Toronto author Cary Fagan’s latest novel, The Student, seems like one of his best. It has the agreeable quality of being both simple and deep, with prose as clear as a smooth pond whose waters go to impressive depths.
The Student presents us with Miriam (Minnie) Moscowitz, a student of literature at the University of Toronto, who, in the summer and fall of 1957, is faced with a number of life choices. Her steady boyfriend, Isidore, wants to marry her, but she’s not ready for anything like that with him. She contemplates becoming a graduate student and establishing herself as a professor of literature at the university, but it turns out the university is not ready for anything like that with her or any other female, no matter how qualified.
As her previously-admired professor told her, her good marks were entirely beside the point. “We are trying to maintain a first-rate department,” he explained. “We have to live up to the standards of McGill, of Princeton and Harvard, of Oxford. Otherwise how are we to attract the best men out of the undergraduate departments? I’m sure you can put aside your own self-interest for a moment and understand the greater good.”
His rationale comes as a shock to her, almost a slap across the face, but Miriam is determined not to cry. Like so many women of the conformist ’50s, she feels terribly constrained. So when she meets Charlie Kroken, a charming bohemian and independent thinker, the experience is liberating for her.
“Quickly she told him about Isidore and admitted to being ‘practically engaged.’ He listened with an appearance of objective disinterest – perhaps she was hoping he would appear jealous. ‘That’s the way it is these days, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘What they want for all of us. Get married, have a baby, sign the mortgage, another baby, a car, a two-week vacation, and a burial plot. It’s like we beat the Nazis and it gave us the right to own a washing machine . . . .’ ”
A romantic adventure ensues, but you’ll have to read the book to learn all of the details. The first section, set in the summer and autumn of 1957, ends with many of the key issues still unresolved. But they are more than satisfactorily resolved in the latter section, which takes place on a special day in the summer of 2005, some 48 years later.
Miriam’s son, Michael, is getting married to his male partner, Miquel. It’s a few hours before the ceremony, and the family home is being made ready for the wedding guests to arrive. Miriam is the mother of two daughters as well, and both are involved with the preparations.
As the excitement unfolds, we learn that Miriam has married a man who is neither Isidore nor Charlie, a man who has only recently been found to have cheated on her for a third time. She’s faced with yet another important moment of decision. We are pleased to see that she handles it well.
Miriam has become a strong woman, good with children, a beloved anchor for her family, a university professor. Bridging two eras as it does, the story makes us remember how unthinkable the future – the very world we inhabit now – would have been in the late ‘50s.
Imagine, a woman becoming a professor of literature! Imagine, Canada no longer British in tone but a cherished home to immigrants from all over the world! Imagine, someone writing a university thesis entitled, “Individualism, Nationalism, and Gender in the Postcolonial Arabic Novel”!
Fagan piles telling detail upon detail like a superbly gifted wordsmith who prefers subtlety to sensationalism and everyday ordinary details to flashy suprarealism. A humble bricklayer, he reliably sets down one brick after another until an impressively sturdy edifice has been assembled.
The Student gives us spare glimpses of Miriam, in situ within her various families, from two pivotal episodes spread nearly half a century apart: yet we emerge with a satisfying portrait of her inner being, – not full, perhaps, but at least reasonably well-rounded.
It’s the kind of perspective you might get if you could see deeply into a person, beyond the customary array of walls and smokescreens. Fagan is gifted in writing realistically about the inner world of an admirable but essentially ordinary protagonist who may be seen as standing in for a generation caught in the same crucible of changing values.
I’d say that The Student hearkens back stylistically to The Doctor’s House, a sort of “micro-novel” that condensed the narrative to its bare essentials without adornment or much in the way of a subplot. As The Animals’ Waltz (another early Fagan novel) did for Bathurst Manor, The Student conjures up the atmosphere of Toronto’s downtown Bloor and Spadina neighbourhood, the U of T grounds, as well as the midtown Eglinton neighbourhood. No surprise for Fagan, this story focuses on Jewish characters and conveys an essentially Jewish urban sensibility over three generations.
Psychological subtleties whirl through Fagan’s fiction. How do you present a character in her youth, then revisit her nearly half a century later? Fagan studies the ways in which Miriam changes over time, like a sort of Woman Descending The Staircase in prose. Her discovery of a copy of a book from her school days, The Ambassadors by Henry James, complete with her own marginal notes, helps her to remember and track her own changes, and to integrate her former self into its present iteration. (The allusion to James seems like an acknowledgment from Fagan that, with his two “time windows”, he is utilizing an essentially Jamesian narrative technique.)
One goes back over the pages, seeking the specific places where Fagan lays down these ideas, only to realize that they can’t be found. He’s talented at conveying large meanings pointillistically through a series of small impressions, so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. His novels may seem modest and unassuming, but they often end up surprising because they exceed expectations.