All Times Have Been Modern by Elisabeth Harvor

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…)

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7 Comments to All Times Have Been Modern by Elisabeth Harvor

  1. Crackerjack Volunteer Catherine's Gravatar Crackerjack Volunteer Catherine
    December 3, 2009 at 12:07 am | Permalink

    Holy $h*t, I didn’t think you’d read it THAT fast. That was totally not my oven timer. Oh crap, oh crap *rushes to the freezer hoping to find a tasty reward to bring tomorrow – sorry today, since it’s just passed midnight*

    Hooray! I have found a 1 lb bag of chocolate to bring with me to celebrate your conversion Rosalynn! I can’t wait to hear what you think of other books you reread.

  2. December 26, 2009 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    In icebound Ottawa at the end of this aimless grey Boxing Day afternoon, while shamelessly googling myself (sounds definitely auto-erotic) I happened on your thoughts, Rosalynn, after your two separate readings of All Times Have Been Modern, and naturally found your comments on both readings damn fascinating and consoling!

    They reminded me of my first and second readings of a number of books, including Real People, by Alison Lurie, which I disliked on first reading it in my twenties—I was mystified and bored by it—but then found hilarious when I read it again in my forties. And also reminded me of Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and of how on first reading it I only cared about Carrie and her trials, but how after a few decades of life kicking the stuffing out of me (as it so loves to do) I finally had to face the fact that it was Hurstwood’s tragedy, and in fact I recall that Kay has a similar experience with Dreiser’s novel. I haven’t read All Times Have Been Modern since I handed over the final manuscript to my editor at Penguin in the summer of 2004, but I’m pretty sure that this episode was still in the text way back then.

  3. December 28, 2009 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    I just want to add a p.s. to say that there’s something hugely gratifying in reading about a reader’s evolution vis a vis your book. In many ways it’s even better than a rave review because the person the writer most wants to reach is, after all, the reader. And this reader sounds like an ideal reader to me, with her evocative description of the room and the “creative wiring” of the apartment where she was reading, and with the intriguing background of the awful job and the hideous framed pictures of wolves thrown in, especially coming with the bonus of so many personal revelations that make it clear why such a book would mean so much to her at that particular (but also at a later) time…

  4. Inge Trueman's Gravatar Inge Trueman
    December 29, 2009 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    I too really enjoyed ‘All Times Have Been Modern’. I read it a couple of years ago and my memory being what it is won’t let me remember all the details of the plot but I do recall identifying with Kay as she constructs the many layers of her untidy life; her ambition so often overtaken by her aimlessness; those nuggets of self-confidence shattered again and again by lingering self-doubt. And, of course that scene of consuming jealousy when her rival’s story is accepted by – was it The New Yorker – after just one seemingly effortless attempt to get published. Justice, where are you? I just re-read the first chapter to jog my memory of Elisabeth’s style and it was like jumping on a run away train – the run-on sentences used to their glorious best effect. As a writer, I’ll take that as permission to use them myself now and again although I’m sure no one can build ‘em better than Elisabeth Harvor.

  5. JohnLBA's Gravatar JohnLBA
    May 24, 2010 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    It’s very good article.

  6. Susan's Gravatar Susan
    June 21, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Interesting! I didn’t finish this book the first time I tried to read it. But now I’m inclined to go back and try again. I always liked Harvor’s short stories. Thanks.

  7. February 15, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    I read this book a few years ago. I picked it up on special at Chapters and was intrigued just because Elisabeth Harvor was from my very own town of BEAUTIFUL Montreal! I couldn’t put it down. I thought her writing style was spell-bounding; free prose style that I adore! I loved this book and I lent it to my sister-in-law who also loved it. Great writing!!!

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