canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Textbook of the Rose 
by JoAnn McCaig 
Cormorant, 2000. 

Reviewed by K.I. Press 

The Textbook of the Rose tricked me. There it was, pulling out all the stops, bringing a tear to my eye, and, well, it's one of those things you can't give away in a review. This book, at its climax, was so successful in its manipulation of the reader (i.e. me) that I have to respect it for that. 

Not that I'd ever disrespect this book. It's solid, intelligent, imaginatively structured. But it's not until the purposely (and purposefully) shameless tear-jerking climax that I really engage with the story. 

The book peeks into the lives of several loosely connected characters, most of whom are academics. The characters are almost painfully familiar. Anyone who has been an academic slave will immediately recognize them. There are professors who philander with grad students; ambitious grad students who gladhand professors; an unappreciated sessional lecturer; members of the old guard washed away in a tidal wave of critical theory, political correctness and just plain politicking; a sporty, sensitive new age adonis who does yoga. 

I don't mean that they are stock characters; they are types because they really are types. I was resistant to this book when I began because I couldn't stand reading about all these people whom I knew and wished I didn't know. I felt embarrassed for them. And for myself. These are people who actually use phrases like "patriarchal hegemony" - and not ironically either - in conversation. I've met these people before, except, unfortunately, the guy who does yoga. 

The book is structured is sections named with medieval terms: a prologue in which the main character, Stella, is introduced in first person; six passus or "steps" in the story, each focusing on a different character in Stella's universe, sometimes closely related, sometimes peripheral; a chanson d'aventure, the romance-quest in which Stella meets and beds her young yoga-loving lover; another passus, this time from the point of view of Stella's ex-husband; a coda which revisits and closes the chanson d'aventure; and, finally, an epilogue bringing us back to Stellašs first-person, diary-esque narration. 

This structure was the saving grace for me because it afforded welcome relief from the academic setting, including the most compelling passus, the story of a nurse who has affair in the upstairs room while her patient, her lover's cousin, is dying of AIDS below. Besides providing variety and referring to Stella's academic calling, this structure contrasts with the postmodern affectations of Stella's world, while at the same time showcasing the modern romantic adventures of women within the venerable form used to showcase the ancient romantic adventures of men. 

But it plays with the conventions of the form in such a clever way that it tricked me into believing them. In the end, I, too, am trained for sappy endings. And then I just felt embarrassed for myself. Of course medieval literature isn't all horny knights and their patriarchal hegemony. 

The Wife of Bath figures prominently in this book. Everyone wants to know what women want, including the many women characters, searching for their own desires in a profound mid-life crisis sort of way. Only in looking back and thinking about this book as if I'm writing a term paper can I see what it's done, how it is so confident and imaginative in weaving these stories into this structure, and the fine old theme of women's desire into both. 

I got much more out of this book looking at it from a distance, seeing the forest, not the trees. The trees simply donšt excite me. It could be that I am just the wrong reader for it, too easily exasperated, a woman just not ready to hear all about hemorrhoids yet, thank you very much. I recognized these characters, but I did not relate to them; I saw people I didn't want anything to do with; I didn't see me, perhaps because I didn't want to see me. I am a romantic. This book is too honest. And I have to respect it for that.

K.I. Press is The Danforth Review's Reviews Editor.







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