Friday, March 4, 2016

"Familiar terrain for a road trip" book review

This is on my

Oct. 12, 2015 "Familiar terrain for a road trip": I cut out this article by Amirah El-Safty in the National Post on Dec. 1, 2012.  Here it is:

Cadillac CouchesBy Sophie B. Watson
Brindle & Glass
217 pp; $19.95

Long road trips are the perfect setting for meandering thought catalogues. Want evidence? Take Cadillac Couches, the story of two twenty-somethings, Annie and Isobel, on a cross-country journey from Edmonton to meet Annie’s celebrity music crush in Montreal. Sophie B. Watson begins with a promising if tired formula — a charming and resonate story about two young women driving across Canada, interspersed with roadside musings about their romantic pasts — but is limited by her choice to let her characters speak for themselves. What we’re left with is a novel that sometimes reads like an extended diary entry from a person who isn’t particularly interesting.

Adolescent readers may relate to the exuberant music-fandom that drives the narrative — the cross-country journey is dotted with fictionalized encounters with real-life musicians — and Annie’s thoughts are often punctuated with song lyrics and what-if-we-met fantasies. Every chapter begins with a lyric, too, and the end of the novel features a section Watson labels an “After Afterword,” where she seems to reveal that Annie grows up to be a DJ and includes an expansive list of musical suggestions. Older readers may struggle to relate to Annie’s teenage excitability. For instance, here’s Annie posing as a music journalist at a Dan Bern concert: “It was hard to believe we were actually going to meet him. For real. I knew I shouldn’t keep thinking I’m nervous. I’m nervous. I’m nervous. I’m really really nervous. I’m nervousnervousnervousnervousnessssssssssvusususususus us nerve us. What did it mean … nerve us?”

There are things to admire. In the section “Christmastime Three and a Half Years Ago,” Annie tenderly describes her first love, and its painful ending, as the girls drive across the Canadian Prairies: “Encircled by bulrushes, we dozed in the sunshine like frogs basking on lily pads. Both evenings we camped there we spent in front of the fire, getting high, eating chocolate, sipping whiskey, talking music, looking at the stars, hoping for Northern Lights. I was converted to the church of Sullivan and his way of doing things.” As Annie recalls summers spent with the boy she is now trying to forget, one begins to feel some solidarity with her.

The quirky recollections of an immature girl’s first major romantic experience are fun to read the first time around, and the entire novel is told from Annie’s first-person perspective — whether it be flashbacks, descriptions, Isobel’s romantic foibles or moments of insight. But this gets tiresome rather quickly; her voice isn’t strong enough to sustain the novel. An omniscient narrator, or at least one with more life experience, would have helped anchor the story.

Watson had an opportunity to do so in the character of Kerridge, a middle-aged professor whom the girls meet while stranded in a small Ontario town. Watson misses her chance to reveal something important about her protagonists, or to allow Kerridge to bequeath some hard-earned sagacity about life. Instead, she uses the encounter to reaffirm the importance of a youthful attitude; Kerridge might as well have been another twenty-something for all the insight he provides: “Kerridge said life is all two steps forward, and one step back, and if I needed advice from now on, listen to Springsteen, damnit.”

The troubles that befall Watson’s characters lose their gravity when they are presented through the prism of Annie’s fussy, adolescent reveries. Central to the plot is Annie’s experience with anxiety, and Isobel’s callous relationship with men. This potentially rich emotional terrain, however, is inadequately mined, and the reader comes away with neither many new insights nor a greater breadth of human understanding.

No comments:

Post a Comment