Natural Order

Natural Order

Book - 2011
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"It's beautiful," I said, even though it wasn't my style. It was cut glass and silver. Something a movie star might wear. Is this what my boy thought of me? I wondered as he fastened it around my neck. He called me Elizabeth Taylor and I laughed and laughed. I wore that necklace throughout the rest of the day. In spite of its garishness, I was surprised by how I felt: glamourous, special. I was out of my element amidst my kitchen cupboards and self-hemmed curtains. I almost believed in a version of myself that had long since faded away.
--From Natural Order by Brian Francis
 
Joyce Sparks has lived the whole of her 86 years in the small community of Balsden, Ontario. "There isn't anything on earth you can't find your own backyard," her mother used to say, and Joyce has structured her life accordingly. Today, she occupies a bed in what she knows will be her final home, a shared room at Chestnut Park Nursing Home where she contemplates the bland streetscape through her window and tries not to be too gruff with the nurses.
 
This is not at all how Joyce expected her life to turn out. As a girl, she'd allowed herself to imagine a future of adventure in the arms of her friend Freddy Pender, whose chin bore a Kirk Douglas cleft and who danced the cha-cha divinely. Though troubled by the whispered assertions of her sister and friends that he was "fruity," Joyce adored Freddy for all that was un-Balsden in his flamboyant ways.  When Freddy led the homecoming parade down the main street , his expertly twirled baton and outrageous white suit gleaming in the sun, Joyce fell head over heels in unrequited love.
 
Years later, after Freddy had left Balsden for an acting career in New York, Joyce married Charlie, a kind and reserved man who could hardly be less like Freddy. They married with little fanfare and she bore one son, John. Though she did love Charlie, Joyce often caught herself thinking about Freddy, buying Hollywood gossip magazines in hopes of catching a glimpse of his face. Meanwhile, she was growing increasingly alarmed about John's preference for dolls and kitchen sets. She concealed the mounting signs that John was not a "normal" boy, even buying him a coveted doll if he promised to keep it a secret from Charlie.
 
News of Freddy finally arrived, and it was horrifying: he had killed himself, throwing himself into the sea from a cruise ship. "A mother always knows when something isn't right with her son," was Mrs. Pender's steely utterance when Joyce paid her respects, cryptically alleging that Freddy's homosexuality had led to his destruction. That night, Joyce threatened to take away John's doll if he did not join the softball team. Convinced she had to protect John from himself, she set her small family on a narrow path bounded by secrecy and shame, which ultimately led to unimaginable loss.
 
Today, as her life ebbs away at Chestnut Park, Joyce ponders the terrible choices she made as a mother and wife and doubts that she can be forgiven, or that she deserves to be. Then a young nursing home volunteer named Timothy appears, so much like her long lost John. Might there be some grace ahead in Joyce's life after all?
 
Voiced by an unforgettable and heartbreakingly flawed narrator, Natural Order is a masterpiece of empathy, a wry and tender depiction of the end-of-life remembrances and reconciliations that one might undertake when there is nothing more to lose, and no time to waste.

Publisher: [Toronto, Ont.] : Doubleday Canada, c2011.
ISBN: 9780385671538
Branch Call Number: FRANC
Characteristics: 361 p. ; 22 cm.

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c
ceedeegee57
Jan 17, 2016

It's well enough written (mostly, except... uh?!), and it plods along at a reasonable pace, but there are absolutely no surprises here.
Except Author Brian Francis' obsession with bodily functions. For example, certain subjects make Joyce "physically ill", but really do you know anyone who actually vomits because they think for a second someone even their son is gay? Francis pulls this one out several times. And Joyce spends a lot of the time in the bathroom.

Joyce's "change of heart" which is telegraphed from 1000 miles away (it's sort of the point of the story) happens because she meets a man who... what? Maybe reminds her of her son? Except really we've no idea because this earth changing relationship is not only not explored in depth, it's barely shown. Joyce changes because we've reach the part of the story where she's caught up with herself in the present (it's told as a series of flashbacks) so in order to go forward something needs to happen. ( Ignore the hype pleading with you not to read the last 60 pages in public as you'll cry, hard maybe more than once. I cry at everything, I was moved some, sure but beyond that?)
A well intentioned novel but there are lots of mother/gay child stories out there that are better. (There is one interesting plot twist that seems both contrived and yet, somehow not only does it provide the most interesting parts of the book, I wonder if it's actually happened... indeed I though it would have made a better centre focus for the book. )
See if you can dig up Consenting Adult by Laura Z. Hobson (it's a bit dated but it was the first really positive novel I read dealing with homosexuality, family and growth.) Or try "In the Gloaming" by Alice Elliott Dark a devastating short story in the collection of the same name.

s
santiano9
Sep 07, 2015

An excellent novel. Characters well drawn and compelling, plot line pulls you along to the end.

e
Eil_1
Mar 22, 2012

An indifferent story - a mother caught up in appearances to the detriment of her homosexual son. Since he died many years ago, she was never able to reconcile with him. A go-nowhere book. I'd not recommend it to anyone despite the hype of other Canadian authors whose books I've not read - nor would I, based on their evaluation of this one.

Kirbs Feb 02, 2012

Another brilliant novel from the author of "Fruit" So funny, endearing, and true.

l
Lorayn
Oct 26, 2011

A very sad story with some moments of humour, about an 80+ woman living now in a nursing home, and reminiscing about her life, mostly about her son who at an early age pursued 'girlish' interests.

Cdnbookworm Sep 24, 2011

This is a touching novel that explores a woman's feelings around motherhood, acceptance and regret. Joyce is in her eighties and living in a seniors' care facility. The appearance of a young man as a volunteer causes her to dig into her memories and think about the past. She thinks about the young man she had a crush on as a teenager and the sad end to his life she was told. She thinks about her own son, who died years ago, and her relationship with him. She thinks of the various times in their relationship that she had the opportunity to treat him differently than she did, and she struggles with the guilt she has over her relationship with him.
Through these memories and talking to the young volunteer, she finally admits the truth of her son's life and death, a truth she has denied even to herself for years.
This book reaches inward as Joyce sees how she failed her son even as she loved him and tried to do what she thought was best. Touching, honest and heartrending, this novel fills a void in Canadian literature.

l
Lanzers
Sep 13, 2011

Fantastic. I laughed and cried.

debwalker Sep 10, 2011

"there’s a lot to like about Natural Order. There are chapters-long blocks of good, sharp, vivid writing, and long sections, especially in the nursing home, in which Joyce is perfectly convincing. The story regains its focus in the final third, and when he hits the emotional high notes, Francis never wavers. In fact, if you value your dignity, I implore you not to read the final 60 pages in a public place: You will cry, hard, probably more than once."
Wendy Banks
Globe and Mail

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