By Cordelia Strube

Milosz is Cordelia Strube’s ninth novel, and with it she shows that she’s developed a comfortable rhythm working with all of her signature elements: witty, rapid-fire dialogue that plays against the background noise of overheard conversations, a messy ball-of-yarn plot, mordant observations on contemporary life, and a cast of likeable if flawed characters.

The effect is a bit like watching a sitcom or reality TV show, which is a comparison Milosz invites. Milo Krupi – everyone pronounces his last name “Crappy” – is a familiar Loser Lit shmuck, a “paunchy Everyman who can do nothing but blunder” and whose house has become an unofficial group home/drop-in centre for a bunch of fellow misfits.

By trade an actor, Milo’s abrasive, cynical personality only lands him bit parts in D-list productions and Canadian Tire commercials. And, it’s almost needless to say, he is unlucky in love. Dumped by his Latvian girlfriend and pining for the married woman who lives next door (and whose autistic son he disastrously tries to bond with), it seems Milo is fated to be just another well-meaning friend-without-benefits in this comic tale of frustrated ambition.

But that’s not quite the way it plays. To be sure, Milosz is all about love, but not the kind of love that drives a romantic-comedy plot. Rather, love is seen as a cross that everyone has to bear.

This is particularly the case when it comes to relations with family members: those parents, children, and significant others who we have to love and care for, no matter how mentally, physically, or emotionally messed-up they are. And from relationships like these there is no opting out. It is, Milo realizes, a pipedream that we can cut ourselves off completely, “as though a life can exist free of the constraints imposed by other lives. As though we’re all planets in our own orbits, revolving around one another without ever intersecting.”

No, in the real world these planets collide. We are born – without our asking, to parents not of our choosing – into the human condition of being dependent on others. Love is just another way to cope.

A theme like this could quickly lead to an overload of sentiment, but Strube is aware of the danger and prophylactically sends up the language of therapy-speak by way of a muscular Cuban toy boy who offers useless relationship advice and pop-spiritual platitudes. In addition, she tempers the humour with a lot of harsh and depressing reality checks. Mental breakdowns, school bullying, impotence, brain damage, a miscarriage, a near fatal car crash, and a case of what may have been child manslaughter are all tossed into the mix.

As usual with Strube, the complicated plot is nicely constructed, effectively managing a number of crosscutting storylines. And she also continues to demonstrate a real knack for creating complex, real characters whose lives come undone in funny ways without being mocking or superficial toward them. It’s a sad smile that accompanies her description of junk removers clearing out the wreckage of homes that have gone into default (“lives lost to landfill”), or the running gag about how no one knows what the meds they are on are actually supposed to do.

The only let down comes at the end, with a flurry of matchmaking and hasty patching up that Strube clearly doesn’t put much stock in. She’s already shown us that marriage isn’t an out, and that love is a trap no one ever escapes.

Review first published in the Toronto Star October 22, 2012.

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