Little Sister

Don’t we all wonder what the lives of other people are like? Sometimes I can see into other apartment windows and I wonder: about their pets (mostly), their careers, what they love, what they are angry about, how they make their lives work. I’m not being creepy so much as looking for advice.

In Little Sister, Barbara Gowdy’s new novel, we meet Rose Bowan, 34, who owns a repertory theatre in Toronto. Rose’s theatre isn’t a money maker, her mother has dementia, her boyfriend is so-so, her career isn’t taking off, she eats too much and she hasn’t quite dealt with the traumatic death of her sister during childhood. Then something extraordinary happens to her ordinary, believable life. During a series of storms, Rose’s spirit (or soul or awareness or sense of being, whatever you want to call it—science is not the point here), is transported into a woman named Harriet. For a few moments at a time, Rose and Harriet live in the same body and Rose feels, sees and experiences everything Harriet does. Harriet seems unaware of the situation.

As it turns out, it’s uncomfortable in other people’s lives. Rose oversees things she shouldn’t and so do we. This forced entanglement exposes Rose to people she otherwise wouldn’t have met, and forces her to actually see people in her own life.

I’m not sure the lives of other people are entirely the point of Little Sister. It might be more about dealing with our own lives and heartache. And anyway, Harriet’s life isn’t so great either. She’s having an affair and she’s pregnant.

Speaking of not so great: why are the boyfriends of thirty-something characters always so boring, underwhelming and pedantic? Not bad guys, usually, but so much flatter and less interesting than the women in the novels. I always mentally confide to these women: you can do better. I don’t have an answer for this phenomenon and if I did, it probably wouldn’t be flattering to the women or the men. Anyway, they’re usually dismissed by the end of the novel with nary another thought—shed like skin. Free to move into someone else’s life.

Barbara Gowdy appeared at Events 14 (Grand Openings: The Alma Lee Opening Night Event) and 29 (Barbara Gowdy in Conversation with Caroline Adderson) of the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.

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