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His Whole Life

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Starting with something as simple as a boy who wants a dog, His Whole Life takes us into a richly intimate world where everything that matters to him is at risk: family, nature, home.    At the outset ten-year-old Jim and his Canadian mother and American father are on a journey from New York City to a lake in eastern Ontario during the last hot days of August. What unfolds is Starting with something as simple as a boy who wants a dog, His Whole Life takes us into a richly intimate world where everything that matters to him is at risk: family, nature, home.    At the outset ten-year-old Jim and his Canadian mother and American father are on a journey from New York City to a lake in eastern Ontario during the last hot days of August. What unfolds is a completely enveloping story that spans a few pivotal years of his youth. Moving from city to country, summer to winter, wellbeing to illness, the novel charts the deepening bond between mother and son even as the family comes apart. Set in the mid-1990s, when Quebec is on the verge of leaving Canada, this captivating novel is an unconventional coming of age story as only Elizabeth Hay could tell it. It draws readers in with its warmth, wisdom, its vivid sense of place, its searching honesty, and nuanced portrait of the lives of one family and those closest to it. Hay explores the mystery of how members of a family can hurt each other so deeply, and remember those hurts in such detail, yet find openings that shock them with love and forgiveness. This is vintage Elizabeth Hay at the height of her powers.


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Starting with something as simple as a boy who wants a dog, His Whole Life takes us into a richly intimate world where everything that matters to him is at risk: family, nature, home.    At the outset ten-year-old Jim and his Canadian mother and American father are on a journey from New York City to a lake in eastern Ontario during the last hot days of August. What unfolds is Starting with something as simple as a boy who wants a dog, His Whole Life takes us into a richly intimate world where everything that matters to him is at risk: family, nature, home.    At the outset ten-year-old Jim and his Canadian mother and American father are on a journey from New York City to a lake in eastern Ontario during the last hot days of August. What unfolds is a completely enveloping story that spans a few pivotal years of his youth. Moving from city to country, summer to winter, wellbeing to illness, the novel charts the deepening bond between mother and son even as the family comes apart. Set in the mid-1990s, when Quebec is on the verge of leaving Canada, this captivating novel is an unconventional coming of age story as only Elizabeth Hay could tell it. It draws readers in with its warmth, wisdom, its vivid sense of place, its searching honesty, and nuanced portrait of the lives of one family and those closest to it. Hay explores the mystery of how members of a family can hurt each other so deeply, and remember those hurts in such detail, yet find openings that shock them with love and forgiveness. This is vintage Elizabeth Hay at the height of her powers.

30 review for His Whole Life

  1. 5 out of 5

    Elyse (retired from reviewing/semi hiatus) Walters

    Presenting a primary question....."What is the worse thing you have ever done?", as an early opening at the near start of this novel ...( a background setting that never vanishes from the readers mind), is brilliant. While I never quite forgot that question - which was asked more than once - I soon noticed ..."oh, there sure are a lot of things the characters are not forgetting in 'their' lives. Jim, who is only 10 years old, remembers the day he and his family discover a bullet hole in the back Presenting a primary question....."What is the worse thing you have ever done?", as an early opening at the near start of this novel ...( a background setting that never vanishes from the readers mind), is brilliant. While I never quite forgot that question - which was asked more than once - I soon noticed ..."oh, there sure are a lot of things the characters are not forgetting in 'their' lives. Jim, who is only 10 years old, remembers the day he and his family discover a bullet hole in the back passenger door of their Chevette. He also remembers a painful event which he doesn't share with his family. Jim's father, George, remembers punching another kid in the mouth and his lip bled when he was a kid. Jim's mother, Nan, remembers when a school friend hurt her feelings deeply. Lulu, a friend Nan reconnects with after 25 years, remembers that their parents loved her brother, Guy, more than her. She remembers that when her parents died, their land and house went to her brother - not her. The author explains in the preface that this novel is set against the background of the 1995 referendum on Quebec Independence, which succeeded by the skin of their teeth. The image of the countries disunion and dividing themselves apart becomes a metaphor in the families ...yet also a dual sub-plot ( which was a great part of the book because frankly being American I really never thought about this period in history and how citizens of Canada were deeply affected). I felt it through Elizabeth Hay's storytelling to a point where I wanted to comfort my friends in Canada. If this were to happen today, I would be at their side as much as possible - cry and or cheer with them. I get it... This marked a huge day - a day to remember! More messages on 'remembering'...( reflect and remember)... I think this is the strongest theme in this novel! Reflect and remember is a strong message in my Jewish culture, too. The other thing I loved about this book was the intimacy and vulnerability of the characters. It was especially meaningful for me - as a mother - to observe Jim's thought process. I had a lengthy conversation with my husband about this character. (One of the best-family- coming-of age books I've read in a long time). When I was raising my daughters - day to day rush of life- I can 'now' look back and see 'where' their questions and things they shared where sometimes coming from a bigger context. But, as a busy mom - there were things I missed and simply didn't 'observe'. For example...one day, Katy came home from her private school - 7th grade - she said, "Leah's mother has called the principle several times trying to get Steven tossed out of our school .. because she is sick and tired of Steven pulling her bra strap every day, hiding her notebook so she can't turn in her work, and saying nasty things". I heard my daughter .. and I'm not sure of everything I said that day... but I never for one minute thought Katy was trying to tell me there was no Leah involved. I didn't find out the 'truth' of that story until a couple years later when Katy was in Michigan attending a private High School - only to find out she was 67lbs in the hospital diagnosed anorexic. There were so many beautiful things about this book...but my favorite was the gift of observing Jim observe life. I think every parent who has kids at home can learn from Jim. ( or let's be honest ....from Elizabeth Hays) Many other themes.....regret, forgiveness,(how much to forgive & self protection), marriage, ( separation), friendship, ( boundaries), loss, compassion, love I really loved this book - as you probably can see! I have one 'small' problem ..,( my husband and I argued over this). There was a small scene that I felt was inappropriate...( enough where I at least want to talk about it).., but my husband says I'm silly. He admitted to double standards .. and that's just the way life is!! Note: I'm not saying Hays should have left out 'my problem' scene.... I just want to talk about it... (but obviously I can't in this public review)... but I'm open to talking later with readers who read the book. Thank You, MacLehose Press, Netgalley, and Elizabeth Hays

  2. 4 out of 5

    Debra

    Received from netgalley in exchange for an honest review. "What's the Worse thing you have ever done?" This novel begins when ten year old Jim and his Canadian mother, Nan, and American father, George, are on a road trip from New York City to visit his Mother's family at a lake in eastern Ontario during the late summer in the 1990's. Jim asks his parents the above question, "What is the worst thing you have ever done?" Each in turn answer him, but he does not want to share Received from netgalley in exchange for an honest review. "What's the Worse thing you have ever done?" This novel begins when ten year old Jim and his Canadian mother, Nan, and American father, George, are on a road trip from New York City to visit his Mother's family at a lake in eastern Ontario during the late summer in the 1990's. Jim asks his parents the above question, "What is the worst thing you have ever done?" Each in turn answer him, but he does not want to share his own answer. He is silent and what he has done worries him. Throughout the book that theme comes up with various characters tell the worst thing they have ever done. After they return from their late summer trip, the family gets bad news and Jim and his Mother, Nan return to Ontario where her best friend Lulu makes an appearance and sticks around. Nan is unhappy in her Marriage and is estranged from her oldest son, and reconnecting with her friend and her old home seems to be just what she needs. Thus begins the novel. Jim is 17 when the book ends. He is a sweet and knowing child, sensitive and often appeared wise beyond his years. His Whole life is about the characters. This not a "nail biter" of a book, you will not be "on the edge of your seat", it is not a "bodice ripper" or a "page turner". It is a tender character driven book with many themes. At times a coming of age novel and a love story. A love story, in the sense, as it is a story about love between a Mother and child, between a husband and wife, a brother and sister, a boy and many dogs, and love between friends. This book is also about loss. The struggles in Jim's life, county vs. city, Mother vs. father, also reflect the struggle within Quebec at the time of the 1995 referendum of independence. As I was reading this book, I could visualize everything. The writing was very descriptive and beautiful. There are so many passages in the book that I loved. Here is one of the first that I thought was touching "Jim was never sure when to stop patting him. Even when he tired of it, he didn't want to hurt the dog's feelings and so he kept on. When finally he stopped, Pog lay down, not having wanted to hurt the boy's feelings either." This book felt like a small independent movie to me. One made out of love. A very enjoyable read. Not a fast read. A read to be read over some time. Slow and lazy like a warm Canadian Summer. That is not to mean it is a boring book. It is not. But this is not a book to be rushed. It is a book to be savored. The writer is so gifted. The phrases and sentences are quite beautiful. At times I wondered if this Author also wrote poetry. As I stated above, this is a character driven book. Jim and Lulu were my favorite characters in the book. "They went down to the water's edge and stood watching and listening. The leaves fell like rain. It was the weight of the hoarfrost, melting in the sun, that made them break away. His whole life Jim would remember the sound and so would Nan" See more of my reviews at www.openbookpost.com

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jill

    Elizabeth Hay has long delighted and transported me with her work: the lost souls working together in a small Yellowknife radio station (Late Nights on Air), the two tempestuous sisters in the fairytale-like A Student of Weather, the interweaving of human relationships in Alone in the Classroom. This is a writer who has never been afraid of cross-fertilizing her style, creating that perfect hybrid of an intimate mastery of words with a splendor of vision and always focusing on the pow Elizabeth Hay has long delighted and transported me with her work: the lost souls working together in a small Yellowknife radio station (Late Nights on Air), the two tempestuous sisters in the fairytale-like A Student of Weather, the interweaving of human relationships in Alone in the Classroom. This is a writer who has never been afraid of cross-fertilizing her style, creating that perfect hybrid of an intimate mastery of words with a splendor of vision and always focusing on the power of place and the power of the human voice. Needless to say, I was delighted to become an early reader of her newest work. The theme of the book is the schisms that divide us and sometimes bring us together. Jim is an American boy who is torn between his Canadian mother Nan’s love of eastern Ontario and his dour father George’s desire to remain in New York City. As a young boy, Jim is constantly torn between life’s dichotomies: nature vs. urban life, hurt vs. forgiveness, independence vs. duty, life vs. death. All of this plays out against the backdrop of Quebec’s squeaky close 1995 referendum on sovereignty vs. unity, as a divided country held its breath. At times, the parallelisms between Jim’s life and the Quebec seemed a little too neatly telegraphed. Take this, for example, referring to Nan: “She wanted to feel more alive, that’s what she wanted. To live an independent and courageous life. And with that bracing thought something clicked in her brain and she understood Quebec. She understood a place torn between staying and leaving, and therefore always dissatisfied.” In other places, the book shines as it teases the reader with the rhythm and flow of natural and connective life. The rivalry of two brothers, a mother and oldest son estrangement, blended families that struggle to define their individual places, a sister and brother who can’t quite bring themselves to reconciliation, a complicated husband-wife marriage that becomes even more complicated when a best friend shows up…all of these are ordinary events and yet form a tapestry of life as it moves forward. For a great part of this novel, I was waiting for something to happen, a collision between characters that would result in something entirely life-transforming. It was only when I was into the beautifully-crafted last third of the book that I recalled the old adage: life happens within and without you. Indeed, as these characters navigate their competing loyalties, they recognize (to quote Four Quartets) that “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Jim’s life is not by any means complete, but in integral ways, he is whole.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    2.5 review to follow.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Krista

    His Whole Life is an odd bit of Canadiana. As the story opens, Jim is ten-years-old and sitting in the back seat of his parents' old Chevette as they make their annual trek from NYC – where they live because of his American father George – to eastern Ontario – where his Canadian mother's family owns a secluded lakeside cabin. Attempting to slip in his most pressing question as just one more long drive conversation starter, Jim asks his parents, “What's the worst thing you've ever done?”, and this bo His Whole Life is an odd bit of Canadiana. As the story opens, Jim is ten-years-old and sitting in the back seat of his parents' old Chevette as they make their annual trek from NYC – where they live because of his American father George – to eastern Ontario – where his Canadian mother's family owns a secluded lakeside cabin. Attempting to slip in his most pressing question as just one more long drive conversation starter, Jim asks his parents, “What's the worst thing you've ever done?”, and this book then spends all of its remaining pages revealing the answer to that question for these three central characters. Along the way there are repeated themes of estranged siblings, broken friendships, prodigal sons, women who serve as end-of-life caretakers who then find themselves cut out of wills, men who are violent or resentful or sneaky-mean, dying dogs, and through it all, young Jim is the observer, the conciliator, the glue. In the end it would seem that author Elizabeth Hay's point is that for a people who stereotypically spend all of our time apologising, it would seem we Canadians have little capacity for actual forgiveness. Sorry, but I didn't love this book. When Nan inherits her brother's property in the summer of 1995 – at the same time that she's feeling unhappy in her marriage – she decides to take Jim up to Canada for his entire summer vacation. Nan reconnects with her childhood friend Lulu, and with the second Quebec referendum on separation looming, the two women find themselves on opposite sides of the debate: Nan (the Canadian now living in America) is a passionate federalist who continuously trots out the retired-from-public-life Pierre Trudeau as the ultimate symbol of national unity and Lulu (born in the States, raised in Canada with a Québécois Grand-Mère, and recently living in Mexico ) is all for separation, holding up the now crippled Lucien Bouchard as the saint and martyr of Quebec's cause. Jim himself is a big fan of René Lévesque (dead by this time, but who Jim knows from his repeated readings of The Story of Canada), and it was so strange to me that these characters rarely brought up the two men who were actually on the opposing sides of the debate that summer: Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau. No matter, though, because the Quebec referendum seems to only be present in order to serve as a repeating knock-over-the-head metaphor about estranged families and failing marriages: She wanted to feel more alive, that’s what she wanted. To live an independent and courageous life. And with that bracing thought something clicked in her brain and she understood Quebec. She understood a place torn between staying and leaving, and therefore always dissatisfied. Canada beckoned to her, such a stable and reasonable country. Yet always on the verge of coming apart, because Quebec was so unhappy. As unhappy as I am in my marriage, she thought. George hung on the edges, ill-defined, less important. He was “the rest of the family” the way English Canada was “the rest of Canada.” R.O.C. for short. That summer Quebec seemed serene in its power, secure, as if all packed up and ready to leave. Even years after Quebec narrowly voted down the question of separation, Nan regarded George's post-surgical face and mused: His mutilated face reminded her of a reconfigured map, a country carved up, her country without la belle province. Um, your side won, so get over it? In the same way that Hay made all of these obvious political connections, she also would repeatedly come right out and name key character traits, as though not trusting herself to “show, not tell”: Jim enjoyed watching people take sides. It increased the drama and he loved the drama. Yet it worried him too, since he wanted people to like each other and he wanted to be on the right side, the brave and exciting side. That was a very obvious statement about Jim that I found annoying after watching him repeatedly demonstrate exactly those aspects of himself, as was the following when Jim returns to NYC and breathes deeply of its unique air: It was like smelling an American dollar bill, thought Jim, and he loved it. These returns to New York at the end of August were a powerful part of his life. Well, duh. These returns are shown many times, and besides, couldn't that be inferred? And sometimes, I didn't really know what Hay was getting at: The son works forgiveness for the father. It felt like two rivers meeting inside her, one blue, one brown. The brown of “George, you hurt me,” and the blue of “I'm still breathing. I must have hurt you too.” If forgiveness could be considered a kind of movement in one's chest that made it easier to breathe. His Whole Life ends the summer that Jim turns seventeen – set right after Pierre Trudeau's death and state funeral – and although there were many interesting vignettes along the way (I liked everything about the bizarre Isaac) and while, yes, Hay has a piercing eye for scene-setting, in the end, I don't know what this book was really about. I thought that Jim – with his group hugs and his knack for saying just the right thing – was too good to be true, and I grew weary of all the references to Homer and Shakespeare and Treasure Island (and if you're going to mention more than once that Jim was named after Robert Louis Stevenson's scamp of a narrator, why not explain the why of that?), and although I love me a book set in Canada, I didn't understand why Trudeau's life and death was the framing backdrop for what is otherwise a domestic drama. And don't even get me started on how annoying it was for Nan to rub the scar on her forehead every time she felt cornered, or the way she stroked the area over her heart whenever she was hurt. I didn't get this book and I didn't really like it, but being more okay than downright bad, I won't dip below three stars on it.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Laima

    I was just reading an article in our hometown newspaper about the author, Elizabeth Hay, and wanted to pick up her latest novel. Well, now I don't have to. Lucky me just won a free copy here on Goodreads!! Can't wait to read it!

  7. 5 out of 5

    Tamye

    Highly recommended! I was fortunate to have received an advance copy of this book from the publisher. I think it is Elizabeth Hay's best novel yet. What a wonderful summer read! I especially loved the style of her writing, which, to me, was so gentle. Nothing particularly earth shattering happens in this book, but it doesn't really matter. You get a real sense of family and relationships that evolve over the years, set against the backdrop of the Quebec referendum on sovereignty in the 1990's. J Highly recommended! I was fortunate to have received an advance copy of this book from the publisher. I think it is Elizabeth Hay's best novel yet. What a wonderful summer read! I especially loved the style of her writing, which, to me, was so gentle. Nothing particularly earth shattering happens in this book, but it doesn't really matter. You get a real sense of family and relationships that evolve over the years, set against the backdrop of the Quebec referendum on sovereignty in the 1990's. Jim is such a sensitive character who has a close bond with his mother, Nan, yet is also loyal to his father, George. They all are living with disappointment in some form or another and it is interesting to me to see how they deal with it and overcome it. The insertion of the characters of Lulu and Guy and at the end of George's brother Martin round off the storyline perfectly. Pick up a copy of this wonderful coming of age story by a skilled Canadian author.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Lori Bamber

    I have a new favourite novel of all time. If you were raised, as I was, during the Trudeau years - if you cried with joy, pride and vulnerability when the buses arrived in Quebec just before the referendum - if you have children you've watched with wonder and terrifying love - well, this book will feel like home. Like a beautifully crafted, searingly detailed home. There are probably 100 sentences in this book that made me stop and marvel at Elizabeth Hay's ability as a reader. I can't wait to r I have a new favourite novel of all time. If you were raised, as I was, during the Trudeau years - if you cried with joy, pride and vulnerability when the buses arrived in Quebec just before the referendum - if you have children you've watched with wonder and terrifying love - well, this book will feel like home. Like a beautifully crafted, searingly detailed home. There are probably 100 sentences in this book that made me stop and marvel at Elizabeth Hay's ability as a reader. I can't wait to read it again. If you haven't read it yet, I'm so happy that you have this experience waiting for you.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Ruthie

    Others have written great outlines and reviews. This is not my favorite book by Hay despite it taking place in two locales very familiar to me. The author seems to be trying too hard to create analogies and her attempts to let the backstory unfold slowly kept the characters at a distance. It felt like a book written specifically for book club discussions. ***Spoiler Alert!!*** While the relationship between a boy and his dog is a reliable coming-of-age mechanism, having thr Others have written great outlines and reviews. This is not my favorite book by Hay despite it taking place in two locales very familiar to me. The author seems to be trying too hard to create analogies and her attempts to let the backstory unfold slowly kept the characters at a distance. It felt like a book written specifically for book club discussions. ***Spoiler Alert!!*** While the relationship between a boy and his dog is a reliable coming-of-age mechanism, having three dogs die in the timeframe of the novel, and two of the deaths being so horrible is more than I could accept!

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    4 -stars, really. oh how i adore elizabeth hay! i found this to be a wonderful novel - sensitive, wise and poetic. i enjoyed how hay juxtaposed the potential fracturing of canada, through the quebec referendum of 1995, with the fracturing of family. it could come across as too ham-fisted, this contrast, but i feel hay did well with it. for me, even though the real life referendum outcome was known, the currents of anxiety hay created - would quebec separate? is nan's marriage over? can lulu and 4 ½-stars, really. oh how i adore elizabeth hay! i found this to be a wonderful novel - sensitive, wise and poetic. i enjoyed how hay juxtaposed the potential fracturing of canada, through the quebec referendum of 1995, with the fracturing of family. it could come across as too ham-fisted, this contrast, but i feel hay did well with it. for me, even though the real life referendum outcome was known, the currents of anxiety hay created - would quebec separate? is nan's marriage over? can lulu and her brother, guy, ever reconcile? - were so good!! and i enjoyed the timing of this read in the context of our current political climate in canada. pierre trudeau is featured, and we have recently elected one of his sons, justin, as prime minister of canada. though our country is facing so many challenges, there is a feeling of hope tied to this new government that has been absent for a long time. (sorry for that wee tangent.) covering 7 years, and split between cottage country of eastern ontario (not too far west of ottawa), and new york city, i felt hay did a great job with her time and settings; they were so vivid in their details and mood/feel. in this coming-of-age tale, the themes of identity and forgiveness are very strong. and if this novel works well for you it may leave you pondering many things about your own self or place within your family. "what's the worst thing you've done?" is the question posed by 10yo jim, to open the story. it's a question that arises again, and is explored often in the story. the characters are a contemplative lot with long memories. and i felt they were each well developed, save for blake. (whose storyline and character were really the only weakness for me in the book, and the reason for it not being a 5-star read.) this is also a bookish novel: nan and jim are both big readers, and lulu is an actor. books and plays are mentioned and quoted throughout, and used as sources of comfort and escape - and i loved this! overall - i really liked this book a lot. my in-person book club chose it for the january gathering, and it's a great choice for the many discussion topics it offers. though the book covers several years and the changing seasons, i think i would have loved to read this one in the summer... at the cottage. :) aside, possibly spoiler-y: there is a curiosity for me concerning animals in this novel. if you are a dog person, you may find a few scenes emotionally difficult (by the third occurrence, i let out some kind of audible 'OH NO!' which caused my husband to be worried about what i had just read in the book.). i am sure there is a deeper meaning going on, and the importance of a dog for a boy is conveyed a couple of times during the story. but, man! life is hard and reality sucks! bears, loons, otters, porcupines, fish, and a rumour of wolves feature too. most being the usual suspects in cottage country.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Irene

    Despite hurt, anger, betrayal, even self-imposed absence, family bonds survive and are often most evident at times of pain. This is the thesis of this mediocre novel. My primary complaint was the author’s choice to play tour guide to the reader, pointing out every motivation, thought, feeling and perception of each character. I suspect this is an easier and safer way to construct a novel. The reader is never in danger of an incorrect assumption or developing an opinion different than the author Despite hurt, anger, betrayal, even self-imposed absence, family bonds survive and are often most evident at times of pain. This is the thesis of this mediocre novel. My primary complaint was the author’s choice to play tour guide to the reader, pointing out every motivation, thought, feeling and perception of each character. I suspect this is an easier and safer way to construct a novel. The reader is never in danger of an incorrect assumption or developing an opinion different than the author intended. But, it is a far less interesting experience for the reader. Blake was the one exception to this pattern. We were never told why this zealous born again Christian blamed his mother for his parents’ divorce and how he could persist in a refusal to even entertain the possibility of forgiving her.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Lolly K Dandeneau

    A slow moving character driven novel during the times Quebec was trying to leave Canada. A story about a mother's messy love (is there any other kind) and the struggle to understand your child, and your marriage while denying your own needs. Jim is a unique 10 year old who sees the world with deeper meaning than the average child. When he asks his parents on a road trip to Canada "What is the worst thing you've ever done?" both parents know just how loaded such a question is. Here we go back thr A slow moving character driven novel during the times Quebec was trying to leave Canada. A story about a mother's messy love (is there any other kind) and the struggle to understand your child, and your marriage while denying your own needs. Jim is a unique 10 year old who sees the world with deeper meaning than the average child. When he asks his parents on a road trip to Canada "What is the worst thing you've ever done?" both parents know just how loaded such a question is. Here we go back through incidents and moments- one important aspect that sort of flirts on the edge is that Jim's mother (Nan) has a grown son and there is an estrangement. I spent time wondering, did she hold on tighter to Jim because of the mistakes she made with her firstborn? There is a moment towards the end of the story that spoke volumes about the sort of boy Jim is. "Jim, " she said, "are you taking notes?" He was. He was noticing everything. That could be the summary right there- Jim notices everything and sees far beyond his years. He has a father (George) he loves dearly but is in turns ashamed of and disappointed by. His mother 'I am never alone. I go for a walk and my thoughts crowd me off the sidewalk." is conflicted and hasn't always made the right choices in love. Did she love Jim's father as givingly as she should ( (ツ)_/¯ a okay, it may not be an official word, but givingly it is) probably not, and he feels the stinginess of it. But she is there, when he needs her- he in his fatally stubborn decisions that again arrange the lives of both Jim and his mother. "He courted unhappiness." George, is the reader to believe he chose Nan because of her distance, because he enjoyed courting unhappiness by wanting to squeeze more love from her than she really could feel? People certainly do make such choices. Lulu is Nan's dear friend, in and out of her life through the years. With her brother Guy, who she says 'He has always demolished me" she has her own fight. There is still a need to win over a brother who has created a rupture between them. While she fights him, too there is yearning to be loved and accepted by him. This is a story about the destructiveness of choices and mistakes, missteps so to speak. It is a young boy learning about relationships through the messiness of his elders. Some people need to understand and dissect, Jim is such a person. "Jim read the air around people, the calm and the seasick air." While this is a coming of age, Jim isn't the only one growing. This isn't action packed and nothing BIG happens, it's more an exploration in relationships and all it's complications. People are flawed but trying. If nothing else, it certainly makes you think about the worst thing you've ever done and could open quite a book group discussion.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer Hicks

    This is a beautifully written book with some really interesting themes. It's a ten year old boy's take on the dissolution of his family against the background of the potential dissolution of his country (Canada during the mid-1990s when Quebec was on the verge of leaving Canada). Set in New York City and an eastern Ontario cottage, Elizabeth Hay is a master at describing time and place. I think this novel needed a little more editing as sections seemed drag and in some places dialogue was clunky This is a beautifully written book with some really interesting themes. It's a ten year old boy's take on the dissolution of his family against the background of the potential dissolution of his country (Canada during the mid-1990s when Quebec was on the verge of leaving Canada). Set in New York City and an eastern Ontario cottage, Elizabeth Hay is a master at describing time and place. I think this novel needed a little more editing as sections seemed drag and in some places dialogue was clunky. Her fans will love it, andHay is a masterful storyteller, but I think she needed more help than she got in this one.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Krista

    This was a slow, wise book. There wasn't an action packed plot line, but I still enjoyed the story of the main characters. Quite enjoyable.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jenn

    Found the book slow and hard to get into. The characters were bland except for Lulu. I especially struggled to relate or empathize with the two main characters. The Canadian history was interesting and informative, well researched.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Kathy Stinson

    Reading parts of His Whole Life was like holding onto summer for a little while longer, but oh the quiet agony and devastating cruelties in the lives of this book's characters! Loved it.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Peter

    There is much to discuss in Elizabeth Hay's novel His Whole Life. Where to begin is the first puzzle. How can a person who is only 15 years old be considered to have had his whole life? Perhaps the title suggests that the novel is only meant to trace Jim's life to date, his whole life up to the age of 15. Let's look at an early and obvious phrase that leaps from the page. A child named Jim, who turns out to be the protagonist of the novel, asks his parents "what is the worst thing you have ever There is much to discuss in Elizabeth Hay's novel His Whole Life. Where to begin is the first puzzle. How can a person who is only 15 years old be considered to have had his whole life? Perhaps the title suggests that the novel is only meant to trace Jim's life to date, his whole life up to the age of 15. Let's look at an early and obvious phrase that leaps from the page. A child named Jim, who turns out to be the protagonist of the novel, asks his parents "what is the worst thing you have ever done?" An interesting question for a young boy to ask. As we read through the novel we discover that Jim is a boy beyond his chronological age. In fact, at times he is more mature and grounded than either of his parents. Nevertheless, I think the best place to begin this ramble is at the end of the novel. Its last sentence contains multitudes of possibilities and demands the reader to both reflect back on the novel and gaze forward into the novel's unwritten future to the life that Jim has yet to meet. To reflect on the title once again, to realize that as a 15 year old, Jim still has his whole life ahead of him. The final words of the novel are: --- yet everything was changing. Jim put his hand around her, closing briefly the space that was opening between them. All morning the leaves kept falling on their lake of bays. Here we find the essence of the novel. As a fifteen year old, Jim is at the stage of life where everything is indeed changing. Change is the central troupe of the novel. From one's health, to one's relationships with parents, relatives, and even friends, Jim experiences both the long drawn out march of change and change that occurs with lightning speed. These changes are mirrored within the context of historical events that occur within the time frame of this novel. The novel is set in the mid 1990's when the possibility of Quebec separating from Canada was headline news. As the referendum question lurched its way towards the vote that would determine the fate and future of Canada, so the lives of Jim and his parents stumble towards their collective and individual futures. The vote to remain in Canada was razor thin; the fate of the Jim is left unclear at the end of the novel. It is instructive to pay closer attention to the ending in order to appreciate how creative and suggestive it is. When Hay writes that Jim's arm closed briefly "the space that was opening between them" we realize that love can be both enduring and fleeting. Jim will move away from his mother. Loss is a part of life and the amount of loss that the mother and son have endured has both brought them together and also made them aware that they will, at some time, necessarily move away from each other. This concept of bonds that exist and bonds that will be broken is consistently reinforced throughout the novel. For example, if we take a look at the dogs that are part of Jim's life we see how with each loss of a dog Jim not only mourns a loss but also gains an important insight into the world.for example, when Jim's dog Moon is found dead, Jim mourns its loss. In a wonderfully evocative metaphor, Hay has Jim look at the moon and come to the realization that the lunar moon is an object that is at some times full, then has chunks bitten from it until it is almost gone, only to add parts until the moon is again seen full and round in the night sky. What Hay has accomplished with this metaphor is to transform the fact that Jim's dog was partially eaten into an understanding of how the greater world works. Thus, for each loss Jim learns there will be a renewal and for each pain there will come a pleasure and for each step in his painful adolescent growth will come an understanding. This understanding may be raw and may even be incomplete, but we realize that just as the moon seems to magically heal itself, so can an individual. I was surprised at the number of times the idea of loss and then renewal or understanding and insight was repeated. Everything from trees that are blown down, to crops and flowers, to relationships between individuals and families, to the French-English backdrop of history in this novel get repeated and repeated again. I think Hay could have used fewer examples coupled with a longer exploration of meaning and insight for better effect in the novel. There is, however, no question that Hay's prose, her ability to draw effective images in the reader's mind, and to please the reader with evocative style is consistent and impressive. One of my favourite sentences in the novel was the final one. Its rich denseness of image and purpose coupled with a subtle phrasing was remarkable. The last sentence "All morning the leaves kept falling on their lake of bays" can be unpacked in many ways. The lake has been the place where the family were headed when Jim first asked his question "what is the worst thing you have ever done?" Now, at the end of the novel, we find ourselves back again at the lake. In the interval we have experienced an entire novel of revelations of people's actions that are misplaced, wrong, hurtful, morally suspect and perhaps even evil at times. The "leaves kept falling." The leaves are suggestive of people's actions. The people in the novel all seemed to drop surprises, pain, and distress on one another. We are told that these leaves fall into "their lake of bays." For Nan and Jim, as they hold each other closer, even as they know that there is a space widening between them, they can watch their lives in the movement of the leaves. Life keep falling for them as well. When I consider the phrase "lake of bays" I see the novel in its entirety. A lake is an expanse, and Jim's experiences on the lake have been exhilarating, informative and, at times, sad and frightening. Each of these experiences has, however, helped inform Jim of the world he lives in. A bay within the topography of a lake is an indent, an inlet, an imperfection within the space of a lake. All lakes have bays as all people have flaws. Everyone has a metaphorical lake of bays. As Jim and his mother hold each other and watch the leaves fall into the lake they are actually watching their past and their future lives. Nan and Jim both hold on to each other and, by necessity, are at the same time in the act of letting go. Consider the title --His Whole Life -- this novel is not Jim's whole life as he is only fifteen at the end of the novel. On the other hand, it is Jim's whole life because within the short span of time that this novel encompasses he has experienced life and death, love and hate, compassion and revenge. The historical template of Canada's referendum shadows the events of this novel. Could it be that Elizabeth Hay is asking her readers if Jim's life will be any more secure than Canada's?

  18. 4 out of 5

    Roxy

    I fell into this book so deep, that I was very sad to see it end. It has wonderfully complex characters, a lake cottage I wanted to live in, and a brief history lesson on Quebec’s fight for independence.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Sue Pretty

    A few good lines, but too many sad dog stories.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Barbara Sibbald

    Truly a wonderful, touching novel. The relationship between Jim and Nan is gorgeously, tellingly depicted, bringing to my heart and mind my relationship with my won and those small telling moments which revealed so much as he has grown up and our relationship has evolved. I was fascinated by foundational question: What is the worst thing you have ever done? It's such a painful question, and so pivotal to those times in our lives when we change, when doors close. Then I read: “’He talk Truly a wonderful, touching novel. The relationship between Jim and Nan is gorgeously, tellingly depicted, bringing to my heart and mind my relationship with my won and those small telling moments which revealed so much as he has grown up and our relationship has evolved. I was fascinated by foundational question: What is the worst thing you have ever done? It's such a painful question, and so pivotal to those times in our lives when we change, when doors close. Then I read: “’He talked about how much discipline it takes. Constant discipline not to take life personally.’ Nan felt the truth of that ring through her. When you take things personally, she knew, the world becomes very small. It is you and nothing is smaller. When you manage not to do that, the world opens wide.” (298) So maybe there is redemption in this way: yes, it was horrible, but think big, go beyond. And if you can't, or find it difficult, perhaps you will be lucky -- perhaps you will let luck in (as Hay phrases it) -- and this will happen: “What we lose is any sense that life is alive, she thought. The days follow one after another and everything passes us by. Then along comes someone who looks at us kindly, as if we were worth noticing, and life quickens. A door opens.” (307) A door opens. Yes.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Nancy Croth

    This is a gorgeous book!!!! If you have ever spent any time in Canada's cottage country, you will experience the visceral sensation of being transported to the essence of nature in it's many changes of attire. That is the backdrop to this lovely story of the relationship between a mother, her son, her husband and her best friend, tied up in knots with all of the mucky-mucky that relationships tend to produce. I didn't want it to end!!!!

  22. 4 out of 5

    Gail

    A great read, enjoyed every page!

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jenn

    This book is filled with two things: nothing and dead animals. What a waste of time!! I won a copy through Goodreads First Reads.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Tricia Dower

    Tenderly written story about breaking up and making up with friends and family, set in a lake community in Ontario and noisier New York City against the Quebec separation referendum of 1995. I loved it for the beauty of Hay's writing but felt the twinning of the family and political break-ups was forced in places. I remember that time well, though. On the night of the referendum, my husband and I were driving from Ontario to New Jersey to see to my mother who had gone to the hospital. We listene Tenderly written story about breaking up and making up with friends and family, set in a lake community in Ontario and noisier New York City against the Quebec separation referendum of 1995. I loved it for the beauty of Hay's writing but felt the twinning of the family and political break-ups was forced in places. I remember that time well, though. On the night of the referendum, my husband and I were driving from Ontario to New Jersey to see to my mother who had gone to the hospital. We listened to the results on CBC as long as we could keep the station. One of my mother's doctor's was from Montreal and when we arrived, he was anxious to know what had happened.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Roger Brunyate

    Separation [Note: I was sent a copy of the book by the author's US publishers, wanting to know how it might appeal to readers outside Canada. My review is written essentially from that perspective.] The author explains in a prefatory note that the novel is set against the background of the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence, which came within a hair's breadth of succeeding, with the less nearly successful 1980 referendum as its background shadow. The image of a country almost splitting itself apart becomes/>[Note: Separation [Note: I was sent a copy of the book by the author's US publishers, wanting to know how it might appeal to readers outside Canada. My review is written essentially from that perspective.] The author explains in a prefatory note that the novel is set against the background of the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence, which came within a hair's breadth of succeeding, with the less nearly successful 1980 referendum as its background shadow. The image of a country almost splitting itself apart becomes a metaphor for splits in families: wives separating from husbands, brothers turning against sisters, children becoming estranged from their parents. Although the novel contains some interesting characters and touching moments, I am not sure that the conceit succeeds, at least for non-Canadian readers, who are unlikely to take the threat of separation so personally—or, frankly, to feel with the characters in the few moments when they take sides on the issue. If this was to be the guiding metaphor, I would expect it to occupy a more central position, and to have a greater hold on the major characters. The other reason why, in my mind, Hay's themes do not fully gel is that she makes separation not only her subject, but also her method of writing. She shows little snatches in the lives of her characters, mostly at a lake in Eastern Ontario, but some in Manhattan. These moments are touching, tragic, or briefly happy; many are more oblique; but with all of them, you feel that the point is less what Hay describes than what lingers in the gaps between them. This is true even when the writing is as compressed as it is here: Dry crumbs dug into the bare skin of her right wrist. She hardly felt them. Sometimes you wake up to the history beside you. The man lying beside you in bed. The province adjoining yours. The country. She sat quite still, her face wide open. Hay tries to bring everything together into this short paragraph: the detail of the immediate situation; a marriage on its last legs; the political situation in Canada; life itself. But this "she" of the novel, a Canadian woman in her later forties named Nan Waterman Bobak, comes across more as a woman defined by her disconnections than by any strong qualities within herself. She is torn between the American city and the Canadian lake, tormented by rejections in her past, foreseeing the failure of her third marriage, fretting over her estrangement from her older son, and aware that her younger one will soon grow out of childhood. She is easy to understand, but harder to like, and she makes a weak core around which to build an entire novel. Hay does much better with Nan's son Jim, who is eleven when the novel opens. And so it began, the outstanding summer of his childhood when he had two dogs and two happy women who wanted his company. So Chapter 4 begins, and continues with a passage about the boy and his dog that reminded me once again how well Elizabeth Hay has always been able to write: Jim was never sure when to stop patting him. Even when he tired of it, he didn't want to hurt the dog's feelings and so he kept on. When finally he stopped, Pog lay down, not having wanted to hurt the boy's feelings either. Lovely! But be warned: Hay only sets up these dog relationships (there are three of them) as symbols of loss; not one of them will end happily. Is loss, then, a theme? Yes, but the book says much less about how to get through it. There is another fine passage of description three-quarters through the book. Jim has gone out in a canoe at night and is waiting for the dawn. He sees two ribbons of pink which promise much but then fade, disappointing him greatly. After a minute, the true sunrise begins, described in a passage of pink turning into the purple of plums then breaking into gold, melting gold—the author painting with a charged palette. Then a one-line paragraph: The sunrise was a long story, that's what he learned. A moral, clearly, but it is left to us how to apply it: that the moments of loss and disappointment will come together into a pattern, if only we give it time? Hay gives lots of such moments, but the farther we get into the novel, the harder the pattern is to see. The title comes from the very last page of the book, another passage of great beauty: They went down to the water's edge and stood watching and listening. The leaves fell like rain. It was the weight of the hoarfrost, melting in the sun, that made them break away. His whole life Jim would remember the sound and so would Nan. […] And in their minds they would be back in this moment when everything was still—there was no wind—yet everything was changing. A truly lovely memory. And yet I would be hard put to say exactly what understanding Jim, his mother, or the reader have to take away from this moment of stillness-in-change, to carry into the whole of their lives.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Cathy

    3.5 stars This is my first book by Elizabeth Hay and I can tell she is a talented writer. Some of the descriptions of landscape, in particular the lake scenes in Canada, are wonderful. However, I wasn’t quite as positive about other aspects of the book. The author has created a complex family structure with many ex-spouses, deceased spouses, deceased siblings and estranged siblings – perhaps a little too much tragedy in one family to be believable. I understand what the author was trying to do l 3.5 stars This is my first book by Elizabeth Hay and I can tell she is a talented writer. Some of the descriptions of landscape, in particular the lake scenes in Canada, are wonderful. However, I wasn’t quite as positive about other aspects of the book. The author has created a complex family structure with many ex-spouses, deceased spouses, deceased siblings and estranged siblings – perhaps a little too much tragedy in one family to be believable. I understand what the author was trying to do linking the debate over Quebec - should it separate from Canada or stay part of it - with the situation in Jim’s family but it seemed a little tenuous to me and I couldn’t really appreciate the importance of this as an issue. Perhaps it would have more significance to a Canadian reader. My other problem was that I didn’t find Jim a believable ten-year old as he is supposed to be at the beginning of the book. I kept having to remind myself he is supposed to be a young child. The character I felt was really successful was Lulu and the book dipped a little for me during the periods she wasn’t in it. So although I admired the quality of writing, the story didn’t really grab me. I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Quercus Books/MacLehose Press, in return for an honest review. To view this and reviews of other great books, visit my blog: https://whatcathyreadnext.wordpress.c...

  27. 5 out of 5

    Heather

    I absolutely LOVED this book. It is so beautifully written, I found myself pausing every few pages just to take in the language, often writing down quotes and sharing them with anyone in earshot. I also connected to the timing of the story, set during the backdrop of the 1995 Quebec referendum which was around the time I came of age politically and, like Nan, I watched events unfolding in agony, fearing that my country would be torn apart. I was also intrigued by the questi I absolutely LOVED this book. It is so beautifully written, I found myself pausing every few pages just to take in the language, often writing down quotes and sharing them with anyone in earshot. I also connected to the timing of the story, set during the backdrop of the 1995 Quebec referendum which was around the time I came of age politically and, like Nan, I watched events unfolding in agony, fearing that my country would be torn apart. I was also intrigued by the question that arose throughout the book, "what is the worst thing you've ever done?". It occurs to me that most of us have not done one truly horrible thing but in considering the question the criteria we chose to determine our worst things says a lot about what we value. I have used this question to think about my own life and start conversations with other people around me. I can't wait until Elizabeth Hay comes to speak at my library in October 2017.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Chuck Erion

    In The Margins book column for The Waterloo Region Record for Saturday, Dec 5, 2015 By Chuck Erion, former co-owner of Words Worth Books in Waterloo. [spoiler alert] Elizabeth Hay’s books are slow page turners for me, the opposite of a fast read. I pace them out, finding at least a few sentences on each page that I want to savor and revel in. I read “His Whole Life” (McClelland & Stewart, 361 pages, $32) in short passages in order to draw out the pleasure. And I had the In The Margins book column for The Waterloo Region Record for Saturday, Dec 5, 2015 By Chuck Erion, former co-owner of Words Worth Books in Waterloo. [spoiler alert] Elizabeth Hay’s books are slow page turners for me, the opposite of a fast read. I pace them out, finding at least a few sentences on each page that I want to savor and revel in. I read “His Whole Life” (McClelland & Stewart, 361 pages, $32) in short passages in order to draw out the pleasure. And I had the pleasure of reconnecting with her when she was in Kitchener-Waterloo for the Wild Writers Festival on Nov 7-8th. She was a bit tired; this event marked the end of a six-week promotional tour for His Whole Life. In 2007 she won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for “Late Nights on Air”. I had the opportunity to introduce her at the first Wild Writers Festival, and a few Words Worth Books author events before that. His Whole Life covers about five years in the life of Jim, the son of a Canadian mother, Nancy, and an American father, George. Jim is ten when the story opens in the mid-1990s and the Quebec referendum is on everyone’s mind. He is at his great-uncle’s cottage in the Ottawa Valley, having driven there with his mother from their apartment in New York City. During the drive, he asks her what the worst thing was she’d ever done. She takes the rest of the book searching for an answer. Jim is an only child (an older half-brother makes two rare appearances) growing up with a mostly-adult perspective on the world and a bookish precociousness that seeks to simplify the paradoxes of his parents’ characters. His mother is an expatriate but an ardent federalist, sweating at the prospect of Quebec’s separation ripping apart her beloved Canada. This looming separation parallels the decline of her own (second) marriage. George is a decade her senior, given to self-pity and jealousy over her friendship with Lulu, a flamboyant and out-of-work actress. He refuses to seek treatment for a cancerous saliva gland; when he finally agrees to surgery, it is too late and Nan nurses him until his death. Jim has conflicting loyalties to each of his parents, but is also drawn to Lulu and her brother Guy. A car accident kills Nan’s aunt and uncle, and she inherits the beloved cottage. Guy, who lives on the farm next to it, is estranged from Lulu but gradually ingratiates himself with both Nan and his sister. So, as Nan and George grow apart, Guy and Lulu come together. And Guy becomes the fishing-buddy that George, the total urbanite, is not. In the Q&A at that recent Writers Festival, Elizabeth Hay was asked what got her started on this novel. She spoke of her regrets that she had not let her son have a dog, so decided to correct this in “His Whole Life.” Jim is given a Golden Lab by his parents and it is love at first sight, as much for Jim as for his father. During that summer back at the cottage, the dog goes missing, and Jim finds him dead on a remote part of the lakeshore. Jim’s grief and circumstances around George’s cancer prevent Jim and Nan from returning to the lake for two summers. But the cottage proves to be a healing place for them both, a precept with which I can personally agree. With eight books written, Hay is surely at the top of her game. She explores relationships and issues of maturity and forgiveness with deft agility. She charmed this reader most with her descriptions of nature – the final scene of hoarfrost bringing down the leaves at Thanksgiving at the cottage left me spellbound. But there were times when probing the Referendum backdrop for symbols of Nan and George’s marriage felt forced, and the plot felt crowded with secondary characters. These are quibbles. “His Whole Life” will join Hay’s other books on my shelf of favourite novels.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Paula Dembeck

    This wonderful novel is filled with compelling characters, two contrasting settings on each side of the American border and will remind readers of events in their own coming of age story. As the novel opens we meet Jim, a ten year old boy who is quiet, loves reading and is enduring the abuse of bullies at school. He is traveling by car with his Canadian mother Nancy (Nan) and his American father George, as they head from their home in New York City to Canada for their annual visit to his mother’ This wonderful novel is filled with compelling characters, two contrasting settings on each side of the American border and will remind readers of events in their own coming of age story. As the novel opens we meet Jim, a ten year old boy who is quiet, loves reading and is enduring the abuse of bullies at school. He is traveling by car with his Canadian mother Nancy (Nan) and his American father George, as they head from their home in New York City to Canada for their annual visit to his mother’s family cottage on a lake in Eastern Ontario. Nan’s Aunt and Uncle own the log cabin and lead a simple life away from the hustle and bustle Jim and his parents experience in the huge noisy city of New York. During the drive, Jim asks his mother about the worst thing she has ever done. She answers and asks him the same question, one he does not answer. This simple question reverberates at various times throughout the novel as Nan shares with her son some of the things she has done which she is not proud of, hoping her son will share what seems to be bothering him. But Jim never answers. As a young boy soon to enter his teens, Jim has little self-confidence and many questions about his future; he is trying to figure out who he is and what he wants to be. The story is set in the mid-1990s, a time of turmoil in Canada, which had always been considered a stable and reasonable place but was now on the verge of coming apart. Quebec was threatening to leave the federation and become a country on its own. The struggle had been long and hard, creating fractures in relationships and families as individuals voiced opinions on opposing sides of the argument. Some were desperate to leave and others equally desperate to stay with no one certain what the future would look like if the vote was positive. This was the second referendum in fifteen years and this time the resulting vote would be very close. As the politics of the of separation plays out in the background of the story, readers come to see how closely it mirrors the troubled relationship between Nan and George. Nan admits to herself that she seems to be as chronically unhappy in her marriage as Quebec is unhappy in Canada. After a family tragedy, Nan inherits the cabin and decides to stay there with Jim for a longer period than the usual few days in August. She wants to experience one long summer at the place she has always loved. George however has always been a city boy and has no interest in country life, so he returns to New York. Although there has always been a push and pull between Nan and George about going North to Canada and spending time there, with Nan homesick for her life in Canada and his father always seeking the comfort of his hometown, Jim feels comfortable in both places and doesn’t favor one over the other; they are just different. Jim and Nan enjoy the quiet, the lake, the woods, the wild animals and many quiet hours together, experiencing the stars at night, paddling out to explore nearby islands in the canoe and just talking. And then Nan connects with her close childhood friend Lulu who has just returned to the area she lived in growing up. Lulu is an out of work actor who embraces life, loves martinis and takes life as it comes. The two woman care deeply for each other and Jim witnesses what it is like to have a true close friend, something he has wanted but failed to experience. So begins one of the outstanding summers of Jim’s childhood. He shares it with two dogs, Lulu’s Pog and his Aunt and Uncle’s old dog Duke and two happy woman who want his company and were eager to hear what he had to say. The story moves slowly through those summer months at the cabin and many other experiences until Jim is seventeen and spends another summer there alone with his mother. During this time period readers get to know the other people in Jim’s life: his father George, an irritable needy man who loves his son dearly and his challenged by health issues; George’s brother Martin who lives in Peru; Nan’s son Blake from her first marriage, a born again Christian who has left the family and rarely communicates with them and Lulu’s brother Guy who lives near the cabin on the lake and with whom she has had a long standing feud. But the focus is on Jim and Nan’s evolving relationship and their close bond which continues to evolve as an important part of their lives. During these times, Hay addresses other issues such as the role of women, the choice of treatment options when faced with a severe illness and the fallout in families when siblings do not meet the expectations of their parents. All the while, the background of the political tension swirling around the impending Quebec referendum and the turmoil it generates serves as both a backdrop and parallel story to Nan and George’s marriage. The pull of some desperate to leave and the competing desire of those who wish to stay swirls around the unanswered question about what the country or family will be like following that rupture. This is a story of competing love -- for Canada over New York, a mother over a father, a friend over a husband and one son over another. These competitions are hard fought and at times this family threatens to break apart. Hay has drawn some indelible characters. Jim is the young boy who seems wiser than he should be for his age. He watches, listens and thinks about what is said around him and just wants all the argumentative adults around him to get along and be happy. He is a talented artist and writer who seems destined for a successful future. Nan his mother, blames her husband for not generating the love she wants to feel. She has lost one son and is determined not to lose another. George is a cantankerous, self-centered man who feels his wife does not love him nearly enough and life has treated him badly. He spends much of his time reveling in self-pity, complaining about his life on the edge of the family where he feels less important than everyone else. Lulu, Nan’s childhood friend is an openhearted, free spirited and flamboyant woman who has always been ready for adventure. She is determined to live life to its fullest, and enjoys whipping up her culinary favorite “sonofabitch stew”. Blake, Nan’s son from her first marriage, lives away from home and visits when it suits him. He blames his mother for abandoning him when she divorced his father and has since lost himself in religion. He is bitter and openly judgmental, an unkind young man out to serve no one except himself. It is easy to identify with each of these characters as they struggle with many of the things we all struggle with at various stages in our lives; it makes them so human and easy to relate to. And although George is not someone readers may initially like, Hay has created a portrait of a man that evolves during the novel, her compassionate rendering of him leading readers to have some feelings for him, despite their initial impressions. Hay has paid considerable attention to her setting, blanketing the novel with a specific tone for the two geographical locations where the story takes place. She provides a vivid sense of place at the cabin by the lake with the towering trees and the heavy silence of the of the woods, the stillness of the lake in early morning, the pull of the oars as they paddle the canoe and the utter enchantment of sighting loons on their nesting sites and watching the beautiful evening sunsets. Downtown New York is so different, a cacophony of smells and sounds every minute of the day with the noise of automobiles and trucks, the screeching sirens from ambulances and police cars, the noise on the rooftops from the ventilation systems and the huge towering buildings that block every bit of sunlight. Again there are parallels in world events as well as the characters life stories. Apart from the political tensions in Quebec and Canada, readers will note Nan and George relationship closely resembling that of Lulu and her brother Guy and the hemlocks by the cabin dying slowly from disease, just as George is dying from his salivary gland cancer. Dogs also play an important role in this story although none fare as well as their human caregivers. Hay is a fine writer and an excellent story teller who once again has written a novel I would highly recommend.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Elvan

    Elizabeth Hay has grown as an author since her Giller Prize award winning novel Late Nights on Air. I recall being entertained by the goings on in a radio station in Yellowknife but little else. I won’t soon forget the characters or the themes she gives us in His Whole Life. The novel follows the lives of Canadian born Nancy, her American husband George and their son Jim. It is a coming of age story of sorts as Jim is 10 in the opening scenes and is an observer of the adults in his life. T Elizabeth Hay has grown as an author since her Giller Prize award winning novel Late Nights on Air. I recall being entertained by the goings on in a radio station in Yellowknife but little else. I won’t soon forget the characters or the themes she gives us in His Whole Life. The novel follows the lives of Canadian born Nancy, her American husband George and their son Jim. It is a coming of age story of sorts as Jim is 10 in the opening scenes and is an observer of the adults in his life. The author indicates in her preface that her book takes place during the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence. She carries the themes of separation and loss on many levels throughout her novel. She also points to the many and varied events in our lives which grow and shape us as human beings. When Jim asks the question “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” to his parents from the back seat of their Chevette the parents are as unable as he is to give voice to their thoughts. This book is one of those quintessential Can Lit novels that might seem overly slow and introspective to some readers. The pace is measured. The settings bring the characters to life. Nan and Jim’s joy of being set free when they spend time on the lake is contrasted with Jim’s struggles walking the streets of New York and George’s depressing isolated existence in their flat in the city. The questions posed throughout the novel are complex and I was impressed by the author’s ability to present a balanced look at all sides of the issues. Throughout the novel Jim is our Scout observing the actions and reactions of the adults in his life during difficult times. If you are looking for a quiet, thoughtful Canadian novel, I highly recommend His Whole Life. ARC received from publisher with thanks via NetGalley.

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