I picked up this book because my friend Catherine challenged me to re-read. A few days ago she checked in on my progress and, finding it unsatisfactory, threatened to stop bringing her home-made chocolate chip cookies to TNQ until I complied. Hm. How do I express the severity of this situation? To say Catherine has an amazing gift for baking is an understatement. To say I have a sweet tooth is a perhaps an even greater understatement. She’s coming in to the office tomorrow. So, I was up late last night reading All Times Have Been Modern for the second time…I first read it about five years ago now; it was one of the first books I read purely for pleasure after finishing university. I saw it in the library in one of those display sections, New Arrivals or Staff Picks or something of that nature, and I remember being really taken with the title. (I still am.) I read it in the living room of my old apartment, on the sofa under a blanket with a little space heater next to me, which I’d plugged in with some trepidation; it was winter and the place was rather creatively wired.
As I might have mentioned earlier, I read very fast, which typically means I have to read any given book a second time in order to retain more than a very basic plot outline and general sense of the author’s style. What I remembered about this book, before I sat down to read it this second time, was that its protagonist is a woman in love and that it is very sad yet comforting.
Now that I have re-read it, I realize it’s not quite as sad as I remembered, and I think: oh yeah, that was me. I was sad because I’d yet to figure out what I wanted to do, career-wise, not that there were all kinds of offers on the horizon. All I knew for certain was that I was done with school, and so to pay the bills while I was thinking, I was working at this godawful art store in the Waterloo Town Square (the building was kind of a dive back then, complete with a liquidation store and grubby laundromat; it’s a much more cheerful and chi-chi place now). I’m a very shy person, not at all suited for customer service; I lived in fear of the ancient cash register and consoled myself by mocking the merch—mostly framed pictures of wolves and angel-shaped candle holders—as I (get this!) dusted it as instructed every few days.
I realize now I’d found this novel so comforting because the protagonist, Kay, goes about her life in a similarly aimless way. She kind of drifts in and out of marriage and motherhood; though she has significant successes as a writer, student, and teacher, she has long, fallow periods of doubt and indecision in between them. Kay’s experience was so reassuring because I was suffering from the illusion that everyone else I knew was making their life decisions purposefully, with supreme confidence and that I alone was dithering, doubting my abilities and aspirations.
Five years later, Kay’s story still resonates with me, though in a different way. This book is funnier than I remembered, and sexier, too. What I like most about this novel is the wealth of insight into all kinds of human relationships. Kay ages from 13 to 45 and thus shifts from one end of a relationship to another over the course of the novel, her vantage point is forever shifting and becoming more rich—she starts out as a daughter, who feels a “little superior but also a little destroyed” each time her mother and one of her husbands come to ‘check in’; later she becomes a mother, seeing her own mannerisms and expressions of love through her son’s eyes; early in the story she is married, later on she is an infatuated girlfriend, and still later on, she is the other woman, obsessing over her man’s relationship with his wife.
Also, Kay is a writer, and this novel really digs into the relationships between writers in a way, as a relative outsider, I found particularly compelling and juicy—the competition, the jealousies, conspiracies. It’s fascinating, and, in a way, courageous. I don’t mean to suggest that the events of Kay’s life are anything but fictional, but I think it takes some nerve to explore the, um, unglamorous under-side of the writing life in such exacting detail—the disappointment in having a story declined, the complications of assessing work written by a writer who did you a favor, or of commenting on a friend’s (terrible) work, of recognizing yourself in a rival’s fiction….I loved reading about all of this drama. Some episodes really hit home, though I’ll never tell which!
So, thanks, Catherine, for forcing me to re-read—All Times Have Been Modern was certainly worth a second round, and I think I’ll be heading back to many other books I’ve already read in the next little while. You’ve converted me. I hope you’re happy. And was that your oven timer I just heard?
(Side note: This novel also just happens to fit my criteria for the Great Canadian Book Challenge, as its author is Canadian and the book was given to me by my mum, so I’m up to 6 now, woo hoo! Next up: The Idler’s Glossary…)