Format: Trade Paperback, 384 pages
Publisher: Anchor Canada
ISBN: 978-0-385-67155-2 (0-385-67155-5)
Pub Date: August 7, 2012
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“It’s beautiful,” I said, even though it wasn’t my style. It was cut glass and silver. Something a movie star might wear. Is this what my boy thought of me? I wondered as he fastened it around my neck. He called me Elizabeth Taylor and I laughed and laughed. I wore that necklace throughout the rest of the day. In spite of its garishness, I was surprised by how I felt: glamourous, special. I was out of my element amidst my kitchen cupboards and self-hemmed curtains. I almost believed in a version of myself that had long since faded away.
--From Natural Order by Brian Francis
Joyce Sparks has lived the whole of her 86 years in the small community of Balsden, Ontario. “There isn’t anything on earth you can’t find your own backyard,” her mother used to say, and Joyce has structured her life accordingly. Today, she occupies a bed in what she knows will be her final home, a shared room at Chestnut Park Nursing Home where she contemplates the bland streetscape through her window and tries not to be too gruff with the nurses.
This is not at all how Joyce expected her life to turn out. As a girl, she’d allowed herself to imagine a future of adventure in the arms of her friend Freddy Pender, whose chin bore a Kirk Douglas cleft and who danced the cha-cha divinely. Though troubled by the whispered assertions of her sister and friends that he was “fruity,” Joyce adored Freddy for all that was un-Balsden in his flamboyant ways. When Freddy led the homecoming parade down the main street , his expertly twirled baton and outrageous white suit gleaming in the sun, Joyce fell head over heels in unrequited love.
Years later, after Freddy had left Balsden for an acting career in New York, Joyce married Charlie, a kind and reserved man who could hardly be less like Freddy. They married with little fanfare and she bore one son, John. Though she did love Charlie, Joyce often caught herself thinking about Freddy, buying Hollywood gossip magazines in hopes of catching a glimpse of his face. Meanwhile, she was growing increasingly alarmed about John’s preference for dolls and kitchen sets. She concealed the mounting signs that John was not a “normal” boy, even buying him a coveted doll if he promised to keep it a secret from Charlie.
News of Freddy finally arrived, and it was horrifying: he had killed himself, throwing himself into the sea from a cruise ship. “A mother always knows when something isn’t right with her son,” was Mrs. Pender’s steely utterance when Joyce paid her respects, cryptically alleging that Freddy’s homosexuality had led to his destruction. That night, Joyce threatened to take away John’s doll if he did not join the softball team. Convinced she had to protect John from himself, she set her small family on a narrow path bounded by secrecy and shame, which ultimately led to unimaginable loss.
Today, as her life ebbs away at Chestnut Park, Joyce ponders the terrible choices she made as a mother and wife and doubts that she can be forgiven, or that she deserves to be. Then a young nursing home volunteer named Timothy appears, so much like her long lost John. Might there be some grace ahead in Joyce’s life after all?
Voiced by an unforgettable and heartbreakingly flawed narrator, Natural Order is a masterpiece of empathy, a wry and tender depiction of the end-of-life remembrances and reconciliations that one might undertake when there is nothing more to lose, and no time to waste.
From the Hardcover edition. Extras
20 Writerly Questions for Brian Francis
1. How would you summarize your book in one sentence?
A mother must come to terms with the secrets she kept surrounding the life—and death—of her only child.
2. How long did it take you to write this book?
Seven years (give or take a day or two!)
3. Where is your favorite place to write?
I don’t really have a “favourite.” Just an “only” place to write. It’s upstairs in the den at the computer. But I face the window and the view is nice.
4. How do you choose your characters’ names?
I like names that are strong and easy to remember. So I’ll usually go with something that feels right in my gut. Often, we meet people in real life who don’t suit the names their parents gave them. Writers are lucky in that we get to name a character after he or she has been created in our minds. I’ve also used the names of real life relatives for minor characters. There’s a character in Natural Order who is named after my great aunt. My dad’s first and middle names also appear in the obituary at the start of the book. It’s my way of including people who aren’t around to read it.
5. How many drafts do you go through?
A lot. I’ve heard the second book is the hardest to write and based on my experiences, there’s a lot of truth in that. All in all, I think the book was rewritten about seven or eight times.
6. If there was one book you wish you had written what would it be?
A Bird in the House by Margaret Laurence. There are so many perfect moments in that book, particularly “The Loons,” one of my favourite short stories of all time.
7. If your book were to become a movie, who would you like to see star in it?
I think Shirley MacLaine would make a terrific Joyce Sparks.
8. What’s your favourite city in the world?
I don’t really have one. I’m not much of a world traveler, but hopefully, that will change in the second half of my life. In all honesty, my favourite cities are the ones where I have a sense of my own history. Places I worked, went to school, fell in love, etc.
9. If you could talk to any writer living or dead who would it be, and what would you ask?
I would love to sit Alice Munro down over a slice of pie and ask her, “What’s the price you’ve paid for writing the stories you did?”
10. Do you listen to music while you write? If so, what kind?
Not generally, as I find it too distracting. Although I did listen to On Yoolis Night: Medieval Carols and Motets by Anonymous Four while working on the rewrites for Natural Order. I also had the Fireplace channel on. It was great!
11. Who is the first person who gets to read your manuscript?
That’s a tough one. It depends on how confident I’m feeling about it. The first person to read Natural Order was the freelance editor I hired. I knew the book wasn’t working and asked her to help me figure out what was wrong. I’m glad I listened to her.
12. Do you have a guilty pleasure read?
Cookbooks. Does that even count? I get sucked in by cookbooks with pictures of chocolate sauce drizzling over cake tops or loaves that look like they weigh 20 pounds with all that butter in them.
13. What’s on your nightstand right now?
I have a copy of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell that I have yet to read.
14. What is the first book you remember reading?
Aside from children’s books, I suppose the first fiction book I remember reading was How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell. I still remember when the kids in the book rolled the worms in cornmeal and dipped them into ketchup. Ugh. Talk about a book that left a lasting impression!
15. Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes, from as far back as I could remember, although I kept it mostly to myself.
16. What do you drink or eat while you write?
No eating, because that interferes with the typing. But definitely coffee in the morning and maybe a decaf green tea in the evening. I’ve been known to indulge in a little hot chocolate if it’s snowing outside. And red wine is always welcome.
17. Typewriter, laptop, or pen & paper?
18. What did you do immediately after hearing that you were being published for the very first time?
I don’t really remember. I probably sat there with my jaw on the table. There’s such a mixture of emotions: excitement, fear, pride, vulnerability.
19. How do you decide which narrative point of view to write from?
I try to find one that makes it a challenge for me and point of entry for the reader. It’s not easy to write from the point of view of a 13-year-old kid or a 85-year-old woman, but I like constraints. It makes my creativity work harder, which hopefully leads to a stronger story.
20. What is the best gift someone could give a writer?
Time. And the reassurance that the next book is just around the corner, waiting to be written.
“Good, sharp, vivid writing.... When he hits the emotional high notes, Francis never wavers. In fact, if you value your dignity, I implore you not to read the final sixty pages in a public place: You will cry, hard, probably more than once.”
—The Globe and Mail
“Natural Order is structurally complex, highly readable, and poses interesting questions about generational change and the divide between small-town and big city lifestyles. . . . Illuminating and moving.”
—Quill & Quire
“A remarkably honest and uniquely Canadian book. . . . and an emotional story skillfully drawn.”
—Fashion (Zoe Whittall)
“(Brian Francis’s) prose kept reminding me of Alice Munro, not only in its unfussy precision, but in its constant refusal of easy sentimentality. . . . Very affecting.”
—National Post (Scott MacDonald)
“Good, sharp, vivid writing . . . when he hits the emotional high notes, Francis never wavers. In fact, if you value your dignity, I implore you not to read the final 60 pages in a public place: You will cry, hard, probably more than once.”
—The Globe and Mail
“In this at once sad and uplifting story, Francis inhabits the mind of an elderly woman episodically remembering her life and coping with her son’s sexuality and early death. . . . The novel is smart enough to complicate Joyce’s dilemmas by addressing not just the constraints of small-town society in the ’50s and ’60s, but also the issues facing seniors today. In a quietly political gesture, Francis makes a compelling commentary on the way seniors are treated in our society.”
“Wonderful.... Francis nails every detail of a small-town mother’s love.”
—Kathleen Winter, author of Annabel
“Beautifully written, as affecting as it is convincing. At once funny, touching and fearless, the delicate strands woven between mothers and sons are powerful.”
—Anthony De Sa, author of Barnacle Love
“We need more books like this one: alive with a singular pulse, cheeky, honest, achingly tender. This book will syncopate your heart. Brian Francis reminds us to live, and love, bravely. I am still catching my breath.”
—Jessica Grant, author of Come, Thou Tortoise
“An extraordinary read. Francis is a master at creating vivid characters. Joyce Sparks is unforgettable. Her touching life story will leave you both hopeful and wiser.”
—Neil Smith, author of Bang Crunch
“In Natural Order, Brian Francis gets it all—the sharp, to-the-bone wit of people with no time left to waste, plus compassion for difficult characters who, out of love, misunderstanding and fear, have made each other’s lives harder to bear. A feat of humane literary empathy.”
—Joan Barfoot, author of Exit Lines
"Honest, tender and mesmerizing, Brian Francis' Natural Order is a must-read."
—Ami McKay, author of The Birth House
“I was much moved by Natural Order.... Here is a writer of quality, a storyteller with a deep sensitivity that challenges and enriches his readers."
—Wayson Choy, author of Not Yet
From the Hardcover edition.
Brian Francis’ first novel Fruit was a finalist in the 2009 CBC Canada Reads competition. The story of a gay teenager growing up in Sarnia, it was named one of NOW Magazine’s Top 10 Books of the Year, picked as a Barnes and Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and was described by Entertainment Weekly as "sweet, tart, and forbidden in all the right places.”
The recipient of the Writers’ Union of Canada 2000 Emerging Artist Award, Francis has also worked as a freelance writer for a variety of magazines and newspapers. He grew up in Sarnia, Ontario, and now lives in Toronto.
Natural Order is his second novel.
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