Over the past couple weeks while I've been off work, taking time off to finish my novel (fingers crossed), I've indulged in some reading as well. One of the novels I read was Elizabeth Hay’s first novel, A Student of Weather. After reading and loving Hay’s Giller-winning Late Nights on Air a few years ago, I was curious about how her writing evolved (I often find myself drawn to reading first novels of authors I admire, perhaps because I’m working on my first novel). Here, in Hay’s first novel, we get a smaller cast than in Late Nights on Air, but one that is comprised of characters no less eccentric and fascinating. The novel opens in 1930s Saskatchewan, where two sisters living on a farm in the sultry prairies fall for the same newcomer, Maurice Dove, a meteorologist from Ontario, or student of weather, who is doing research in the region. While Lucinda is the fair, beautiful, older sister who is good to a fault, it is the younger sister, Norma Joyce, who is secretive and deceptive and dark, almost foreign looking, that will go to no ends to snare him.
What is disturbing and riveting about Norma Joyce’s desire is that she feels it at such a young age. She is only nine the summer she becomes besotted with Maurice, while he is well into his twenties: "She memorizes every inch of him. Every inch of floppy, thick, brown hair, blue eyes and milky neckline, slender hips and slippered feet, and long, flat, clever fingers. No matter whether riffling through papers or pulling things out of his knapsack, he holds his fingers the way a piano player isn't supposed to." While the novel appears at first glance to be a classic love story centred on a love triangle, it ends up veering into much more interesting territory by turning into a kind of love story in reverse. Neither sister ends up with Maurice, but as their entanglements with him continue over some forty years – through Norma Joyce’s birth of their child out of wedlock, his rise to fame as a writer of popular books about weather, and his marriage to two other women – Maurice Dove’s character is gradually revealed to be anything other than good husband material. But what I found most compelling about the novel’s portrayal of this relationship is the way that despite seeing all his foibles, Norma Joyce’s desire persists – stubborn and irrational as desire is, like the weather itself. And when she confronts Maurice about the genuine nature of his feelings for her, years later, when they run into each other at an art gallery in Ottawa, he responds that no one has ever evoked in him more mixed feelings. Mixed feelings, rather than the more straightforward polarities of love and hatred, are what Hay seems to most enjoy putting under the microscope in this novel no less than in Late Nights on Air.
As I was thinking about how mixed feelings play out in A Student of Weather, I came to realize that many of the novels that stay with me and continually tease my mind are centred on love relationships similarly stymied. Lily Bart’s and Selden Lawrence’s interminable mind games in The House of Mirth, for instance. In the end, it isn’t getting together that matters, for they recognize they would be miserable together (Lily craves a level of luxury that he can’t offer her, while Selden treasures his independence), and yet, until the very end, their desire for each other persists, mixed with something bleaker because they know their feelings will always be thwarted. Mixed feelings, indeed. In a way, aren’t these the relationships that linger most vividly in our memories, whether we like it or not? As those of you who have read my memoir will know, I’ve had a few mixed feelings myself over the years and, like Elizabeth Hay, I seem to find them more creatively productive to write about than the simple feeling of being in love.
Photo from: here