By Lisa Moore

When Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye came out in 1988 I remember asking my mother and sister about it and them telling me that, though it was very good, I wouldn’t find it interesting because it was a book “for women.” I simply wouldn’t get it. I thought this a bit narrow-minded – my mother and sister, you see, never studied – and so was surprised when, a little later, a friend of mine who was a prominent feminist academic described Cat’s Eye as a “woman’s book” and advised me to stay away from it. For whatever reason, it seemed this celebrated work by one of our most distinguished literary authors was simply considered off-limits to male readers. We were cordially not invited to examine its mysteries.

I may never know why, as I took their advice and still haven’t read Cat’s Eye. The idea that there are books for women and books for men has, however, stayed with me. Which is a long way of introducing Lisa Moore’s February, a book I should probably not have been allowed to read, much less review. Nevertheless . . .

February tells the story of Helen O’Mara, whose husband Cal died in the Ocean Ranger tragedy with all of his perfections upon his head, leaving Helen to raise a family of four children on her own while mourning his memory. As the novel begins Helen’s son Johnny calls to tell her that he is coming home to St. John’s with a pregnant girlfriend in tow.

Moore is very much an author of the female body, her fertile and multi-orgasmic heroines moving through an atmosphere of broody eroticism. Babies kick and nipples squirt and when we are presented with a mass of placenta sitting in a basin its odor – “pungent, mineral, ozone-tinted, fishy and rotting smelling” – seems all around us. Indeed when John calls his mother it is with the specific purpose of getting her “to dig deep into the secret womanly knowledge buried in the pheromones and cells and blood of that murky, heady thing he thought of as femininity, and report back.” In some ways the rest of the novel is that report.

It is a deeply maternal universe. Time and again sympathy, solicitude, and kindness for strangers is evoked, “geysers of love” and motherly feeling for vagrants, gas station attendants, and of course the unborn. There is no sense of evil, aside from nature’s rage in the sinking of the oil rig, and hence no conflict. The narrative doesn’t progress so much as gestate, roiling around through a series of flashbacks until the hatching and matching at the end.

The difference between books for women and books for men is clearest at the more commercial ends of the publishing spectrum. Some Harlequin romances are, apparently, written by men. But men don’t read them any more than women indulge in tripe like the macho Mack Bolan: Executioner series created by Don Pendleton (a series that is in fact published by a division of Harlequin). These are male and female demographic ghettos. Not surprisingly, the borders of the ghetto can be seen bleeding into our more commercially-oriented literary fiction: the dull, portentous romances of Michael Ondaatje on the one hand and the stupidly violent adolescent fantasies of Cormac McCarthy on the other.

What is disappointing about February is not that it is a book so markedly gendered, but that those parts of it are so transparently the stuff of commercial fiction. Moore’s debut, the excellent Alligator, had many of the same elements but tossed them into an original, fast-paced, and forward-moving plot. February shows flashes of how interesting a writer Moore can be – for example, Johnny’s initially reluctant attitude toward becoming a father is symbolized by having a candy wrapper with a girl’s picture on it sticking to his shoe, followed by his disposal of the wrapper into an air conditioner rendered as a nasty mechanical abortion – but much of the novel seems held together with a kind of teary hormonal paste, concluding with a bit of pure Hallmark Theatre wherein Helen gets her groove back with the help of an obliging handyman (and is he ever!).

All of which means this is a book that a lot of people are really going to enjoy. I feel like I was warned twenty years ago.

Review first published in the Toronto Star June 21, 2009.

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