The Beautiful Wife
by Leon Rooke
Published by Thomas Allen
172 pages, 2005
Buy it online
By Hook or By Rooke
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
A new work by the author Leon Rooke is an event. Wacky and wonderful, his stories tumble off the page, frequently convulsing his readers with laughter. He's funny, he's fresh, he's inventive and he plays with words, plot and character the way children play with bubbles in the bath.
So I began this new adventure, set in the Philippines and Toronto, with eager anticipation. I prepared myself to adore Viva and her gregarious mother, who are on holiday in the Philippines. It was supposed to be their annual vacation in their usual budget hotel in the Dominican Republic, but for reasons that become apparent later, their flight was rerouted by the charming pilot, Mr. Puppet. In fact, all flights are rerouted until the plot plays out and love conquers all.
The new accommodations, in a ritzy hotel complete with casino and mysterious lover who sweeps the usually cautious Viva off her feet, delight them both. I'm hooked.
In the course of time our heroine, who has been given an ominous leave of absence by the Refugee Board where she works, is seduced, almost drowns in a topical storm, is rescued by a honeymooning "mail order bride" who was herself rescued by a fellow passenger who saved her from this fate by marrying her and sees the distressed Viva as she is skydiving with her lover. Viva goes on to win the hearts of the locals and the children, to enter a beauty pageant and to perhaps change the world.
She is sometimes accompanied in her adventures by the ghost of her father who seems to want to do in death what he never did in life: pay some attention to her. He is not the only ghost. The oozing Filipino refugee, Marchusa, whose body has never been recovered by the Toronto police, but who is suspected of being murdered, possibly by the Philippino government, due to speculation that she is in possession of a pair of invaluable jeweled pumps that at one time belonged to none other than Imelda Marcus, also regularly haunts another family member, Finn. Finn is Viva's older brother, a slum landlord, and Marchusa was one of his tenants, referred to him by his sister prior to her sudden leave of absence.
Toronto-based Finn has a wife, currently estranged due to his ongoing attraction to Marchusa, even as a ghost, and a remote son who is currently involved with one of Finn's tenants, an older woman who cannot pay her rent.
We also meet a dubious man of the cloth, Father Sin, and his vicious, spying cat, as well as some animated television characters from Viva's childhood. And we meet the author himself, a man who is definitely not Rooke. This man is pedantic and self righteous, even boring. He has several exasperated researchers working on his behalf who keep taking the side of his estranged wife (perhaps because they are her?) and disappearing on him. This Beautiful Wife is herself a writer hell bent on martial mischief.
The thread stitching together this zany tale is the ultimate power of love. Love will find a way and lovers will be reunited.
But, in spite of Viva and a beginning that had ensnared me, I found myself wiggling on that hook halfway through the book, and reading ever more slowly. Ultimately I confess to scanning the last few chapters. How could this be? A writer like Rooke doesn't let the reader escape. What was wrong?
I got tangled up in the "other business" of the book. Rooke's style is to festoon the novel with footnotes that give us a plethora of characterizations, advance the plot and provide sometimes hilarious observations and information. He also liberally laces the narrative with communications from the author's bevy of researchers, letters that sometimes go on for pages.
So after hours of trying to read the main text and then slipping down to read copious footnotes that sometimes go on for three pages, along with reading pages of "from the desk of" correspondence from the researchers and then chasing back to pick up the main narrative, I just got frustrated and shook that hook out. It was just too untidy for me. I stopped caring and worse yet, fell out of love. But this doesn't mean I'm not ready to try again. | October 2005
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.