Excessive Joy Injures The Heart

Excessive Joy Injures The Heart

by Elisabeth Harvor

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781551997018
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
Publication date: 02/21/2012
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Elisabeth Harvor is the highly acclaimed author of the national bestselling novel Excessive Joy Injures the Heart, and three collections of short fiction, If Only We Could Drive Like This Forever, Our Lady of All the Distances, and most recently Let Me Be the One, which was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. She is also the author of two poetry books, Fortress of Chairs, which won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and The Long Cold Green Evenings of Spring.

Harvor was the winner of the Alden Nowlan Award for the year 2000. Her fiction has been anthologized in Canada, the U.S., and Europe, and has appeared in many periodicals, including The New Yorker, Saturday Night, Toronto Life, The Malahat Review, and The Hudson Review. Harvor has been writer-in-residence at universities and libraries across Canada, and has also taught in creative writing programs at Concordia University, York University, and the Humber School for Writers.

Elisabeth Harvor has two sons, and lives in Ottawa.

Reading Group Guide

When she begins to have trouble sleeping, Claire Vornoff drives out into the country to become a client of Declan Farrell, and an education (of sorts) begins. An alternative practitioner and an iconoclast in the medical establishment, Farrell is magnetic, unsettling, and Claire is both beguiled and skeptical as she tries to resist his ability to get through to her. As time goes on, her attachment to him deepens, reinventing itself over and over. But when she has a brief affair with a married man things escalate, setting in motion a series of startling and unexpected events. Astute, compassionate, and alert to the dilemmas of contemporary urban life, Excessive Joy Injures the Heart charts the tricky anatomy of obsession, and brilliantly captures our neverending quest to remedy the aches in our minds, bodies, and spirits.

1. (Please note: The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended for people who have read the book. Certain plot points and events are revealed. If you prefer not to know these in advance of your reading you may wish to read only the first twelve questions.)

Since her divorce, Claire has lived alone, and "when it came right down to it what she really wanted was to live in peace, not to have to bother with love . . ." [p183]. She is a person who responds with curiosity and warmth to the world around her, but she is watchful, wary of involvement, and her relation to the world, though intense, is in many ways that of an observer. How does this tendency propel her toward and at the same time protect her from Declan?

2. Claire's shy flirtatiousness, combined with a withheld, self-contained quality, makes her very attractive to men. Several of them show an interest in her over the course of the novel, as she goes about her life with friends and her work, but she seems oblivious or politely uninterested (though she can be extremely confiding with strangers - mentioning the failure of her marriage to a taxi driver, for example [p338]). When she meets Tony O'Bois the tone is different, and there seems to be real affection on both sides. Tony, of course, is married and Claire's imagination is still consumed by Declan. Is Harvor making a point about the relationship of love and freedom?

3. Images of floating, drifting unmoored, or being blown by the wind are frequent throughout the novel: "the wind blew her up Dr. Breit's red brick walk in the rain" [p34], "the wind in the treetops was surfy, huge . . . one of those yellow windstorms of late spring that make pollen rain down on the world . . ." [p39], "a violent slam of leftover winter hit her windshield - a wind-driven spring snowstorm" [p199]. How is this recurrent wind imagery connected to Claire's feelings? Is the author attempting to relate this imagery to the breathing techniques Declan teaches her? What other elements of the natural world recur in the novel? What do they convey, and how do they illuminate the emotional landscape?

4. Why do you think Claire seems so willing to believe in the therapies she submits herself to? Her trial sessions with Gary Ekstrand, Alan Breit, and especially Mr. Spaulding suggest they may be self-appointed "experts" who are really charlatans. They seem far more desperate for patients than she is for a cure. Declan Farrell says to Claire, "Skeptical is the last thing you are," and later, "You would believe almost anything anyone told you." How far does her credulity go?

5. The humour in this novel - its witty, surprising, satirical view of the world - bubbles up constantly, seemingly irrepressibly. How does it function in relation to the darker emotional undercurrents? What does it add to your understanding of the character and her situation?

6. What do we learn about Claire from her trip back home to Saskatoon for her father's funeral? What do the scenes of camaraderie with her brothers and the difficult encounter with her distracted and narcissistic mother add to the reader's understanding of later events in the story?

7. Folktale imagery is an almost subliminal element in the language of the book. Characters are described in terms of old stories: not only is Declan "a doctor from another century" [p3], the library in Ottersee has "the foreboding prettiness of a witch's cottage" [p94], and Walter and Wallace Spaulding are like "two crafty brothers in a fable" [p142-43]. Claire, thinking of her car trips into "the green world of the country," remarks to a friend that she feels she herself does not belong in this century [p129]. Could this book be seen as a fable of enchantment, of a spell cast by a sorcerer? In what ways?

8. In form, this novel is an adaptation of the stream of consciousness created by the Modernists in the early years of the twentieth century. Written in the third-person voice, it is nevertheless so faithful an account of the experience of the central consciousness that we seem to be seeing through Claire's eyes and hearing her thoughts. The reader can know only what she knows. For example, Harvor reveals only Claire's perspective on her relationship with Declan. She never tells us what Declan really feels for Claire or why he acts as he does. What is achieved by this narrative technique? Could this story have been as successfully told if other points of view had been brought in?

9. Claire is a mixture of contradictions. She is someone who often seems to be at the mercy of her emotions, unable to conquer her fears and desires, yet when she chooses to she can act boldly and decisively (for example, she has always been afraid that she is "too dreamy" to drive a car, but when it becomes necessary she does it without hesitation or complaint). She has an uncanny knack for seeing beyond the obvious surfaces of things, and she is not afraid to question what things might mean or whether they can really exist: "Is he wise or a madman? . . . Could a smile be both mocking and consoling?" [p39]. She sees impossible contraries everywhere and tries to make sense of them. This can have a comic effect, but at a deeper level these ironies suggest a mind in pursuit of complex truths. . . . There is a doubleness in Claire, an ambivalence that is not often encountered in fictional characters. What other paradoxical ideas or qualities can you find in the novel?

10. Do you think Declan and Claire's relationship is believable? To Claire, his veiled emotions can be sometimes disturbing and confusing, sometimes compelling and seductive; in him she sees both hostility and need. What does this patient-therapist relationship say about relationships in general? Do you think Harvor sees Claire as a victim of her therapist's power, or is she saying something else?

11. Mitchell Kinkaid's sexual interest in Claire is only too clear. The yoga "lesson" he gives her is suggestive in an uncomfortable way, and their misunderstanding of each other is comical, yet in many ways it becomes almost a parody of her sessions with Declan (Mitchell even says to her, commandingly, "Now I'm going to teach you how to breathe"). What do you suppose Harvor intended by this parallel? Does it make Declan seem more appealing and trustworthy, or less?

12. One reader noticed that the name Declan Farrell seemed to contain, or suggest, the words decline and fall. Others have noticed the suggestion of clairvoyance in Claire Vornoff. The names Ottersee, O'Bois, Middlemiss, even Kinkaid, all have a certain oddness or suggestiveness. The author has said that none of these associations were intentional. Do you think a writer is often unaware of the resonances that readers may find in the finished work? Why, or why not?

13. An important theme of the book is health or its absence. Do you think Claire's concern about health is excessive? Her friend Libi teasingly calls her "a woman of our time . . . chasing after cures" [p129-30]. Is this what Harvor is saying, or is she making a more general observation that, as one of the healers Claire consults says, "the times are the pathogen" [p231]?

14. After a brutal session in which Declan holds Claire down forcibly and ignores her cries of pain, everything changes for Claire. She is shaken, but the experience frees her from him. She cries at the "deadness coming from the loss of Declan and the loss of the world through Declan" [p248], yet her tears seem to "spring from some hot spring of pure health . . ." What do you think the author is saying in this scene? In the opening of the next chapter Claire is feeling the "sickly effervescent euphoria of a person who has survived the funeral of someone deeply loved . . ." [p253]. How exactly has Declan's betrayal of her, his violence, changed her view of the situation? And how much has it really changed?

15. In fiction written by poets (like Elisabeth Harvor), the scenes, like the lines of a poem, can be juxtaposed to create a deeper emotional meaning. Thinking of it this way, why do you suppose, first, the two lines from Byron and, second, the episode of the unknown man who throws snowballs at the wall under Claire's window have been placed just before the scene in which she hears of Declan's suicide [p318-19]? If these scenes followed one another in a film what would the effect be?

16. Declan's death brings back all her feelings for him. She has "grown accustomed to feeling free of him . . . but now that he's dead he seems to have come near" [p320]. How does the manner of his death rekindle her feelings for him? What does it mean when Claire imagines him answering all her questions by saying that "it all comes from the same place, good and bad . . . It all owes its power to nothing more harmful than my scandalous willingness to be misunderstood" [p323]? Do you think Claire genuinely loved Declan Farrell, or could have?

17. After her move to Toronto she is still "an unmoored person" [p308]. But she is busy, working hard, and we are told that she feels like "a traveller in a new world." She has met new people, she hears again from Tony O'Bois, her life seems to be moving in a more decided direction. Do you think that the ending of the novel, after all that has passed, is hopeful?

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Excessive Joy Injures The Heart 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You keep waiting to see some deepness into why this woman has insomnia. It never comes and her methods seem dramatic. The whole book is flat and monotone. Even towards the end where you think some sort of emotion should be expressed is just boring. I'm not even sure what the point of the book was..depression or mental illness? A delusional affair? A middle aged woman navigating through everyday life single? Whatever the point was supposed to be-it is lost on me. There is no real start, beginning, or end. It reads like the diary of the most boring person to walk (which is many of us but I think we read to escape that). This was an unread book on my shelf-so I grabbed it for sitting out in the sun. I can't imagine spending money on it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Two women walk into the "splashy bedlam" of a public swimming pool area, then feel the steambath warmth of the chlorinated air come toward them "across the sloshed tiles, in that great booming hall of hygiene." The strawberries that Claire Vornoff hulls are "too hard, white-knuckled at their tips", and her refrigerator is so old that it creaks like a saddle. As for one of her blouses, a pale-green shell made out of shot silk, it "looks as if it's been left out overnight in a frost." I knew from the imagery in Harvor's poetry and also from the images in Excessive Joy Injures the Heart that I was going to love the book's language, even though from the write-up on the jacket, I didn't think its story would interest me much. But surprise, surprise, it really did. Because the novel, as one of its reviewers said, tells an electric and very intelligent story, a story that "dares to ask disquieting questions about the nature of attraction, about the responsibility for it, and the complicity necessary for two human bodies to hover, be lured, and to connect." A really innovative and iconoclastic novel for connoisseurs of both language and psychology.