Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Canterbury Sisters by Kimberly Wright

The Canterbury Sisters by Kim Wright
Published May 2015 by Gallery Books
Source: NetGalley

Publisher's Summary:
In the vein of Jojo Moyes and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, a warm and touching novel about a woman who embarks on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral after losing her mother, sharing life lessons—in the best Chaucer tradition—with eight other women along the way.

Che Milan’s life is falling apart. Not only has her longtime lover abruptly dumped her, but her eccentric, demanding mother has recently died. When an urn of ashes arrives, along with a note reminding Che of a half-forgotten promise to take her mother to Canterbury, Che finds herself reluctantly undertaking a pilgrimage.

Within days she joins a group of women who are walking the sixty miles from London to the shrine of Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, reputed to be the site of miracles. In the best Chaucer tradition, the women swap stories as they walk, each vying to see who can best describe true love. Che, who is a perfectionist and workaholic, loses her cell phone at the first stop and is forced to slow down and really notice the world around her, perhaps for the first time in years.

Through her adventures along the trail, Che finds herself opening up to new possibilities in life and discovers that the miracles of Canterbury can take surprising forms.

My Thoughts:
I wouldn't normally include, in the publisher's summary, the publisher's comparison to other authors but in this case, I thought it was worth discussing both for the author's they mentioned and the author they didn't.

Cheryl Strayed loaded up a backpack and took off on a journey entirely on her own. The group of women Che joins is being lead by an experienced guide with a following van which carries most of their belongings and scheduled stops along the way at places to sleep and eat. It hardly seems like the same thing. For me, Moyes' greatest strengths are her strong characters and her ability to make her readers empathize with them. It's something easier done with a smaller cast of characters than Wright is wrangling in The Canterbury Sisters. Still, it can be done, which brings me to the author I would have chosen as a comparison, Erica Bauermeister. Bauermeister's books always pull together a group of diverse characters and then allows each of them time to tell their own stories, just as Wright has done here.

In The Canterbury Sisters, Wright appears to be less interested in pulling the reader into the lives of each of the women Che travels with than in using each of their tales as a way for Che to learn and grow. I often found myself forgetting who was who in the group, in fact, despite the fact that I really enjoyed many of their stories. And Che? I gotta say that there were times I thought she was a catty, judgmental bitch. Then there were times I really felt for her as she struggled with finding herself alone at nearly fifty years old, still living under the shadow of her larger-than-life mother and addict father. This being the kind of story it is, I don't think I'm spoiling anything for anyone when I say that it takes the entirety of the journey for Che to learn to appreciate each of the women for who they are and to sympathize with them for what they have been through and for her to understand what she needs to do to move forward with her life.

The Canterbury Sisters is not the kind of story I'd generally pick up but Wright comes highly recommended. Know I know why. There were so many places where I really thought the writing was remarkable, where it really spoke to me and those passages alone would have made the book worth reading.
"I hadn't counted on there being so much difference between going and gone. Going is busy. Going has tasks involved with it - meeting with doctors and social workers, snaking your way through the system to find an empty bed in a decent place, cashing out mutual funds, and putting furniture in storage. Going demands many visits and at times, during them, you begin to think these Judas thoughts. You think that it would be better for everyone if she weren't still here, so trapped and suffering, and you imagine that when you get that final call, it will be a relief.
And it is, at least at first. But after a week or so, life goes back to what people call normal, and only then do you start to realize that going was easier than gone. It's only then that you face the final silent emptiness that's at the heart of every human death, and it's not just a matter of the extra hours that suddenly appear in the day, strangely difficult to fill, it's also that there's nowhere to put the mental energy that circles around the space your mother once occupied."
"Most families have their official stories, I'd imagine, and they tell them to each other over and over, each repetition reassuring both the speaker and the listeners that the world is an understandable place. I suppose you could even argue that the very act of telling a story is an act of faith, for it advances the belief that life truly has a beginning, middle and end. The belief that we're all headed somewhere, that the seemingly random events of our lives mean something, that tomorrow will be more than just a repeat of yesterday, all over again."
"I've always thought the greatest skill a wife can possess is the ability to judiciously forget certain things, to just delete them right out of her brain at will. Because that's what we've been talking about this whole time, haven't we? The difficulties women have in understanding we never really see them, really know them, even after years of love and marriage?"
Perhaps the most unique part of Wright's writing was her ability to acknowledge when she was falling back on the stereotypes:
"No doubt you're way ahead of me on all of this. No doubt you've seen what was coming form the minute you learned that the letter was sent from an office."
And, of course, most readers will have. But Wright's willingness to admit to it makes it is a rarity.
I enjoyed the literary references Wright included throughout the novel, from the expected Chaucer tales to the myth of Psyche and Eros, the tale of Sleeping Beauty and the story of Romeo and Juliet. Throw in a little history of Canterbury and history of the pilgrims to the cathedral for added interest. Wright says, in the acknowledgments, that she actually traveled the Canterbury trail and it shows in the details she has included.

Although the set up of the book is nothing new, there is plenty here to recommend the book and I enjoyed it.

**The quotes I've included come from an unfinished copy of the book and may not appear the same in the finished book.

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