Sexuality and sexual obsessiveness have been prominent features of Giller-winner (for 2005’s The Time in Between) David Bergen’s past novels (The Retreat, The Case of Lena S.), so it comes as something of a surprise to find him taking a demure turn in his era-spanning portrait of a housewife from a small Manitoba town.
The Age of Hope opens with a promising mix of tragedy and intrigue when Hope Plett’s first love dies in a plane crash moments after flying over her house. After the funeral, though, Hope’s “emotions settled down and she began to understand his death as something that had happened to him, not to her.” The incident, barely mentioned again, establishes a recurring pattern in which potentially ruinous personal setbacks get downgraded to red herrings as a result of our protagonist’s ability to soldier on through life.
Ruinous personal setbacks are, alas, also the stuff of compelling fiction. And it doesn’t help that Bergen opts for a dogged linearity in telling Hope’s story; one that, after a time, takes on the numbing quality of a long, radioless prairie drive with only the odd pothole to jolt us to attention.
Accordingly, it’s hard to write a summary of the novel that doesn’t read like a lengthy obit. Born in 1930, Hope is the only child of a schoolteacher mother and baker father, the latter a Mennonite “backslider” with an impious lust for life. Hope starts nursing school but gives it up when she marries Roy Koop, who owns the local car dealership. Roy and Hope enjoy a solid, smooth ride of a marriage, although after her fourth child Hope suffers a nervous breakdown (red herring alert). But the electroshock therapy she receives in hospital works and the incident never repeats itself. Her children grow up and face various struggles — one has a nasty divorce, one is gay, another moves to France and marries an older man. Roy and Hope fall on hard times after Roy loses the dealership in the early ’80s (red herring alert), but the couple eventually adjust to their modest new lifestyle. After Roy dies unexpectedly in his sleep, Hope takes up, briefly, with an educated widower who lives in her condo before dying peacefully in her 80s.
Bergen’s attempts to elevate the mundane to the sublime too often never get off the ground. When Hope goes to a café in Paris, for example, we’re told: “She drank an espresso, and then ordered a toasted ham sandwich and drank some sparkling water.” Where’s Proust’s madeleine when you need it?
The paradox of the novel is that Bergen thwarts his laudable, albeit rather shopworn, aim of demonstrating that the “plain life” of an intra-war-born ’50s housewife is full of rich, untapped complexity. Despite the close third-person narrator’s various declarations about Hope, that “an engine deep inside her . . . had been switched on” or that she “was like that innocent-looking cloud on the horizon that becomes a tornado,” we never really see evidence of these things. Hope’s few acts of rebellion — driving her daughter’s friend over the border for an abortion or giving her ex-daughter-in-law a tongue-lashing at the department store — remain exceptions to an uninspiring life, so that by novel’s end she actually seems oddly prudish and unevolved.
There’s some unintentional irony late in the novel when Hope’s daughter Penny announces she’s planning to write a novel based on her mother’s life. Hope counters by saying that Emily, the freethinking feminist friend who introduced her to R.D. Laing and Betty Friedan, might be a more interesting subject. Bergen gambles and loses on this one: as readers it’s hard not to agree, although Penny never gets around to writing the novel anyway.