Copy of a review of All Things Considered--“The Fiddlehead,” No. 241, Autumn 2009

 

No Stone Unconsidered

All Things Considered, Patricia Stone.   Hidden Book press, 2008.

 

All Things Considered, Patricia A. Stone's third book of fiction is a group of stories about Margaret Lovell from the time she is a young girl until she is middle-aged. On the Acknowledgments page, Stone describes the book as a "novel, or collection of linked stories and novellas." Largely set in small or medium-sized Ontario towns, these pieces chronicle Margaret's social and familial angst, as well as her navigations through the dangerous and the absurd. In these respects, it is a stroll through Alice Munro country, and a satisfying one at that. I don't mean for the comparison to Munro--arguably one of the highest compliments in Canadian Literature--to he merely superficial or on the level of plot, theme, and setting alone. Rather, there is symmetry in the way language operates in the work of both writers. It is the ability to build a story around concrete, commonplace details but, at a key moment, to floor readers with an incisive abstraction.

In "Girl Guides," Margaret is an adolescent dealing with her authoritarian Guides leader, Mrs. Hancock.  Margaret, when she begins to assert herself, "wanted her transformation to be witnessed--her new boldness, her authentic separateness. . . . She wanted to create a stir that would propel her more deeply towards the centre of her own life" (47). Similarly, in "Putting in Time," Margaret recognizes that "It was ludicrous to routinely imagine herself one way, and then faced with the real-life possibility, be quite a different person altogether" (132). What Stone does in these passages, and what Munro does in so much of her work, is distill those barely perceptible shifts in our sense of self. Like Munro, Stone has a great talent for finding something mind-blowing in the ordinary.

At times, her work is quite funny.  In "Sanctuary," Lionel proposes to Margaret in a university cafeteria, of all places. We are told that "Margaret was too dumbstruck to speak, but Lionel continued to smile as if nothing extraordinary was taking place. She knew right then she couldn't turn him down, not in the cafeteria where someone might overhear" (101).  Stone is as deft as she is comical in demonstrating the absurdities of Margaret's romantic life as well as one of the central paradoxes of her character: Margaret is deeply concerned with social decorum, but she also prides herself on being unconventional. That Margaret can be downright eccentric is one of the reasons I was thoroughly drawn into the narrative. As a girl, she writes to governments around the world asking for pamphlets to help her imagine travelling (126). As a woman, she actually likes menstruating because "she enjoyed her own blood--the aching, the heaviness, the red life-promising certainty of it" (191). While Margaret perhaps is more eccentric than most, her eccentricities include those small ways in which most of us share. However, some of the recurring characters in the collection are slightly dull; particularly Margaret's phlegmatic father and her generally mean-spirited mother. This shortcoming is redeemed through the intriguing side characters who are repellent, quirky, pitiful, or some combination of these traits: megalomaniacal Gary ("The Beating Heart); Dean, who is almost humorously self-possessed while on LSD ("Sanctuary"); and a repairman whose tool box has more Bibles than wrenches or screw­drivers ("The Feral Woman")--this last character reminded me of Manley Pointer, the memorable door-to-door Bible salesman in Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People"

Stone's collection is especially satisfying when one recognizes the depth at which the pieces are in dialogue with each other. The author is adept at linking her stories with the finest of points. Thus, the conscientious reader is rewarded when he or she notices the difference between Margaret's response to a 1980s pop song in "The Feral Woman" and her reaction to the same song in "Construction Sites." Likewise, there is a small but important detail missing from the story of how Mrs. Lovell finds out that Margaret has started using birth control ("The Riding Instructor"). When that detail is included in "The Thin Edge," one's image of this conflict between Margaret and her mother becomes significantly different. I found some of the larger threads connecting these stories to be less than fascinating: the pressure being put on Margaret to marry, her strained relationship with her parents. Indeed, while Margaret's adolescent arguments with her parents may sound authentic, some of them are a tad too predictable. For example, her shouting, "Leave me alone" and "I'll do whatever I want" ("Girl Guides").  I accept that this is how teenagers often do talk to their parents, but I wonder if it's worth putting on the page.  However, one is hardly bored by these tropes because of Stone's vivid account of the minutiae of Margaret's world. She inhabits places of "insect-singing silence" (97), places marked by "the slant of the late-afternoon sun casting a golden-red hue onto tree trunks, fields of canola blazing as yellow as a crayon" (231).  All Things Considered includes some compelling moments that are uncanny in the Freudian sense of the term. This is the case when the author infuses familiar places and banal activities with anxiety: Margaret takes a spontaneous and ill-advised drive off-road ("Construction Sites"); a violent intruder whispers Margaret's name outside her door ("Sanctuary"); Henry’s mattress catches fire (“The Beating Heart”).  The engrossing moments in these stories add to the collections effect.

Greg Shupak,

Guelph, Ontario

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