REVIEW: From Away by Michelle Ferguson

From Away by Michelle Ferguson

“There is no law past here.”

My husband (then boyfriend) and I passed the hand-lettered sign on a dark stretch of highway on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick. The whale watching tour we’d planned was cancelled due to rain, so we decided to go off the tourist path to Dark Harbour. This side of the island was rough and isolated. After passing the sign, the road simply ended at a beach. This was not a tourist spot. The people there were working – getting on or off a boat while dulse was drying on racks. No one said hello or smiled. There was something about the situation that screamed “leave,” and we did.

Dark Harbour, Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick

Dark Harbour, NB. I took this picture just before the road ended. This place gave me the creeps.

The rest of our trip was all quaint B&Bs, cafes and gift shops. But we’d seen something else. Something that wasn’t meant for us. Some of my family had told us about a group of local vigilantes who burned a drug house down recently. Did the sign have something to do with that?

I thought about this experience as I read From Away. I share a lot in common with Marion, the main character. We are both from Alberta, but feel some claim on the East Coast, because “our people” are from there. Like Marion, I visit every couple of years and consider myself an honourary Maritimer. The premise of this book, an outsider trying to find her place in a small maritime
community, was interesting.

Quick martime slang lesson: “From away” means not from here, or more specifically, not born here. A more detailed description I found online: “If you can’t claim that at least three generations of your ancestors lived here–or if your ancestors are from here, but you’ve moved away and then returned–then you’re from away. If you’ve moved here–even if from the next community–then you’re from away.”

Marion is in the midst of a quarter-life crisis, though at 28 she’s pushing it. A perpetual student with no direction and no sense of where home is, she takes a summer off (of what, exactly, isn’t clear) to stay at her Uncle’s summer house in Lupin’s Point, Nova Scotia, a village on the outskirts of Halifax. She is soon entangled in the community’s dramas and falls for eligible bachelor Donny.

Lupins, New Brunswick

For the benefit of my Alberta readers: These are lupins. I took this picture near Saint John, New Brunswick.

The main drama, apart from the budding romance, is that a drug house has popped up on the outskirts of the village. The locals take matters into their own hands in a way that mirrored the real events on Grand Manan, though the real-life events were actually much more dramatic.

I enjoyed the plot and read this book really quickly. Even though there were no plot twists or big surprises, it was a satisfying story and gave me something to think about in terms of what it means to belong. Some of the characters are clearly insiders, and some are clearly “from away,” but there are people who straddle these categories. Donny, firmly an insider by birth, works in Halifax as  a lawyer, not exactly the traditional way of life. Crazy Hal, another insider by birth, actively tries to subvert the norms of Lupin’s Point, but can’t seem to break free. Lupin’s Point residents take care of their own, but that security comes at cost, leaving the residents isolated and distrusting.

My favourite resident of Lupin’s Point is matriarch Alice Lupin. Based on the author’s  grandmother, she is Marion’s guide and confidante. She is the centre of this novel to me, and I wish she could have narrated rather than Marion. She tells it like it is, like only an elderly woman can. While Marion dithers about her relationship with Donny, Alice says,

‘Now isn’t the time to deny your feelings. Come to terms with them, and know why your stomach’s in knots right now. Take the opportunity to know yourself. Make a purse out of a sow’s ear. I’ve watched the two of you dance around for a good time now. Humph. In my day, if you liked him and he liked you, you knew it and you did something about it. You’d be married soon if courting went well, or well enough.’

Though I enjoyed the book overall, I found it lacking in a few ways. Apart from Alice, the characters were shallow and I was often confused about their motivations. Marion is the biggest mystery of all. I’m not really sure why she came out East, if she accomplished what she set out to do, or why she fell for Donny. I don’t know why she expected to be instantly accepted into a community she’s never visited, let alone lived in. I don’t know why she feels so disconnected from her actual home in Calgary. And I REALLY don’t understand why she didn’t immediately pack up and leave on a number of occasions: getting shot at, having the entire village meet to discuss her whorish ways (really) or having her boyfriend of all of five minutes pretty much propose out of nowhere.

(Incidentally, it’s a little too convenient that in this very small community there just happens to be a tall, dark, handsome, smart, funny, professionally employed, family oriented SINGLE guy in his 30s!)

I also found the writing to be cliched. Donny’s eyes are forever crinkling, wrinkling, and occasionally twinkling. I can’t count how many times Marion is talking to herself, not knowing Donny is right behind her. As a long time Days of our Lives fan, I am telling you that device is tired. The dialogue is stilted and doesn’t have the regional flavour I expected. The writing works best when Ferguson goes for humour. Alice’s white-knuckle, stop and start, 20km/hr drive into town had me laughing out loud, and a scene where Marion is attacked by mosquitoes – symbolic of all the pressure she’s feeling – could have been really cheesy, but was effective because it was so funny and over the top.

The ending leaves things open for a sequel. In spite of the problems I had with this book, I would read a follow-up. I enjoyed the story, and would love to get a little deeper into how Marion does (or doesn’t) assimilate into Lupin’s Point. I also have a lot of respect for Michelle Ferguson. This is her first book, and she wrote it while holding down a day job AND raising five kids. FIVE. I can
barely manage a measly blog post every couple weeks.

Thank you to Brie at Eat Books for hosting the giveaway where I won this book! Check out her review and Q&A with the author. While you’re at it, you can follow Michelle Ferguson on Twitter at @fromawayauthor.

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15 comments

  1. Rick MacDonnell

    “I can’t count how many times Marion is talking to herself, not knowing Donny is right behind her. As a long time Days of our Lives fan, I am telling you that device is tired.” I actually laughed out loud at that. My mom is a massive Days fan (so much so that I refer to the show simply as “Days”), so I absolutely know what you’re talking about.

    This was really well done, Laura. I find those middle-of-the-road reviews are the hardest to write, where there aren’t really strong feelings either way. This was very measured, even handed, but honest.

    I always like reading your stuff. I wish you had more time to read. Damn kids! 😉

    • lauratfrey

      Funny, I know a lot of guys who know lots about Days, because “my mom watched it”… right… 🙂

      Thanks, I agonized over this one more than usual and I’m pretty happy with it. I’m reading another book set in Nova Scotia, this one on Cape Breton, and it’s a lot darker. Lots to write about.

      I am actually reading more… because I’m up all night… it’s the writing that’s difficult! I can’t write on my phone, need a real keyboard. That’s the tough part.

  2. Brie @ Eat Books

    I really enjoyed this review – well done! I have similar feelings about a lot of the things you said. Unfortunately, even though I’m the same age as Marion, I wasn’t able to relate to her that much. I just needed a little bit more, like why would she chose a little Maritime village to spend her summer in instead of “seeing the world” with her friends? I don’t remember Marion ever once calling or texting a friend while she was there. Did she not have any girlfriends? What about email and social networking? I just wanted to know her more…and why was she so hell-bent on getting everyone to like her and accept her, especially someone twice her age, like Alice?

    That being said, I agree, I would definitely read a follow-up to this book. I liked most of the characters and I found myself thinking about this book for a while after I read it. I would like to know what happened to Marion and Donny. I don’t know either if she accomplished what she set out to do so it would be neat to see where her head’s at now. Does she stay out East? Is Donny the answer to everything she was seeking?

  3. wallace

    Next time you visit Dark Harbour, don’t leave. Instead say “Hello” or “Hi”. I’m from away and live here on Grand Manan (for approx 6 yr now) My experience is that some people are shy when meeting or interacting with strangers but warm quickly when approached in a friendly manner.

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  7. Gaston

    Greetings! I know this is somewhat off topic but I was wondering if you knew where I could
    find a captcha plugin for my comment form? I’m using the
    same blog platform as yours and I’m having problems finding one?
    Thanks a lot!

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