My rating: 4/5 stars
Vero and her husband Shane have moved out of the sweet suite above his parents’ garage and found themselves smack in the middle of adulthood―two kids, two cars, two jobs. They are not coping well. In response to their looming domestic breakdown, Vero and Shane get live-in help with their sons―a woman from the Philippines named Ligaya (which means happiness), whom the boys call LiLi. Vero justifies LiLi’s role in their home by insisting that she is part of their family, and she goes to great lengths in order to ease her conscience. But differences persist; Vero grapples with her overextended role as a mother and struggles to keep her marriage passionate, while LiLi silently bears the burden of a secret she left behind at home.
Before I even started Between, there was a lot at stake. A story about a working mom of two, written by a working mom of two, set in contemporary Canada, raises my expectations. I want to see myself. I want to learn something about myself. I don’t want to feel misrepresented. I wonder if brooding middle-aged men feel this way about all the stories about/by brooding middle-aged men? Don’t answer that.
The synopsis of Between put me in mind of I Don’t Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson, a bit of a groundbreaker in the “two kids, two cars, two jobs” domestic novel. Now, I read IDKHSDI when I was 22, and had no clue about marriage, children, or work, for that matter. And I hated it. I found the main character insufferable and didn ‘t relate to her at all. I still think she was ridiculous for trying to disguise store-bought cupcakes as homemade, to keep up with the supermoms at pre-school. It was a lot of that, and “getting ahead” at work, and it fell flat. I didn’t care.
Unlike Pearson’s upwardly-mobile heroine, Vero is not particularly ambitious. To be ambitious, she’d have to have a goal. It’s hard to be goal-oriented when you’re chasing 1 and 3 year old boys, working, and dealing with your spouse and their dysfunctional family. Vero is in survival mode. Now that, I get.
Vero’s marriage isn’t exactly failing, it’s just plodding along like marriages with young kids tend to do. Someone gives Vero advice to the effect that couples with children under three should not be allowed to divorce. You’re not in your right mind. You haven’t slept in years. If you’re not a good partner it’s probably because you don’t have anything left to give.
They’re both delirious from lack of sleep. His words come to Vero as if spoken underwater, wavy and weak, parts of them floating away. She can’t tell whether the problem is his voice or her ears.
Abdou makes it tough to like Vero and Shane. They’re an awful representation of modern Canadian life, all consumerism and self-imposed stress, and so lacking in self-awareness, it makes you (ok, me) wonder: am like that too? I was reminded of Blind Spot, in which I related to a character who was revealed to be kind of terrible.
Ligaya, on the other hand, is easier to like. She’s overcome a lot to get to Canada, and has a tragic secret. Her Canadian life is kind of like that of a teenager – when she’s not caring for Vero and Shane’s children, she’s holed up in her room, or giggling with her girlfriend and trying on makeup. But 27-year-old Ligaya is more grown up than 42-year-olds Vero and Shane. She sees through their bullshit immediately.
The woman who meets Ligaya at the luggage carousel speaks no more of wealth than trees and rocks. She grabs at Ligaya’s hand, squeezes her fingers hard, and pulls Ligaya so close to her body that Ligaya hears herself squeak.
Wealth does not pull, Ligaya things. Money never needs.
The writing seems pretty straightforward, but there’s a lot of skill in balancing Vero and Ligaya’s stories, and having the dual perspectives serve as more than just a neat trick. Vero and Ligaya are revealed through each other’s eyes, and through what they don’t understand about each other.
They could talk about loneliness, not like sisters, maybe, but like friends. Even good friends. Lili would admit, Yes, yes, I am lonely. Vero imagines them having this conversation cross-legged on LiLi’s single bad, under the posters that LiLi has never taken down…
Why does Vero want to share a portion of LiLi’s pain?
She does not know.
Now, let’s get to the good stuff: Vero and Shane realize they can take advantage of their nanny to go on vacation alone, but rather than a typical 5-star resort, they go on a sex and weed soaked romp to Hedonism II in Jamaica. After a couple days “reconnecting” alone, shit starts to get real and much like at home, their selfishness and lack of self-awareness cause things to unravel. Shane and Vero think that “what happens in Jamaica stays in Jamaica,” but a chain reaction brings things to a climax (pun intended) at home, too.
The extent of Shane’s naivete takes all the wind out of Vero. “Don’t let Danielle do anything to you that you don’t want me doing to another man.” Vero can’t believe she has to explain this to Shane. Hearing herself say it aloud, she’s embarrassed, as if she’s just had to point to the hot stove element, as she would caution Jamal, and warn Shane: Hot! Hot!
Speaking of “Hot! Hot!” – the Jamaica chapters are delightfully sordid. Just a word of warning for anyone expecting a prim and proper domestic drama – this ain’t it. And that was a wonderful surprise!
Many excellent reviews have analysed this book in light of class, feminism, and foreign workers. Check out this interview with Edmonton Journal’s Liz Withey, or this review in Prism Magazine. That’s all there, but saying the novel is about those things doesn’t make it sound very interesting, does it? To me, the story is driven by fear. Fear of missing out, fear of getting old, fear of disappointing people, fear of losing your family, fear of never getting your family back. Fear of losing your identity. The differences and similarities between Vero and Ligaya’s fears are what makes the novel interesting.
My only misgivings with the book were some of the logical leaps that drove the plot. Shane’s a pharmacist, but he never considers that Vero could be clinically depressed, or even have postpartum depression. (Angie, I promise I’m not diagnosing your characters!) I didn’t understand Vero’s job situation, either. It didn’t seem like she had to be on site at any particular time, or at all, which made me wonder why a nanny was the only option.
That’s a small misgiving though. The whole point of the book is that it’s hard to know what goes on behind (between?) closed doors. Vero and Ligaya both want better lives, and both end up isolated and afraid. Between shows us the implications of wanting it all on a global and a domestic scale.
Bonus: A Reading Soundtrack
And, just because I haven’t done a reading soundtrack in a while, here’s Lily Allen’s The Fear. Though presumably about fame and not motherhood (it was written before Lily Allen had her children,) I think it calls out some of the feminist and class issues examined in Between. Plus, I just like Lily Allen, problematic videos and all.
I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore
And I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore
When do you think it will all become clear?
‘Cause I’m being taken over by the Fear
Thank you to the author for the review copy! The book launch was last week, and Angie was wonderfully candid. She explained that her prefered title for this book was Sweat, which I think would have been much better – gets at the ideas of class and work, but also the down and dirtiness!