Ellen in Pieces traces a heart dented by experience

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Ellen in Pieces
By Caroline Adderson. HarperCollins, 315 pp, softcover

A splendid novel. Earthy, funny, complex, striking with its prismatic form, and wholly absorbing, Ellen in Pieces showcases Caroline Adderson’s mastery of language, tone, and storytelling as she turns her empathetic gaze to a messy, cut-short life of contradictions, missteps, and deeply felt fulfillment.

Ellen McGinty has been separated from silver-tongued playwright Larry Silver (and his mother, “an odious person, yet charmingly stuffed with Yiddish bons mots”) for 20 years as the story opens. A publicist living in North Vancouver, she’s a former Cordova Island hippie who one day discovered that Larry (an Angeleno now) had been “out sowing his wild oats, which he kept in a little bag between his legs”. At best, her bonds with her two daughters are tangled. (One’s fled Montreal after rehab, the other is a newly pregnant university student.)

In the present, Ellen is scraping by. She avoids her angry sister and unforgiving father, has modest hopes for her furious children, and measures the strength of a middle-aged heart that’s “all dented and bruised to mush”. (As for the whys, Adderson artfully fills in those surprising blanks.)

That iffy holding pattern changes with the arrival of Ellen’s father, thought to be suffering from Alzheimer’s. The uncomfortable reunion soon leads to revelations (as well as deaths and poignantly rendered scenes of hungry sexual love between Ellen and a representative of an unexpectedly young demographic).

Throughout, Adderson seduces and entertains with, what else, word craft. From birth (“Ellen was, in fact, at her lowest then, the most biblically wretched creature that had ever crawled the clodded surface of the earth”) to better-late-than-never wisdom (“He blushed, and it struck Ellen again how simple the world is for people under thirty, for whom love has barely been compromised by life. Love unopened, still in its shiny package”), the novel is filigreed with phrases to both ponder and savour.

Worried that maybe she drank too much, was a touch promiscuous, could never win a World’s #1 Mom prize, and never quite reached her full potential, Ellen is a remarkable creation because of the perfect ordinariness of her volcanic desires and flaws. And the arc of her life, as charted by Adderson, is an unadulterated pleasure to behold.

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