Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Montreal writer Claire Holden Rothman's latest novel, Lear's Shadow, is a superb blend of mid-life reshaping, caring for an ageing parent and seeing the theatrical world from within.
The story is told through the perspective of Bea Rose, a soon-to-be-forty yoga instructor, whose relationship of seven years with her life and business partner, Jean-Christian, evaporates when she discovers that he is involved with another woman. Not only does the end of their relationship deal a heavy blow to her self-esteem but the break-up means that she is forced to sell their modestly successful yoga studio and risks being evicted from her apartment. On top of this, Bea's feared and revered father, Sol Rose, begins to act out early dementia and is hospitalized.
Bea seeks to avoid financial disaster by quickly accepting a job for the summer as an assistant stage manager for a local theatre group performing Shakespeare's King Lear. This is an intrepid move as she knows nothing about theatre production. When her father can only be released from the hospital if there is daily supervision by a caregiver, Bea's younger go-getter sister, Cara, browbeats her into moving back to her father's house. Suddenly, Bea finds herself where she was twenty years earlier: living in her father's Westmount home, alone, earning minimum wage and indebted. There is a silver lining though: her work in the theatre reconnects her to Artie White, a childhood friend and ally, to whom Bea increasingly becomes attracted.
As Bea learns the ropes of stage management, she also must dodge the increasing attention paid to her by the lead actor, Phil Burns, an ageing alcoholic who nonetheless has a few endearing qualities. This is still the least of her challenges. Like King Lear, her father begins resorting to violence when the stress of losing his cognitive skills becomes too much. And her sister Cara's picture-perfect marriage and successful restaurant business start to crumble. Luckily, Artie White steps up when things take a turn for the worst.
Rothman veers toward a very personal approach in her writing. Her protagonists mirror very much her own heritage: an anglophone Montrealer with a Jewish father. And the fictional worlds that she builds are a hop, skip and jump from the day-to-day Montreal she lives in. The adage “write what you know” seems firmly anchored in her writing. That she so strongly focuses on the lives of anglophones, striving to maintain their own cultural identity in a largely French city, could be a handicap. But Rothman skirts around the parochial to deliver a narrative appealing to a broad readership.
While Lear's Shadow is arguably Rothman's best work to date, it remains to be seen whether it will enjoy the same recognition in this autumn's awards season as her 2014 novel, My October, which was shortlisted by the Governor-General's Award and longlisted for the Giller Prize. Well, let's cross our fingers that her newest endeavour will receive the acclaim that it deserves.
Lear's Shadow is published by Penguin Canada.