The news that Joan Clark would be publishing a new novel was met with giddy glee and excitement here at the Literary Hoarders. For Hoarders Elizabeth and I, her novel, Latitudes of Melt, ranks very high up on our all-time favourites lists. We were drooling and coming apart at the seams waiting for The Birthday Lunch to arrive (many, many thanks once again to Random House Canada for allowing us this most appreciated opportunity).
I eagerly dove in, not really stopping to read the synopsis of what The Birthday Lunch was all about, so eager with anticipation was I to get to it. I did however take the time to review that though, once I opened it, and knew I was going to be drawn in for the story in The Birthday Lunch had every marking to be a great read. On the birthday of the beloved wife and sister to Hal and Laverne, respectfully, Lily is killed by a speeding truck. The Birthday Lunch was to be an exploration of the family member’s grief and relationship with Lily following this tragic event.
Yet, and with great big heaving sighs, it didn’t turn out to be this wonderful and great read that I was highly anticipating it to be. I actually found it kind of flat and dull and well, very dry. Oh, for certain there were moments where pops of poignancy would shine through and I would get excited, but those moments quickly fizzled. Sadly.
I don’t know if it was Clark’s short and clipped sentences that were making it a bit of a dull read, or if it was just due to the very dried out and seemingly distant characters in the novel?
It’s Lily’s birthday, and Lily is the adored wife to the very devoted Hal. She is also the sister to Laverne. Laverne actually now lives in a part of the house with Hal and Lily, but keeps her solitude and distance from them when they are all together in the house. Hal and Laverne simply tolerate one another and very rarely get along. In fact, much of their time is spent competing with each other for the attentions of Lily.
For Lily’s birthday, Hal has planned a lovely lunch and a getaway for the night, however Laverne also has plans in place to celebrate Lily’s birthday, alone, with her only. What happens during that afternoon will irrevocably alter their lives. Before Lily’s lunch with her husband, Laverne will be driving her to her doctor’s appointment. This is met with great apprehension by Hal – he hates how Laverne drives and feels she reckless and clueless. On their way home from the doctor’s office, Laverne and Lily stop for ice cream. This is where Lily is struck by a speeding truck and dies.
This event happens very early on in the book and is not a spoiler, for Lily’s death is what sets the pace and tone for the remainder of the novel. Lily’s two children, a son and a daughter, arrive in order to plan the funeral, etc. With everyone together, much finger pointing is done, all the years of selfishness and resentment come through and we also hear perspectives of the son, the daughter, the husband and the sister’s relationship with Lily.
Here’s the thing – every single one of these characters, including Lily herself, are very dull, distant, one dimensional people. There is no glue to tie them together. The daughter, Claudia, only remembers being embarrassed by her mother and never brought many people around the house because Lily always had her nose in a book and/or was locked away in solitude in her bedroom. Their relationship seemed to have a great distance between each other.
The son, Matt, doesn’t really delve too much into his feelings for his mother, or his family really, and being the lawyer in the family is more intent on filing insurance claims and placing blame. He delivers a very dry, flat, distant eulogy. It was quite bizarre to read this part – the eulogy was so distant, so lifeless.
Laverne was perhaps the only character to generate any emotion in the reader. She is an extremely selfish woman and her only reason for moving in to the same home as her sister was more to control or actually possess her. Her actions, her behaviour, her line of thinking is very frustrating. Laverne and Hal have spent their lives competing with each other for Lily’s attention. It was quite unsettling to read about.
And Hal, well, he’s just Hal, he’s Lily’s husband and runs an antique store. I mean, truly, it was a “good” read, but overall very flavourless and dried out like a piece of toast. I can only think of using that as an analogy to express my feeling about The Birthday Lunch. I do very much enjoy many of these “quiet” reads, but this one just wasn’t one of those reads. As I noted above, there were some moments where I thought I would be settling in to a very good read, some pops of poignancy would peek through, but those were very short lived and The Birthday Lunch in the end becomes a wholly forgettable read. :-(