Book Review: summer of my amazing luck

One of my favourite things to find when reading is a rich and complicated female character who isn't filling some kind of stereotypical role or existing solely to provide motivation or conflict for a male character. (i.e. Handmaid's Tale, The Diviners, and Jane Austen).

With the current fad for 'chick lit' (some of which is good, most of which is not), most of the fictional females are cardboard cutouts, trotting through the same plot to find blithe and shallow success and happiness with the right man and/or the right job. Lad lit (see above parentheses) is much the same, only the women are even flatter and often reduced to a sexual preference or physical attribute.

So imagine my delight when I learn that this month marks the re-release (and revision) of the brilliant first novel from Miriam Toews (pron. taves) summer of my amazing luck, ten years after it's initial publication.

There's a lot to be savoured in Toews' writing, but the beacon for me is the wealth of complex, interesting women with which Toews peoples her novels. Refreshing change aside, their plans and memories and determination and weaknesses are authentic and touching and human.

You've probably read Toews' Governor General Award winning '04 title A Complicated Kindness (and if not, I insist that you do. Right now. Go), wherein a 16-year-old Nomi struggles against the strictures of her Mennonite community after her mother's excommunication.

The two titles have a lot in common - a young female protagonist in an unusual community alienated from society at large, dealing with an absent mother and distant father, trying to figure out how to be happy, and how to survive.

summer tells the story of Lucy, a young single mum (she doesn't know who her son's father is) in a housing project in the 'peg (centre of the universe), her relationships with the other women in the project (and their relationships in turn), battles with social assistance, and their shared determination to find happiness in their situation.

Toews doesn't pull punches with her subject matter, the housing project (Have-a-Life, nicknamed Half-a-Life) isn't portrayed as some idealized hippy co-op; her characters suffer and collapse and bear what they can and survive. They're aware of how they're seen by the people who aren't on social assistance, their families may have given up on them or just don't think of them, they're harassed by the government officials and the men they see (or don't see).

But this isn't a gritty story of toughened women surviving, or not entirely, because Lucy is young and, despite some of the more unfortunate aspects of her situation, idealistic. At eighteen, she is still sometimes amazed at her own motherhood, admires and needs the eccentric friends she makes in the project. She makes plans and schemes like a kid, wonders about her parents and herself, and recognizes her need to believe that she is lucky and happy.

All of Toews' women have this richness of inner life, the contradictions and strengths and weaknesses that makes us human and characters compelling. Anyone can recognize their own hits and misses in Lucy and the women of Half-a-Life, they are familiar and unique and real.

So next time you're perusing the shelves, wondering if Gucci Gucci Coo is a tolerable beach read, grab summer instead - it's involving, funny, moving, and you won't feel stupid after reading it.

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