The New York Times Book Review
Practical Jeanby Trevor Cole
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Jean wouldn’t be able stand it if something unfortunate were to befall her friends—that’s why decides to kill them herself, before anything else can harm them. Bad Marie meets Arsenic and Old Lace in this darkly humorous story of a woman whose overpowering love for her friends moves her to murder each and every one of them. Practical Jean, the U.S. debut of acclaimed Canadian author Trevor Cole, is a “biting and black comedy of middle-class mores gone murderously wrong” that “combines diamond-cut social satire with thoughtful contemplations of friendship” (Globe and Mail). A deliciously dark satire with roots that spread from Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal to Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, Cole’s Practical Jean is a razor’s edge dissection of relationships, faithfulness, and homicide. After all, what are friends for?
The New York Times Book Review
A mourning suburban daughter takes out her grief via murder.
Canadian novelist Cole (The Fearsome Particles, 2006, etc.) generates a bleak satire in his third outing, which falls somewhere betweenHeathersandThe Stepford Wiveson the vicious meter. "Everything began when Jean Vale Horemarsh had to look after her mother, Marjorie, who was dying of a terrible cancer in one of the soft organs," writes Cole in the clinical, eccentric style that characterizes the novel. It seems that the experience of looking after her dying mother has taught suburban potter Jean the true meaning of mercy, after a fashion. And oh how strange the woman's head can get. She almost pathologically ignores the failings of her marriage to her milquetoast husband Milt, who turns out to be having an affair with a friend, in her quest to ensure that her friends never suffer the indignities of old age. For starters, Jean takes her slutty friend Dorothy out for a night of drinking, skinny-dipping and fooling around with the local lads, before chopping her head off with a dull shovel. No less bizarre is Jean's lesbian liaison ("a little unexpected") with a college chum, ending with a poison-inducing back rub. For all its gruesomeness, there are reasons behind Jean's obsession, and the creepiest scenes are in fact outclassed by the book's more disquieting pauses. Among these disturbances is a flashback to Jean's childhood, during which she methodically drowns all of her stuffed animals in response to her mother's euthanasia of a litter of puppies, and a quiet interlude at a park where Jean shuffles her friends' names about on slips of paper, trying to elect her first victim based on her affections.
A shudder-inducing satire that meditates more on the dysfunctions of the living than on the tragedies of the dead.
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The sun was shining on the whole of Kotemee. Spangles trembled on the lake, shafts of gleam stabbed off the chrome of cars lining Main Street, and in Corkin Park the members of the Star-Lookout Lions, Kotemee’s Pee Wee League team, swung aluminum bats that scalded their tender, eleven-year-old hands. But for Jean Vale Horemarsh, there was no light in her life but the light of her fridge, and it showed her things she did not want to see.
A jar of strawberry jam, empty but for the grouting of candied berry at the bottom. A half tub of sour cream, its contents upholstered in a thick aquamarine mould. A pasta sauce and a soup, stalking fermentation in their plastic containers. A crumpled paper bag of wizened, weightless mushrooms. The jellified remains of cucumber and the pockmarked corpses of zucchini and bell pepper in the bottom crisper drawer.
In the kitchen of her sun-warmed house on Edgeworth Street, Jean bent to the task of removing each of these abominations. The jam jar was tossed into the recycling bin. The putrid liquids were dumped into the sink. The zucchini, cucumber, and mushrooms became compost. The mould-stiffened sour cream would not budge from its tub, so Jean scooped it out with her hand. Anything suspect – a bit of improperly wrapped steak, a bottle of cloudy dressing – was presumed tainted and excised without mercy from the innards of the fridge. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and Jean still wore the black jacquard dress she’d worn to her mother’s funeral. She had not found the will to take it off, although she had undone several of the buttons. So as she worked, erasing the evidence of time, destroying all signs of decay, her dress hung open slightly, exposing the skin of her back to the refrigerated air.
Watching her from a corner of the kitchen, Milt, Jean’s husband, confessed that he should have cleaned out the fridge weeks ago, while Jean was still at her mother’s. But it was a revolting chore, he said, and he kept putting it off; he didn’t know how she did it.
“I have a strong stomach,” said Jean.
It had been three full months since Jean and Milt had lived together. Marjorie had made it clear that in dying she required Jean’s full attention, which left Milt to mind himself at home. Now, as Jean bowed and stared into the cool, white recess, he came up behind her. He reached over her for a jar of peanut butter and, with only a slight hesitation, touched his fingers to the unbuttoned region of his wife’s back and began to draw them lightly downward.
“What a terrible, terrible idea,” she said.
“Sorry.” He retreated with the peanut butter and screwed open the lid. “I just thought, we haven’t . . . I think it was snowing the last time. But you’re right, bad timing.” He set the jar and lid on the counter and reached for a bag of bread. “If you’re hungry, I could make you some toast.”
Jean straightened at the fridge, summoned tolerance and forgiveness, and gave her husband a sad, sheepish look. She folded her arms around him and set her chin on his shoulder. It was more a lean than a hug. “Poor Milty,” she said. “Poor, poor Milty.”
“Milty’s all right.”
“You can squeeze my breast if you want.”
“Nothing’s going to happen because of it. But you can do it if you like and then disappear into the bathroom or something.”
“Well, I don’t think that’s necessary.”
“Suit yourself.” She began to separate from him and before she did, he slipped a hand in and latched onto her left one, just holding it for a moment as she waited. “There,” she said finally, and patted his cheek as she left him.
“I could take it out right here,” he said from the kitchen.
He headed past her, toward the powder room in the hall. “It’s not like I haven’t.”
A few minutes later, slumped on the matching green velour living room chairs in a room invaded by the late-afternoon sun, they stared at Winter Leaves, which Milt had set on the coffee table in honour of Jean’s return. A clutch of hydrangea leaves ruined by frost it was meant to be.
“That looks nice there,” said Jean. “Thank you.”
“Thought you might like it.”
She pushed herself out of the soft cushions and leaned forward, squinting. “Is that a crack?”
“Just a small one. I glued it.”
“There’s another one.”
“Only two, though. Don’t keep looking.”
With a sigh Jean slumped back in her chair. “It is impossible for anything beautiful to last.”
“But you made something beautiful. That’s the point.”
Jean stared at Milt. “That is the point, isn’t it?”
She nodded and let her chin rest on her chest. Never had she been so exhausted, and yet so relieved. The exhaustion and relief seeped through her muscles and bones, a bad and good feeling all at once. This must be the way athletes feel, Jean thought, after they’ve run a thousand miles and won the game. She let the sensation slip through her like one of those drugs that young people take and allowed her mind to drift backward to the funeral at First United Presbyterian. Everyone had been there: Jean’s brothers, handsome so-and-so’s in their dress uniforms; Andrew Jr.’s silent wife, Celeste, and their two grown children, Ross and Marlee, sparing four precious hours away from their busy young lives, thank you so much for your sacrifice; her own good friends, most of them anyway, full of sympathy and support; and a hundred Kotemee folk who’d known Marjorie Horemarsh as the best veterinarian they’d ever brought a sick spaniel to, and not as a mother who’d praised only marks and commendations and money and prizes and never beauty . . . never, ever beauty for its own sake, and not as a patient who moaned in pain seventeen hours a day and smelled like throw-up and needed to be bathed and fed and have her putrid bedsores swabbed and dressed . . .
“It was nice to see your friends there,” said Milt. “Louise looked good, I thought. Or –”
“Louise looked good, did she?”
“Well. So did Dorothy. We should have them all over some day.”
Jean stared at the ceiling and sighed. “What’s the point, Milt?”
“The house has been pretty quiet. You could play bridge, like you used to.”
“No, Milt, I’m not talking about that. I’m saying what’s the point of anything?”
“Oh.” Milt tossed his head back against the chair cushion as if to say, Wow, that’s a big one.
“Exactly,” said Jean. “You know, you think about a lot of things when you’re taking care of your dying mother.”
Milt leaned forward in his chair. “Do you want a drink?” He rose and steadied himself. His tie was askew, and the end of it rested against the mound of his belly, a little like a dying leaf against a pumpkin, Jean considered.
“I will have some white wine.” She lifted her voice to talk as Milt made his way to the kitchen. “You think about things, Milt,” she said. “You ask yourself questions.”
“What sort of questions? No white, I’m afraid. Red?”
“Fine. Big questions, like, what’s the point of anything?”
“You live, and then you die, Milt. And whatever you had is gone and it doesn’t matter any more. Nothing matters for ever and ever.”
“Wow,” said Milt on his way back with the glasses.
“So what is the point?”
He handed her the wine. “You want me to answer that?”
“I don’t think you can answer that. I don’t think anyone can.”
“I think the point is to live the best life possible, for as long as you’re able.”
Jean, still sunk into the cushions and drugged with exhaustion, sipped her wine and picked at the threads of ideas and formulations and fantasies that had occupied her mind for the last couple of months, while she’d fed her mother unsweetened Pablum, while she’d stared at her thick, unweeded garden, while she’d kneeled alone in the en suite bathroom, cleaning the dried spray of urine from the floor where her mother had slipped.
“Beauty is the point, I think.”
“There you go. You answered it yourself.”
“A moment of beauty, or joy, something exquisite and pure.” She made a face. “I hate this red wine. Did you open it a week ago?”
“I’m not drinking it.” She set it on the coffee table. “That’s it for bad wine.”
“Did you want me to drive and get some white?”
“Yes, but not now. Not while we’re talking.” For a while she stared at the coffee table, at the wine yawing in the glass, at Winter Leaves, without really seeing any of them. “More than once, Milt,” she said. “More than once, when I was feeding Mom in bed? And she would lay her head back and fall asleep? I thought about pinching her nose and her lips closed and just holding them like that. Holding them tight.”
“Until she died?”
“Until she died.”
“Wow,” said Milt. His eyes went wide as he shook his head. He looked, Jean thought, as though he were really taking it in.
“Because what is the difference?” She shifted to the edge of the cushion. “Whether you die now or die later, it’s the same thing, but one way has less suffering. They do it for animals. My own mother did it. I watched it happen.” Even now her mind filled with bright images, sudden whites and reds. In the very early days of her mother’s career, when she’d had few clients and couldn’t justify the cost of a clinic, Marjorie had used their kitchen table, spread with sheets of white plastic, to perform operations. She had allowed little Jean, who was the oldest of her children, to observe – this was real life, she said, no need to hide it – as she sliced open neighbourhood cats and dogs to pluck out their ovaries or spleens, or to reattach bloody tendons. Many times before she was seven Jean had watched her mother stick a hypodermic into the fur of some aged or diseased animal, watched her press the plunger and wait out the quiet seconds until its eyes closed. That was the simplest act of all, and the kindest, it now seemed to Jean.
“It’s called ‘mercy,’ Milt. That’s what it’s called. Don’t let a living thing suffer. I should have done it. I hate myself for not doing it.”
“Don’t hate yourself, Jean.”
Jean stared at Winter Leaves and lost herself in a scene that had come to her several times before, projected like a movie against the backs of her eyelids while she slumped in the chair in Marjorie’s darkened room, listening to her mother breathe. She saw her hand reaching down – in her imagination it was always morning, daylight filled the room, and everything was a pale pink – and squeezing her mother’s soft nostrils between thumb and forefinger, the way you might seal the mouth of an inflated balloon. With the other hand she held her lips closed, too. Then the image changed, and she was pressing down on her mother’s mouth; yes, that would work better. Squeezing her nostrils, and clamping down hard on her mouth. It wouldn’t have been difficult; her mother was weak, and Jean’s hands were muscled tools from years of working with clay. Marjorie’s eyes would open, she’d be terrified, staring up at her daughter, fighting for her life, not realizing Jean’s way was so much better. But it would only last a moment, that struggle, unlike the pain of her lingering disease. And afterward there’d be no recriminations, no feelings of betrayal, no abiding resentments. There’d be nothing, because that’s what death was.
“I should have killed my mother, Milt.” Jean felt the tears puddling in her eyes. “I should have killed her before she got so sick. Then she wouldn’t have had to suffer at all.”
He came to her and put his hand on her knee. “You were a good daughter to her, Jean. You took care of her.”
“Not like I should have.”
She reached into her sleeve for the tissue she’d tucked there and used it to dry her eyes. Though it was painful to believe that she had failed her mother by not taking her life, her conviction in that belief was, in an odd way, comforting. Certainty energized her. She took a deep breath and looked into Milt’s sad, grey eyes. Such a sweet man.
“If you wanted to screw me,” she said to Milt, “I’d be game.”
Milt looked down at his hand on her knee, and off to the powder room. “I don’t think I can now.”
She sighed. “That’s annoying.”
“I can try.”
“No, never mind.” She patted his hand. “I’d be just as happy with some white wine.”
From the Hardcover edition.
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Meet the Author
Trevor Cole is an award-winning journalist and novelist. His journalism has garnered him twenty-five National Magazine Award nominations, of which he has won nine. His novels, which include most recently Hope Makes Love, have twice been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, been shortlisted for the Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize and the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book, and won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. Cole lives in Toronto.
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Wonder if the authors family and friends see any comparisons they usually as a fast fod would be chinese import beef jerky
Having read Trevor Coles' first two books, 'Norman Bray In The Performance of His Life', and 'Fearsome Particles' I was eager to read 'Practical Jean'and was not disappointed. Jean, having taken care of her mother during her battle with cancer began thinking in very practical terms about her female friends. Not wanting them to suffer as her mother did, she wanted to give them her idea of the ultimate and most practical gift. Her take on her female friendship is a bit skewed, at times humorous, and sad. I appreciate Trevor Cole's humor. I highly recommend this book.
an interesting story line with even more interesting characters, Practical Jean is the story of a woman who would do any thing for her friends but goes over board because of her mothers need for every thing to be practically perfect, a great story of "friendship" from a maniac's point of view
This is one of those times when I wish I could conjure up my NC, high school girlfriends to sit around the living room and discuss a book. We would have a field day with this one! In fact, if your book group is wondering what to read next for a wild time, this is your best bet. Hilarious!! I hardly know where to begin to tell you about this book... It's just flat out good reading and side-aching laughs. The first line that hit me so hard I still can't think about it or I laugh out loud in grocery shop lines is: "...Grana, after she had snapped her tail bone on a flight of polished stairs..." This may not seem funny out of context, but in the reading, it welled up and hit me full force and unexpectedly. It was the funniest visual I had had in years! "Snapping" a tailbone on a flight of polished stairs!!! FOTFL I could just see my own feet slipping faithlessly out from under me! Trevor Cole has a sharp wit, a stinging humor, a sense of political comedy and comedy of manners. He can convey the real evils and the ridiculous in the every day, the death and destruction in a "butter tart that's the work of the Devil," and the heartbreak of an odd ceramic artwork that's too fragile to breathe on, let alone touch. His characters have charm. They spark with charisma. He has that uncanny ability to hone in on the one major flaw that makes a person stand out, and that makes them own up to the ridiculous face they put on in public, and he can show those things to us through his characters. With the precision of the tiniest crochet hook he can slip in a knot of truth and draw out the best and the worst in his characters before you can flick an eyelid. He couches the worst with the cushion of humor. There's a slapstick quality to his writing, but it's never cheap laughs because the satire is well told. There is a gentle "love the flaws and vulnerability" in all of us message in this book that's so endearing. Cole's inescapably loveable character, Jean, makes us remember the crushed dreams in ourselves. And, her willingness to sacrifice all in a frenzy of displaced grief is allegorical. What might any of us do if we let our minds loose after a life of creative repression, ridicule, rejection and humiliation at the hands of a mother like Jean's? Especially one whom she had to care for in her last, suffering days...especially when her mother had believed so strongly in and practiced euthanizing animals all her life! Much black humor goes on in "Practical Jean" but it's so very funny, and you'll hardly know what's hit you when the real trouble starts happening. Honestly, I'm still laughing about passages in this book. And, at the same time, I carry a very special torch for Practical Jean...she was only trying to help. Feeling sad? Get Practical...