ends with revelations, resolutions and reconciliations, just like any good down-home story.

Carla Lucchetta is a Toronto-based writer and a TV producer, and an essayist for TVO's The Agenda with Steve Paikin.