Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
In an interview on the chathamthisweek.com website, author Ray Robertson makes an interesting admission. Referring to his latest novel, Estates Large and Small, he says, “I don’t really write love stories, but I found that I was, and I was kind of tickled.”
Well, to call Estates Large and Small a love story is both accurate and insufficient. Yes, it features a romantic relationship—Phil and Caroline are indeed in love. But to describe it as a “love story” does not do justice to what Robertson has achieved in this book.
Robertson is a very thoughtful, even philosophical writer. And though he is careful to keep his touch light, there is weight to much of what he says. The book is narrated by Phil, an antiquarian book dealer in Toronto who is going through big shifts in his life. In his early fifties, Phil has been in this singular trade since he was a young adult, and the years are catching up with him. He feels old and out of shape. His personal life is empty. A couple of years earlier, he had ended a long, comfortable, yet not quite fully intimate relationship with a woman, Debbie, not long after he had begun smoking pot and listening to Jerry Garcia recordings, perhaps to try to regain a feeling of youthful passion. But the 21st century is closing in.
We meet Phil as he is moving his business completely online, having abandoned his brick-and-mortar bookshop due to the ever-rising rent. The change is hard for him. Through Phil, Robertson portrays the peculiarities of second-hand booksellers well. They are an impassioned lot, intoxicated by the many obscure yet valuable qualities of old books. Each individual bookseller has his or her own fixation, whether with an author or genre, and Phil, as he reflects on the changes in his life, paints vivid portraits of people he has known in the trade, in the process fleshing out his own passion for the life he has chosen. (To better appreciate the extraordinary range of eccentricities to be found in this profession, feel free to consult Marius Kociejowski’s memoir, A Factotum in the Book Trade.)
Converting his business to online-only proves unsettling for Phil. The in-person traffic to his store gave him the bulk of his interaction with other people. Now that is gone. His store is now a website. Orders come in, Phil mails books out. No human contact. A major sustaining element of his life has simply disappeared.
So Phil feels very much alone. He has no children, only an elderly mother and a brother, Fred, who is a rich oil man in Alberta. He visits his mother regularly at the old-age facility where she lives, but her mind isn’t what it was, and she often confuses him with Fred. As such, family, for Phil, is more a source of obligation than comfort.
In the midst of all this, Phil meets Caroline. Their passion for each other shakes up his life in yet another way, but there is a catch: she is dying of cancer.
Phil does a lot of thoughtful musing and has decided to learn about the history of Western philosophy to give himself the education he missed when he was younger. He convinces Caroline to join him, using Frederick Copleston’s multivolume History of Philosophy as their textbook. But rather than let this turn into some sort of self-indulgent introspection, Robertson succeeds in making their pot- and wine-laced conversations not just informative, but actually very funny.
Hovering above all this, of course, is death. Caroline is having to face her own mortality head-on, and this gives her interactions with Phil a distinctive poignancy. They build a close relationship by both avoiding any undo focus on the inevitable while accepting that it will happen. And through their conversations, without coming up with anything so presumptuous as a definitive statement on life and death, Robertson displays the nuances of our attempts to put meaning into our existence.
Estates Large and Small is a thoughtful book that manages to make its serious existential themes both entertaining and, yes, hopeful. It is published by Biblioasis.