I ended up reading this book (Heather O'Neill's The Girl Who was Saturday Night) much sooner than I expected, as I thought it would take at least another month to turn up at the library. It was a pretty quick read, however, at least in part because the majority of the chapters were short.
The story is set in late 1994 and 1995, and indeed the 1995 referendum on Quebec's independence becomes central to the story. I've been spending a lot of time thinking about this period, though actually I am working on a story set in 1993/94 and I am focusing on Toronto, where people paid very little attention to the separatist threat until the very tail end of 1994. There were quite a number of upheavals in Ontario as well, though most of those were 1996 and '97 (particularly the amalgamation of Toronto, which was pushed through in 6 months). That's one of the things that is hard to get used to about Canada, that things can change in the blink of an eye, relatively speaking, particularly when compared to the glacial change of political institutions in the U.S. Though the status quo is pretty enduring. I hope it isn't considered a spoiler to reveal that the people of Quebec voted Non in an incredibly close election (51% to 49%). It was actually closer than the recent referendum on Scottish independence. Several observers do wonder if there had been another week or two if the Oui vote would have prevailed. I haven't read it yet, but Chantal Herbert's book is all about what might have happened had Quebec voted for independence, as it wasn't at all clear how things would have unfolded.
As I mentioned in passing in this post, it is always tricky when appropriating others' stories. (For instance, I definitely have to question the wisdom of writing a history of a family named "Tremblay," when that territory was already staked out by Michel
Tremblay.) I don't say that authors shouldn't write about characters outside their class, but it can always get dicey. In this case, O'Neill is writing pretty extensively about a bohemian class that she doesn't really seem to fit into. Her background is basically a reasonably privileged Anglo who went to McGill. (In this sense, Gabrielle Roy, or even Michel Tremblay for that matter,
will get a pass when writing about the working poor in The Tin Flute or in Les Chroniques du Plateau-Mont-Royal, but I had trouble swallowing it from O'Neill who just cannot really fathom what it is to be Quebecois, no matter how much time she spent among them.) The only character who remotely inhabits her world is Adam, the occasional boyfriend of Nouschka Tremblay. What was interesting to me is that delving into this bohemian and/or working poor class didn't bother me too much at the start of the book, but my reservations kept increasing as it went along, particularly in the chapters focused on the referendum and its immediate aftermath. There is a lot of discussion about the Quebecois and their penchant for backing the wrong horse in a race, etc. that would be somewhat acceptable if written by a Francophone, but coming from O'Neill just seems like she is starting to channel Mordecai Richler.
All that said, I did like this very short passage. Nouschka is taking Loulou, her somewhat frail grandfather, to the doctor and generally is not too impressed with the doctor's treatment: "'Are you voting Oui ou Non?' That got his attention. The doctor looked up at the old babbling lunatic, whose Oui vote could put on end to the life he was enjoying. English speakers had an absolute horror of separation, and scores of them had left after the first referendum. Loulou smiled innocently at the doctor."
Nouschka is the Saturday Night girl from the title. It is never spelled out where she gets that title, and I don't believe she is ever called that by anyone in the novel itself, but it probably comes from her wanted to have a good time and not caring much about the consequences. Her twin brother, Nicolas, may be an even more extreme case, but she generally favours short term pleasures over longer-term goals. However, she ends up the only person in her family who graduated from high school and she is even making plans for college, though these are constantly in danger of being thwarted for a variety of reasons I'll go into after the spoiler break. For a pretty decent spoiler-free review, you can look here.
Ok, SPOILERS follow.
I have to say given the huge number of stray cats that pass through the small apartments on Montreal's Boulevard Saint-Laurent, I wonder if O'Neill was ever tempted to call the book The Girl with the Morals of a Cat, since she seems to have slept with most of the young men on the street and even some older ones. (She explains this by saying everyone in Montreal slept together due to the cold -- again, maybe O'Neill is going just a bit too far here.) It's not that surprising that Nouschka gets pregnant. What is more surprising is that she waits until she is married and is 20 years old. Her twin got a 15 or 16 year old girl pregnant when they were both in their teens. And the twins' mother bore them at 14 and then abandoned them. Their father is a legendary (in Quebec) folk-singer who is almost never around, so they are raised in squalor by their grandfather. (Now I like cats, but the idea that cats from the neighbourhood are allowed in and out of everyone's apartments and are getting into food and such was just disgusting.) The twins are all but inseparable, which is frequently tied to their growing up motherless and essentially fatherless. That's understandable, but then for them to sleep in the same unmade bed (unless one is having sex in it), surrounded by filth, was just another case of O'Neill taking it that one step too far.
However, Nouschka decides that she can only make something of her life (like graduate night school and keep her job) by starting to put some distance between her and her brother. They have tried and failed at this in the past, and she takes the fairly radical step of marrying Rafael Lemieux, the only other young man even more emotionally volatile than her brother. He was once a champion figure skater but let the pressure get to him and he cracked. Like everyone else on the street (apparently) he dropped out of school and got into petty crime, including some drug dealing and illegally breeding dogs (perhaps for dog fights). Anyway, people treat him as if he is a ticking time bomb, though he manages to keep down a job as a hospital orderly for most of the novel. There is much that is not revealed about Rafael's past, though I started wondering whether O'Neill wanted to hint that he had been sexually abused by his skating coach. I'm not saying that is what she was implying, but I started to get a feeling that only a secret of that magnitude would completely explain his erratic behaviour.
While the wedding is quite a success (and her father shows up and sings his wedding song, making it a red letter day for the street), it really shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the marriage is pretty rocky. Nicholas keeps trying to butt in and break up the marriage. Eventually the pressures of having a baby and, to a slightly lesser extent, the referendum cause the two to separate. Things spiral out of control for Rafael, and even for Nicolas, who needs to pay $3000 in child support before he can visit his child. Crime beckons, though I guess I am grateful that O'Neill didn't come up with a scheme where both Rafael and Nicolas went in on the same caper, as that would have been just too trite.
While I don't really want to reveal it, I found the ending to be a bit too optimistic, given all that had come before. (Actually, one of these days I'll have to reread Slesinger's The Unpossessed to see how she wraps up a novel about Greenwich Village bohemians, who might even have been more f'ed up than these latter-day misfits (ill-matched lovers, crazed poets, and small-time crooks, often all at the same time).) The Girl Who was Saturday Night is definitely worth a read, but I am very glad not to have to meet any of these individuals up close, particularly late at night in a dark alley in Montreal...