Clara Callan

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Overview

In a small town in Canada, Clara Callan reluctantly takes leave of her sister, Nora, who is bound for New York. It's a time when the growing threat of fascism in Europe is a constant worry, and people escape from reality through radio and the movies. Meanwhile, the two sisters -- vastly different in personality, yet inextricably linked by a shared past -- try to find their places within the complex web of social expectations for young women in the 1930s.

While Nora embarks on a ...

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Clara Callan

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Overview

In a small town in Canada, Clara Callan reluctantly takes leave of her sister, Nora, who is bound for New York. It's a time when the growing threat of fascism in Europe is a constant worry, and people escape from reality through radio and the movies. Meanwhile, the two sisters -- vastly different in personality, yet inextricably linked by a shared past -- try to find their places within the complex web of social expectations for young women in the 1930s.

While Nora embarks on a glamorous career as a radio-soap opera star, Clara, a strong and independent-minded woman, struggles to observe the traditional boundaries of a small and tight-knit community without relinquishing her dreams of love, freedom, and adventure. However, things aren't as simple as they appear -- Nora's letters eventually reveal life in the big city is less exotic than it seems, and the tranquil solitude of Clara's life is shattered by a series of unforeseeable events. These twists of fate require all of Clara's courage and strength, and finally put the seemingly unbreakable bond between the sisters to the test.

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Editorial Reviews

Jay Parini
"CLARA CALLAN is one of those rare novels that one might justifiably call a masterpiece."
Time Magazines Literary Supplement (London)
"A singularly poignant story about the depravity of human beings [and] their compassion and amazing capacity to endure."
-- Jay Parini
“CLARA CALLAN is one of those rare novels that one might justifiably call a masterpiece.”
— Jay Parini
“CLARA CALLAN is one of those rare novels that one might justifiably call a masterpiece.”
Toronto Star (on THE AGE OF LONGING)
“A near-perfect miniature: precisely written, true in voice and setting.”
The Ottawa Citizen (Canada)
“A master story-teller.”
New York Times
“Mr. Wright writes with the apparent ease of breathing, and he is both touching and very very funny.”
Winnipeg Free Press
“A compelling narrative and characters that brim with humanity.”
Toronto Star
“A near-perfect miniature: precisely written, true in voice and setting.”
Washington Post
“A compelling story of perseverance and quiet triumph.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“As compelling as any Margaret Atwood or as incisive as a Robertson Davies.... [An] invigoratingly original work.”
Times Literary Supplement (London)
“A singularly poignant story about the depravity of human beings [and] their compassion and amazing capacity to endure.”
Quill & Quire
“A classic page-turner.”
Boston Globe
“Entertaining.”
New York Times (on THE AGE OF LONGING)
“Mr. Wright writes with the apparent ease of breathing, and he is both touching and very very funny.”
Publishers Weekly
Canadian author Wright (The Age of Longing) has published eight novels, but remains unknown to most readers in the States. His most recent offering, which won Canada's 2001 Governor General's Award and the Giller Prize, could change that. The story's conceit is simple enough: Clara Callan is a single "schoolteacher who likes to write poetry," left to fend for herself in the tiny town of Whitfield, Ontario, after her father dies and her sister, Nora, takes off for New York City. The novel is made up of a series of letters and journal entries written between 1934 and 1939. During that time, Nora becomes a radio soap opera star, while Clara loses her faith in God, is raped by a vagrant, has an abortion, engages in an affair with a married man named Frank and finally gives birth to a daughter. Nora and the lesbian writer of her soap opera, Evelyn Dowling, are Clara's main correspondents, but the news she relates in her letters (such as "grippe and calloused hands"-although she also shows concern for the world's more serious injustices) contrasts with the darker events recorded in her journal entries. Wright has accomplished an amazing feat by allowing his characters to emerge, fully formed and true, without authorial intrusion into their intimate psychological world, revitalizing the epistolary form in the process. This novel will remind some readers of the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, herself an avid correspondent, and of the way in which the elegant surfaces of her letters sometimes cracked open to reveal demons lurking below. (Oct. 1) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The separate histories of two sisters are traced with understated compassion in this superb novel, the ninth from the Ontario author (Farthing's Fortunes, 1976, etc.) and winner of Canada's Giller Prize and Governor General's Award. A haunting epigraph from Rilke that asserts the dignity and value of unremarkable lives precedes the text, which is composed mostly of dairy entries penned by the eponymous Clara, an unmarried schoolteacher who remains in her rural hometown of Whitley (near Toronto), and the letters Clara exchanges with her "glamorous" sister Nora, who escapes Whitfield for New York City and a career starring in a popular radio soap opera, and also with cynical Evelyn Dowling, the irrepressibly mannish writer of Nora's show, The House on Chestnut Street. Hardly ever raising his voice, Wright assembles a vivid picture of pre-WWII Canada (the story's major events occur during the years 1934-38), when the Western world thrills to he phenomenon of the Dionne quintuplets and nervously observes the rise of fascism in far-off Europe. It's as if the "progress" of the century ironically mocks that of Clara, who makes hesitant forays away from her stifling matrix-daring a brief trip abroad with the now-sophisticated Nora, enduring a frustrating not-quite-love affair with her "man" in Toronto, self-absorbed Frank Quinlan (a devastating characterization of the kind of superficially appealing male whom every woman eventually realizes she never really wanted), and consequentially encountering a menacing drifter that fulfills with a vengeance Clara's fantasies of "adventure." A terse afterword reveals the later fates of both sisters, incidentally explaining how their story came to bewritten. Though nobody seems to have noticed, Clara Callan is almost certainly modeled on Arnold Bennett's classic 1908 novel, The Old Wives' Tale-and is not much, if at all, inferior to that masterpiece. A wrenching chronicle of time passing and opportunity lost.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060506070
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 12/2/2003
  • Series: Harper Perennial Series
  • Edition description: First Perennial Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 1,055,427
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Meet the Author


RICHARD B. WRIGHT, the author of either novels, has been published in Canada, the United States, and the U.K. His novel, The Middle of Life, won the city of Toronto Book Award and the Faber Award, and The Age of Longing was nominated for the Govenor General's Award and the Giller Prize. He lives, writes, and teached in St. Catherine, Ontario.
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First Chapter

Chapter One

Saturday, November 3 (8:10 p.m.)

Nora left for New York City today. I think she is taking a terrible chance going all the way down there but, of course, she wouldn't listen. You can't tell Nora anything. You never could. Then came the last-minute jitters. Tears in that huge station among strangers and loudspeaker announcements.

"I'm going to miss you, Clara."

"Yes. Well, and I'll miss you too, Nora. Do be careful down there!"

"You think I'm making a mistake, don't you? I can see it in your face."

"We've talked about this many times, Nora. You know how I feel about all this."

"You must promise to write."

"Well, of course, I'll write."

The handkerchief, smelling faintly of violets, pressed to an eye. Father used to say that Nora's entire life was a performance. Perhaps she will make something of herself down there in the radio business, but it's just as likely she'll return after Christmas. And then what will she do? I'm sure they won't take her back at the store. It's a foolish time to be taking chances like this. A final wave and a gallant little smile. But she did look pretty and someone on the train will listen. Someone is probably listening at this very moment.

Prayed for solitude on my train home but it was not to be. Through the window I could see the trainman helping Mrs. Webb and Marion up the steps. Then came the sidelong glances of the whole and hale as Marion came down the aisle, holding on to the backs of the seats, swinging her bad foot outward and forward and then, by endeavor and the habit of years, dropping the heavy black boot to the floor. Settled finally into the seatopposite, followed by Mother Webb and her parcels. Routine prying from Mrs. W.

"Well now, Clara, and what brings you to the city? Aren't the stores crowded and Christmas still weeks off? I like to get my buying out of the way. Have you started the practices for the concert? Ida Atkins and I were talking about you the other day. Wouldn't it be nice, we said, if Clara Callan came out to our meetings. You should think about it, Clara. Get you out of the house for an evening. Marion enjoys it, don't you, dear?"

Plenty more of this all the way to Uxbridge station when she finally dozed off, the large head drooping beneath the hat, the arms folded across the enormous chest. Marion said hello, but stayed behind her magazine (movie starlet on the cover). We quarreled over something a week ago. I can't exactly remember what, but Marion has since refused to speak to me at any length and that is just as well.

On the train my gaze drifting across the bare gray fields in the rain. Thinking of Nora peering out another train window. And then I found myself looking down at Marion's orthopedic boot, remembering how I once stared at a miniature version of it in the schoolyard. Twenty-one Septembers ago! I was ten years old and going into Junior Third. Marion had been away all summer in Toronto and returned with the cumbersome shoe. In Mrs. Webb's imagination, Marion and I are conjoined by birth dates and therefore mystically united on this earth. We were born on the same day in the same year, only hours apart. Mrs. W. has never tired of telling how Dr. Grant hurried from our house in the early-morning hours to assist her delivery with the news that Mrs. Callan had just given birth to a fine daughter. And then came Marion, but her tiny foot "was not as God intended." And on that long-ago September morning in the schoolyard, Mrs. Webb brought Marion over to me and said, "Clara will look after you, dear. She will be your best friend. Why you were born on the same day!"

Marion looked bewildered. I remember that. And how she clung to my side! I could have screamed and, in fact, may have done. At the end of the day we fought over something and she had a crying spell under a tree on our front lawn. How she wailed and stamped that boot, which drew my eye as surely as the bulging goiter in old Miss Fowley's throat. Father saw some of this and afterward scolded me. I think I went to bed without supper and I probably sulked for days. What an awful child I was! Yet Marion forgave me; she always forgives me. From time to time, this afternoon, I noticed her smiling at me over her magazine. Mr. Webb was at the station with his car, but I told him I preferred to walk. It had stopped raining by then. No offense was taken.

They are used to my ways. And so I walked home on this damp gray evening. Wet leaves underfoot and darkness seeping into the sky through the bare branches of the trees. Winter will soon be upon us. My neighbors already at their suppers behind lighted kitchen windows. Felt a little melancholy remembering other Saturday evenings when I would have our supper on the stove, waiting for the sound of Father's car in the driveway, bringing Nora up from the station. Certainly Nora would never have walked. Waiting in the kitchen for her breathless entrance. Another tale of some adventure in acting class or the charms of a new beau. Father already frowning at this commotion as he hung up his coat in the hallway. It's nearly seven months now, and I thought I was getting used to Father being gone, yet tonight as I walked along Church Street, I felt again the terrible finality of his absence.

Then I was very nearly knocked over by Clayton Tunney, who came charging out of the darkness at the corner of Broad Street. It was startling, to say the least, and I was cross with him.

"Clayton," I said. "For goodness' sake, watch where you're going!"

"Sorry, Miss Callan. I was over at the Martins', listening to their radio with Donny, and now I'm late for supper and Ma's going to skin me alive."

And off he went again, that small nervous figure racing along Church Street. Poor Clayton! Always in a hurry and always late. Without fail, the last one into class after recess.

Clara Callan. Copyright © by Richard Wright. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide

Introduction

It is the year 1934, and in Whitfield, Ontario, Clara Callan bids a reluctant farewell to her sister, Nora, who is bound for a career in show business in New York City. In an era when people escape from reality through radio and movies, and the growing threat of fascism in Europe is a constant worry, and when the two sisters -- vastly different in personality yet linked by their shared past -- try to locate themselves in the complex web of social expectations for unmarried young women in their 30s.

While Nora embarks on a glamorous career as a radio soap opera star, Clara, a strong and independent-minded woman, struggles to observe the traditional boundaries of her small and tight-knit community without relinquishing her dreams of love, freedom, and adventure. But Nora's letters eventually begin to reveal that her life in the big city is a little less exotic than it may seem: though her career is flourishing, her free spirit is curbed by a string of unsuccessful personal relationships. Meanwhile, the tranquil solitude of Clara's life is shattered by a series of unforeseeable events, turns of fate that require all of her courage and strength, and that will put the seemingly unbreakable bond between the sisters to the test.

Ultimately, both discover not only the joys of love and possibility, but also the darker side of life -- violence, deception, and loss -- lurking just beneath the surface of everyday experience. Winner in 2001 of Canada's two most prestigious literary awards, the Governor General's Award and the Giller Prize, Clara Callan is a mesmerizing tribute to friendship and sisterhood, romance and redemption, written withpowerful insight and passion.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does Clara reveal about her hopes, dreams, and fears in her letters? How do her letters to Nora and Evelyn compare to her journal entries? What kinds of information does she choose to keep private? What does she decide to share?

  2. How would you describe Nora? In what ways does she differ from Clara? Do these differences come across in their letters to each other? What do you think explains their deep connection as sisters?

  3. What did you think of the epistolary form of narration of Clara Callan? How did reading the constant stream of correspondence between Nora and Clara facilitate your understanding of their relationship?

  4. Discuss Clara's sudden loss of faith in God. How does she make sense of it? What is the attitude of her community towards her lapse in churchgoing? How does Nora feel about it?

  5. How is sex outside of marriage portrayed in Clara Callan? What kinds of romantic and sexual activity were available to "respectable" women in this era?

  6. How does Clara deal with being raped? Did any of her revenge fantasies surprise you?

  7. How is 1930s Europe portrayed in Clara Callan? What did you think of the trip to Italy described in the book? Did it make any aspects of this era more vivid?

  8. What is the significance of "The House on Chestnut Street." What are some of the parallels between the radio show and Clara's and Nora's own lives?

  9. What role does poetry play in Clara's day-to-day existence? What are some of her poetic aspirations?

  10. How is Clara's unmarried expectant state received by her community? How does she handle this development in her life? In what ways will the arrival of Elizabeth Ann change Clara?

About the author

Richard B. Wright is the author of nine novels, including The Age of Longing, In the Middle of a Life, and Weekend Man. He lives with his wife in Saint Catharines, Ontario.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 18, 2012

    A well written book by the author. The story takes place in Can

    A well written book by the author. The story takes place in Canada and New York City during the 1930's and is about two sisters. One sister is a teacher who stays in Canada and the other sister is a radio star in NYC. The characters are clearly portrayed and at times not too likeable. Clara, the main character, is a sad woman who is very constricted in her behavior and thoughts. You don't know if you like her or are angry at her. There were times when I almost felt sorry for her life that she has in Canada.Her sister, Nora, is more likeable but doesn't have much depth. She seems flighty and lives only for the moment. This is an excellent book for a book club. Lots of things to discuss, infidelity, infidelity, being gay in the 1930's and the relationships of family and friends.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 7, 2003

    great book

    I really enjoyed this book! It is the type of book that you are so involved in that you forget the rest of the world is going on. You also feel very strongly about the characters and the problems they are faced with. I was so angry at Clara's boyfriend that I had to remind myself it was only a story. I also liked the historical references in the story.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2002

    Wonderful

    I loved this book! The writing is sparse and simple yet powerful. The characters are fully developed and I found myself anxiously anticipating what would happen to Clara next. I loved the strength of this character, I thought she was a quiet rebel and a feminist. I highly recommend this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2005

    Amazing

    The book was very good. As a busy person a book really has to catch my eye in order to pull me in and keep me reading, this book did it no problem. A must read for mature readers

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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