Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Ladies' Lending Library by Janice Kulyk Keefer

I wanted to know that "beach read" and "literary" weren't necessarily mutually exclusive. I wanted a book that spelled summer, but didn't make my head go numb. And I was so pleased that Janice Kulyk Keefer's new novel The Ladies' Lending Library lived up to expectations, satisfied my impossible desires. Here is a summer book through and through, all the while substantial, well-written, and I would recommend that you pack it along this season, no matter where you're going.

But particularly if you're off to Cottage Country, which would be fitting. The Ladies' Lending Library is the story of a group of Ukrainian-Canadian families who spend summers together up on Georgian Bay, and it explores the curious intimacies which emerge in this kind of community. Cottageness is captured vividly-- waves pound the beach throughout the novel, whole days spent in the sunshine, fathers at the weekend, rotting wooden steps and slapdash suppers. The story takes place during the summer of 1963 (as does Ian McEwan's new On Chesil Beach, and I look forward to seeing how these books relate). 1963-- before the Beatles, before Kennedy was shot, when everybody called Baby "Baby" and it didn't occur to her to mind. Such a cusp would be rife with stories, and Kalyna Beach is no exception. Dissatisfied mothers, wandering eyes, immigrant experiences which permeate the present, the perils of puberty, adolescent humiliation, sex, sex, and the contemplation of sex, trashy magazines, breasts, and the foxy sixteen year old in a bikini who is the object of everybody's fascination.

My one criticism of this book would be its title, which is misleading. The lending library of which it speaks is an official-sounding excuse for the mothers of Kalyna Beach to meet weekly and exchange trashy novels, but is hardly at the forefront of this book. Though the ladies themselves are central to the plot, such a title undermines the Kulyk Keefer's broad narrative range. The sweeping points of view throughout the novel are one of its most interesting elements, incorporating the daughters' perspectives alongside their mothers'. Though the men in the story are given their say, female voices are much more present. And I enjoyed the seamlessness as one perspective worked its way into the next, and how the female characters, of such various ages and experiences, were thus linked.

I am grateful that a novel of "women's concerns", and with subject matter so beachy, could be so thoughtfully treated and well-written. These are stories which deserve to be told well. Kulyk Keefer writes such beautiful descriptions, sympathetic characters, and realistic situations (however heart-wrenching or amusing). Like any book you want for the beach, this one is a pleasure, but moreover you're better for having read it. The ending is particularly perfect. "And she wants to shower them with rose petals, to rush down to the dock to wave them off on their reckless, needy journey into possiblity." So did I.

I closed this book quite satisfied.

(Note that for a last minute Mother's Day gift, this would be a fine pick! )