Review: The Age of Hope by David Bergen

This year, as most of you know, Canada Reads has divvied up our true north strong and free into 5 regions: B.C. and Yukon, Ontario, Quebec, Atlantic, and Prairies and North.

Yes, Prairies and North.

The team at CBC Books is fabulous, and I don’t doubt that they put a lot of thought into these five categories (there have only ever been five books in a Canada Reads competition anyway), but it’s quite a shame that we couldn’t have “North” as its own entity. I know that personally, I rarely read works written by authors from the northern provinces and territories, though it’s not a conscious choice. I may read novels about people in the north, but written by Canadians from other parts of Canada.

Anyway, once I got over that (I did, I swear), I was thrilled that Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay was nominated. “Perfect,” I thought. “That’s a story that really defines a northern experience.” Alas, The Age of Hope by David Bergen, after only being on the shelves for less than four months, was chosen to represent “Prairies and North.”

“The Age of Hope” is being championed by Ron MacLean as the book Canadians should read this year. Now, this book was… good. Good, but not great. And, in my humble opinion, not the book that all Canadians should read this year.

The story is set in Eden, Manitoba, and follows the life of Hope Koop from the first time she meets her soon-to-be husband, to the day she dies. Hope was studying to be a nurse, but puts this aside to get married. She and her simple, sweet and straightforward husband, Roy, begin married life the way most new couples did in the 50s; find a routine (he works at the car dealership everyday, she goes shopping, runs errands, then makes dinner and “freshens up” in time for him to come home), then start having children. Hope seems unsure about her role as a mother, (“Do I love my children?”) and it gets more troublesome with each new baby born. This lack of connection is the catalyst for a new direction in the novel that pulls Hope away from her family and then, eventually, back to them again, finding they have gotten on without her.

It’s hard to explain the storyline of this book because there really isn’t one, definable story arc that takes place. I viewed it as simply a slice of an ordinary life. I didn’t actually think that was a problem – it’s rare, I think, that you find a story that doesn’t try too hard for bizarre characters, shocking plot twists or praise-worthy originality. Bergen writes the simple story of Hope’s life and the reader takes the ride with her.

I found this book slightly depressing. Compared to some of the books I’ve read recently (Indian Horse), it wasn’t depressing in an obvious way; I just found that it took secret fears that I’m sure most expectant mothers have at some point (“Will I be a good mother? What if I don’t love my children? What if my children aren’t a success?) and put them on the page starkly and unapologetically. That depressed me. I was sad for Hope that she was never truly happy, but never unhappy enough for her to make a break for it.

Hope was a very interesting character study. She seemed to have a lack of self awareness that, as she was the narrator/protagonist, we didn’t see until one of the other characters said something like “You’re getting fat.” We, as readers, had been under the assumption that Hope was as beautiful and striking as she had been throughout the book, but at this attack, we wonder whether she’s let herself go and, as she’s telling the story, we don’t know. Also? I just didn’t like Hope. Bergen wrote her quite well (in terms of a man writing in a female voice), but there were some scenes where he wrote her as my least favourite stereotype of a woman: weak. There are a few different moments in the book where Hope fishes for compliments pathetically, asking Roy if he loves her or not (knowing very well that he does), complains that she’s not good enough for him, etc. etc. There’s one scene where she gets mad at him on a dime and doesn’t really have a reason and it’s just so… unstable. Those are the types of conversations that men joke about in the locker room that make them say things like “you can never understand a woman” that just drive me up the wall. As if we’re all completely unreasonable and lack self confidence. Reading those moments of a woman sounding pathetic when the book is written by a man just made me want to ask Bergen, “So tell me, how do you really feel about women?”

So, should this book win Canada Reads? No.

1. This book deals with some mental health issues, but only somewhat. There are some real loose ends that languish a bit (no spoilers, so I won’t get into it) , and when it comes down to it, there’s no real resolution. There are other books in the running that deal with much more pressing issues for Canadians in terms of historical significance in the shaping of this country that I think we all need to understand better.

2. Ron MacLean will do a good job, I’m sure, but frankly? I have no idea why he picked this book. I remember at the official Canada Reads launch he said that he really connected with Hope despite the fact that it was a female voice, but surely he has to have more than that up his sleeve. I know there have been interviews with him posted since then, but I haven’t listened to them yet. I also think that the other panelists are going to view him as a threat (come on – it’s Ron MacLean) and that might lead to his early dismissal.

3. This book wasn’t Canadian enough for me. This got me into a bit of hot water in the Twitter chat we had about the book, but I stand by what I said. Yes, it took place in Eden, Manitoba, but to me it could have been any small town. Sure, there were trips to Winnipeg, but there were other things that I think could have been addressed that are part of life in Manitoba that weren’t. Now, to confirm: I am well aware that books written by Canadians don’t have to take place in Canada or be classified as “Canadian.” I simply think that if you’re going to call this year’s theme “Turf Wars,” then the books should really represent that region beyond all shadow of a doubt. All the other books in the Canada Reads top five really scream Canada, so I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the panelists brings that up as a negative for “The Age of Hope.”

This brings me to an interesting point that I’ve come across at various book clubs over the years but that has come up quite frequently in the Canada Reads twitter chats. I, or someone else, will state their opinion about the book and someone else will immediately reply with “I don’t think so at all,” and attempt to state the reasons why your opinion is invalid. What I love about having so many different people read the same book and talk about it is that there is no way that everyone will like the same book. That’s how it should be! If I say that I didn’t think a book seemed “Canadian,” it’s because to me, it didn’t. I read the book, and I know what came across and what didn’t. We’re all different readers. I adored “Late Nights on Air,” as I said, and I have so many friends that didn’t like it at all. That’s what is so wonderful about reading! There are so many different experiences to be had depending on who you are, where you live, where you were born, what age you are when you read the book, etc., that there’s no way we’re all going to have the same experience! I always side to the “let’s agree to disagree” camp. Yes, have healthy debate about why I think A and you think B, but at the end of the day, we’re both right.

Has this ever happened to you before? Have you ever had a vastly different experience reading a book than someone else?

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Jules says:

    I was also hoping Late Nights on the Air would have been picked for the Parries and the North category. It was a strong book, and heavily defines the North. Also, I agree with your points 1 and 3 on why it would not have won Canada Reads.

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