October 7th, 2008

Rose-coloured Reviews *Nellcott Is My Darling*

Golda Fried‘s first novel, Nellcott is My Darling is the story of shy, self-absorbed teenager who moves from Ontario to Montreal to study arts at McGill and live in residence. Everything about life and school d in Montreal simultaneously alarms and beguiles her, and every trip to the film society or the cafeteria is both anxiety-provoking and an adventure.

*Nellcott* is yet another book that I can’t really give an unbiased review to, this time because it is my unauthorized biography!

Ok, not really. But in many ways, Alice Charles sees the world in a shockingly similar way to how I did. Or maybe it’s just universal at that age: “Everyone at the university was the same age, so riding the bus with Nellcott to the suburb of Laval was like being in the Twilight Zone.” “Seeing your friends onstage was like seeing them with silver makeup on in front of a tinself backdrop…And that was only the beginning. They actually played too.” “She loved slumping in a chair and just listening to professors talk and talk about all this stuff she didn’t know and all she had to do was listen and take a few notes.”

Less universal is Nellcott, the handsome, moody, older record-store clerk who falls for Alice the second he sees her (her feet, actually) and almost instantly becomes her (over)attentive boyfriend. He’s eccentric in a fun undergrad way (even though he never went to university): he drinks creamers and throws pebbles at Alice’s window to get her attention, plays guitar and judges people by their taste in music, smokes constantly and lives on dinner food and KD. Oh, and he’s dreamy-rockstar attractive, has his own appartment Alice can hang out at, is devoted to her, and doesn’t pressure her (much) for sex.

It’s a high school girl’s fantasy of her first university boyfriend!!!

Ok, so I found certain aspects of the romance unrealistic–but on the whole, Fried does a marvelous job of showing Alice’s world and her hyperbolic, inward-facing view of it. Her floormates in residence are an artist and a rugby player, her classes include children’s lit and abnormal psychology, her social life is watching old films in Leacock auditorium and drinking at the Bifteck, and it’s all almost perfect, though at times there is a slightly obscuring gleam of sarcasm in the rendering of the rugby player who screams when she gets her period and despises all who eat meat. But h, the spot-on details: cafeteria workers hosing down trays while wearing shower caps! Vintage shops on Mont Royal where you have to wrestle the clothes off the racks, that ever-present glittery cross on the mountain.

A lot of the scene-setting is really a lovely love poem to Montreal. Alice is bedazzled by it, but lamely–“I could never leave this town… It’s like when I’m here, I really want to conquer the town.” How, doing what, going where? Alice goes where she’s taken, generally by the hand. Alice really does appreciate–she has excellent eyes–but little else. This is enough for the reader, or this reader, who loves the descriptions of streets and buildings, meals and parks, although occasionally Fried does stray into Fromer-guide territory: “Montreal had a small but colourful China town.” But Alice does little conquering.

Alice is not always a wonderful person–she would rather be passive than nice, and here again we start to see a bit of a an extreme parody of normal silly-girlishness. She adores Nellcott perhaps nearly as much as he adores her, but she is uncomfortable on the phone and therefore never calls him. She refuses to order for herself in restaurants because she wants to eat off his plate. She hangs out with her square, studious, sarcastic friend Bethany mainly because she wants company she doesn’t have to impress, one person she can feel cooler than. Whatever, this is all typical 20-year-old behaviour (except the restaurant thing, which is pretty obnoxious) but there’s no balance–Alice *never* does anything nice for anyone, or takes an interest in anything (I loved Bethany’s snark, and after a while started waiting for her to come around and tell off the protagonist.)

Alice was a protagonist that I did really empathize with, but I felt like I couldn’t completely, and I wasn’t supposed to. This book is very very funny, and I think some emotional resonance was sacrificed to satire. The novel is written in the 3rd person, and although there is nothing of other characters’ perspectives, somehow, the narrator still has some distance from Alice, some ability to comment and judge. Then the sparseness of the narrative–Alice often does things “more” or “again” that we don’t see the first time; conversations one would predict would be pivotal are elided; readers are assumed to know things and by and large we can figure them out. I began to feel that the narration skipped over all the times Alice ever asked anyone a question out of genuine interest, thought anything insightful about a book (she says, “I love him, I love him” of Charles Bukowski, but not why or which book, and I got a feeling it didn’t matter).

Is it a bad thing to be a little realistic and little satirical? Well, I laughed out loud when, at a family Thanksgiving dinner, Alice’s dad says, “So, everyone at this table who’s had sex before raise their hands,” and her parents’ hands shoot up. Poor Alice, in that scene, surrounded by these punchline characters. She’s a smart creation, and if she were real she’d someday grow into a smart human. She deserves a little better than punchlines. If you enjoy looking back on your naif years, especially if they were spent at McGill, this book will make you happy. But I found it easier to read if I offered the protagonist the same retrospective forgiveness I give myself.

If it were real or in a dream

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