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A Beauty by Connie Gault
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A Beauty

by Connie Gault

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I enjoyed this book. It was a quick and easy read for me. I liked the characters and this was important as it is an entirely character driven book. The plot is fairly simple. Set during the depression, in Saskatchewan, a poverty-stricken 18yo girl leaves one evening from a town hall dance with a stranger in his Roadster. I really enjoyed the narrative technique which I found rather unique. Each chapter is titled after a town that the couple journeys through. First, we are introduced to a resident of the town and then Bill and Elena will cross paths with them. The glimpses of all these secondary characters are very intimate and while the "beauty" of the title is Elena we become attached to the others as well. The story meanders back and forth between the various towns until twenty years later in the fifties when we see the same people, some of them came out of the depression with better lives, others not so much. It is a lovely, flowing, character driven story with no real action, which is ok, I don't need plot-based novels. My main problem with the book was its upbeat tempo, there was no real crisis, the one major plot point that needed to be answered was left dangling and the ending was too hopeful. I've read other depression era Canadian prairie literature and had expected stark reality over this optimism. Not bad but not what I had anticipated. ( )
  ElizaJane | Apr 23, 2016 |
A BEAUTY, by Connie Gault.

Connie Gault is not a writer I knew, but then I live in the U.S. where Canadian authors are often unknown, which is a terrible shame, because it's been my experience that the Canadian writers I do read are invariably wonderful writers. In any case, I saw Gault's new novel had been long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize this year, which is a strong recommendation. Another is that the book has been endorsed by one of Canada's finest contemporary writers, Elizabeth Hay. Two damn good reasons to read this book, so I did, and I am soooo glad I did. Because this is simply one helluva fine novel.

Gault has created an unforgettable character in Elena Huhtala, a motherless Finnish immigrant who, with her taciturn father, finds herself surrounded by Swedish families in the tiny hamlet of Trevna, set deep in the Saskatchewan prairie in the depths of the Great Depression and the drought-stricken days of the Dust Bowl. (And yes, those dust storms did reach deep into Canada too.)

When Elena's father, a former university professor in Helsinki who had fled Finland after their Civil War, one day simply walks away from his failed farm leaving her a note that implies he intends to kill himself, the beautiful eighteen year-old, destitute and starving, meets a handsome stranger at a village dance. And when Bill Longmore, dipping and twirling her on the dance floor, whispers in Elena's ear, "Can I take you home tonight?" she doesn't hesitate; she leaves with him in his long, gold Lincoln convertible roadster. And when he asks where she wants to go, she replies: "Anywhere."

Thus begins an aimless and desperate - for her - road trip across the dusty plains of Saskatchewan, through dying villages - Addison, Charlesville, Virginia Valley, and eventually to the big city of Regina. In each of these places, you meet other characters, similarly hopeless, stuck, existing. And like Elena and Bill, these other characters come vividly to life - Merv and Pansy Badger, the Gustafsons, Scott and Leonard Dobie, Albert Earle, and, especially, the McLaughlin family in tiny Gilroy. There we learn that our story's narrator is Ruthie McLaughlin, the eldest of seven children. In Gilroy, Elena discards Bill Longmore and leaves town with Ruthie's charming father, Davy. Yup, the one with all those kids.

I've only scratched the surface of the twists and turns this story takes. Filled with colorful and utterly human characters, the story jumps forward from the thirties to the early sixties. Ruthie's role in the story becomes more important, but the ethereally beautiful Elena remains crucial to the story, a curious mix of charisma, sensuality and survivor. Ruthie's father, we learn, was only one in "a succession of men." Each of them have obviously contributed to her prosperity, as she emerges, nearly thirty years later, as a coolly beautiful and wealthy woman who has learned something of her own origins following a trip back to Finland.

I don't want to give anything else away about this complex and skilfully crafted story. But I can see why it's grabbed the attention of the Scotiabank Giller Prize committee. I loved this book and hated to see it end. As novels go, it is A BEAUTY, and Connie Gault is a wonderful writer. My highest recommendation. ( )
  TimBazzett | Sep 20, 2015 |
so, i think this book would have been a better read for me under two circumstances:

1) if i was reading this in the summer time: this story is mostly set on the saskatchewan prairies, during summer. it was hot. stinking, sweating hot. the novel is anchored in the drought, and economic depression of the 1920s/30s. the wheat was roasting. the locusts were swarming. the people were wilting in the heat. because i love to read to the season, i just felt hyper-aware of the weather given we are under an extreme cold alert here in toronto.

2) if the mirror device was relied upon so frequently/awkwardly: sigh. mirrors are relied upon a lot in this story. once, i could have been okay with, forgiven, or gotten past. but three different characters have three different moments at a mirror, plus there are a couple of mentions of mirrors in passing. so that was a bit of overkill for me, and distracting.

those points aside, gault has a lovely, quiet way with her writing. she was certainly able to evoke the characters, places, and times for me. i found this novel read more as a collection of connected short stories. individually, chapters - which are denoted by a town's setting - are often fairly strong. as a whole, i found it a bit awkward in its flow.

the choice of the narrator is interesting too, and i am still thinking on this trying to figure out how i feel. the narrator is ruth - when we first meet her, she is an 11yo girl and she grows with us through the read. but she isn't the main character, and it does leave open the question of how she's come to know all of the details revealed in the book. at the end, quick connections are made between ruth and a couple of characters, but i didn't feel that quite worked for me.

i have highlighted a number of passages - moments when i felt gault was spot-on in identifying human nature. i think gault has a keen eye and i bet she's a great listener. as she notes in the novel:

"Speak a little, hear a lot, that's a Finnish proverb." ( )
  Booktrovert | Jan 27, 2015 |
Showing 3 of 3
Gault, who has published several plays for stage and radio, as well as two short-story collections and an award-winning novel, Euphoria, has that rare talent that makes every character important, no matter how apparently peripheral their role in the story. Gault cares about the idiosyncrasies and distinct world views of each of the characters and these qualities extend to their narration. None of these narrators is “reliable,” but none of them is entirely wrong, either. Each sees what they need to see......For Gault, this method of storytelling is about more than just perspectivism. Communities, in A Beauty, are storehouses of meaning. Each individual owns a piece of information, but requires the others to create the whole picture.

Gault is terrifyingly perspicacious about small-town life....A lesser storyteller might choose to pinion the enigmatic Elena and make her the star of this novel, but Gault takes a more interesting approach. Elena anchors the plot, but the real beauty here is in the diversity of voices telling the story.
 
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For B.T. Hatley
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On the Saturday evening, the Gustafasons, Mr. and Mrs. and the two children, set out for the dance at Trevna.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0771036558, Hardcover)

A spellbinding and highly original novel that gives a new name to the Prairie Novel by one of the most exciting new literary voices in Canada. For readers of Alice Munro, Elizabeth Hay, and Marina Endicott.
     In a drought-ridden Saskatchewan of the 1930s, self-possessed, enigmatic Elena Huhtala finds her self living alone, a young Finnish woman in a community of Swedes in the small village of Trevna. Her mother has been dead for many years, and her father, burdened by the hardships of drought, has disappeared, and the eighteen-year-old is an object of pity and charity in her community. But when a stranger shows up at a country dance, Elena needs only one look and one dance before jumping into his Lincoln Roadster, leaving the town and its shocked inhabitants behind. What follows is a trip through the prairie towns, their dusty streets, shabby hotel rooms, surrounded by dry fields that stretch out vastly, waiting for rain. Elena's journey uncovers the individual stories of an unforgettable group of people, all of whom are in one way or another affected by her seductive yet innocent presence. At the centre is Ruth, a girl whose life becomes changed in unexpected ways. She and the girl Elena, distanced and apart, form a strange bond that will come to haunt the decades for them both. Written in luminous prose, threaded through with a sardonic wit and deep wisdoms, A Beauty is at one time lyrical and tough, moving and mysterious, a captivating tale of a woman who, without intending to, touches many lives, and sometimes alters them forever.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:05 -0400)

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