Tagged: Molly of the Mall
Molly of the Mall by Heidi L.M. Jacobs
Jane Austen-inspired novels are so numerous and varied that they form not just a distinct genre, but many subgenres. There are alternate points of view, prequels and sequels, genre crossovers, and modern retellings. Then there are novels that don’t adapt or retell or modernize, they simply appreciate. Molly of the Mall by Heidi L.M. Jacobs is one of these, and because it doesn’t hold too tightly to the source material, it is much more than another Austenesque novel.
Molly is a satire, a campus novel, a bildungsroman, and a romance. It’s an appreciation of Austen, but also of Woolf, Eliot, the Brontës, Hardy, Burns, and Daniel Defoe, among many others (Molly is named after Defoe’s scandalous heroine Moll Flanders, one of many delightful literary character names.) It’s also a celebration of Edmonton as a literary city.
Molly MacGregor is an aspiring “authoress”, studying English at the University of Alberta and selling shoes at West Edmonton Mall circa 1995. This is the era of card catalogues in the library and captive peacocks in the Mall – a far cry from today’s Edmonton, and far from where Molly wants to be. She finds Edmonton too cold, too bleak, and too bland a place from which to realize her literary and romantic ambitions. She spends much of her time in imagined conversation with her favourite authors and heroines, primarily “Miss Austen.”
Austen heroines don’t always have the most useful romantic advice, though. Upon spying her crush, Molly wondered:
“What would Persuasion’s Anne Elliot do now”? but then realized she would nod cordially, and proceed walking down the Mall, using her sensible millinery to prevent meaningful eye contact with a man not formally introduced to her. This might be why I so rarely summon Persuasion in my daily life decisions.
Austen’s oft-quoted writing advice, that “three or four families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on,” isn’t much help either. Molly laments that “coming from Edmonton was strike one for an aspiring writer.”
But Edmonton books are just as varied and diverse as Austen-inspired books, and as relevant to Molly’s interests, covering campus life (Michael Hingston’s The Dilettantes), retail ennui (Shawna Lemay’s Rumi and the Red Handbag), and West Edmonton Mall itself (the title story of Dina Del Bucchia’s Don’t Tell Me What To Do). There are even Janites in Edmonton: Melanie Kerr wrote Pride and Prejudice prequel Follies Past, and Krista D. Ball puts Lizzie and Darcy modern-day McCauley in First (Wrong) Impressions.
None of these books had been published in 1995, though. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, another of her literary confidants, Molly would have to write the great Edmonton novel herself.
Molly aspires to serious literature, with plans for a “watershed Canadian coming-of-age novel,” and a “historically accurate, gothic bodice-ripper set in Saskatchewan”, but this novel is a comedy. Molly’s modern-day woes and Regency-era sensibilities make for delightfully funny observations about subjects as diverse as academia, consumerism, and the dateability of Oasis’ Gallagher brothers. The Edmonton-specific details are a treat, and mall workers the world over will relate to the staff rivalries, tedious closing shifts, and ubiquitous Boney M. Christmas music.
The humour rarely misses, though Molly’s novelistic plans, complete with comparisons between classic literary tropes and their Canadian equivalents (Heroines and Heifers, Passions and Pastures) are really only funny the first couple of times. Much better are Molly’s flights of fancy about classic literature, such as this Middlemarch-inspired daydream:
Passing Mall Security, I imagined bursting, breathlessly, into their inner sanctum, declaring, “This is urgent! I must address the shoppers! No time to explain.” I imagine they’d scratch their matching shaved heads and then hand over the PA system mic. “Attention shoppers,” I would start, “I have been reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch non-stop for the past three weeks, and I must tell you this. After 593 pages, Will Ladislaw has just kissed Dorothea. What does this have to do with you? It has everything to do with you. This is literature’s finest kiss. Here, let me read it to you.”
All this satire is hung on a rather low-stakes romantic plot. Molly has many suitors, but they’re nearly interchangeable, except for the “turtleneck” (Molly’s term for her pretentious classmates) who makes unwanted advances and is never heard from again. One of her admirers is her own sister’s ex-boyfriend, but this is never addressed. This seems like a situation rife for conflict in a book that could have used more of it.
The romance eventually comes to a neat conclusion, allowing the literary to take centre stage. Jacobs takes a real gamble in the last act, having Molly complete a year-end assignment on a “cheese poet” that is almost too outlandish, and too specifically Canadian, but she pulls it off. The details are best discovered by the reader, but it not only works as a comedic triumph, it also proves that Molly can indeed write from and about Edmonton, and that she doesn’t have to fall in with tired “nature and survival” CanLit tropes. A great Canadian novel can be about anything, even a shoe store in Phase III of West Edmonton Mall. It can even be funny.