The Birthday Lunch by Joan Clark

Hal and Lily McNab have been married thirty-three years and have a creek outside their bedroom window which is a tributary of the Kennebecasis, itself a tributary of the Saint John whose source is in the Appalachians and which empties into the Bay of Fundy. Hal is a virulent man and he and Lily have an active sex life. Lily’s sister Laverne has a small apartment which used to be the servant’s quarters of the house.

“After their mother died, Lily pronounced as she held her sister’s hand: “When we are grown up, Laverne, you and I will live in a little white house by the sea. There will be lupines and wild roses and a white fence.” For years Laverne held on to that dream until Hal entered the picture and the prospect of living in the little white house vanished.”

In later years, however, the two girls combined their inheritance and they and Hal purchased The Old Steadman House which had already been subdivided into apartments. Laverne moved out of her trailer, Hal and Lily took the upper apartment and a family friend, Sophie Power, moved into the lower apartment. The appeal to Laverne was to live close to her sister and have a garden of her own.

Sound ideal? Well, almost. Laverne and Hal have never been “friends”. She had been very specific about what she expected from male companions and had rejected a number of potential partners. She believed Lily deserved better than Hal had to offer and she didn’t hide her opinion. She co-signed the mortgage agreement on the understanding that the expenses for the renovations of the servant’s quarters would be shared.

The characters of Laverne and Lily and Hal are sufficiently developed early in the story for the reader to invest in each of them and to care what happens to each one. The discomfort between Laverne and Hal has a universal quality to it as does Lily’s position as person in-the-middle.

the birthday lunchThe story begins the day before school summer holidays and Laverne takes a day from work to celebrate Lily’s fifty-eighth birthday with her by making her a special lunch of asparagus and Stilton soup and Coquille St. Jacques with a bottle of wine.

As you might anticipate, Hal has also made plans for Lily’s birthday. He has booked lunch at Adair’s and planned a special birthday surprise after that. When Lily explains that Laverne has already asked her for lunch, Hal replies: “Your sister isn’t calling the shots today. After you went to bed, I telephoned her and told her I would be taking you to lunch at Adair’s.” The conversation continues and Hal puts Lily in the middle by asking her whether she wants to have lunch with Laverne or with him. One can imagine the tension and also becomes aware that in several years these three have not worked out a resolution to this relational conundrum. The reader senses trouble ahead.

Hal has to make a furniture delivery the morning of Lily’s birthday and sets off in his Chevrolet Impala to do that. The delivery is in Waterford where many years ago their daughter Claudia “pointed to a tiny house with a grass roof tucked into a hillside. “Frodo lives in that house,” she said, and was immediately corrected by he brother. “A hobbit would never live near a church,” Matthew told her. “Hobbits believe in wizards, not God.” Hal had never heard of hobbits and Lily explained that hobbits were hairy-footed little creatures who were much nicer than people.” Don’t you just love it when authors use allusions to childhood reading to illuminate their characters?

Anyway, Hal’s furniture delivery is complicated by a problem with the Chevy Impala and after checking everything he can, Hal calls his mechanic at Northrup’s Garage and learns it will be a good hour or more before someone can drive out with the tow truck.

Hal told Lily he would pick her up at 12:30 to go to Adair’s for lunch. He had called Laverne AFTER Lily had gone to bed and told Laverne “that she would have to cancel tomorrow’s lunch with Lily. My wife is having lunch with me,” he said  before hanging up the telephone. He felt ashamed and didn’t go to bed until he was sure Lily was asleep.

He tries to call Lily from Waterford but there is no answer and he is well aware that Lily must be downstairs having lunch with Laverne. His anger intensifies knowing that Laverne has defeated him once again and also because he has never once been invited to Laverne’s apartment for a meal although she eats upstairs with them on a regular basis. “Whenever he complains to Lily about the unfairness of the situation, she tells him that Laverne’s apartment is so dreary and strange it would upset him to see it.”

Hal does eventually reach Laverne’s apartment and Lily answers sensing that it must be him. “Laverne hears her say that she understands Hal’s disappointment, that he is not to worry, the delay won’t spoil her day and there is no need to apologize. Apologize? Laverne has never known her brother-in-law to apologize. ” Laverne believes Hal is deliberately keeping Lily on the phone and she hears enough to indicate that Hal is insisting Lily get a taxi to take her to an appointment and not let Laverne drive her there and back. ” Lily is annoyed. Laverne will drive me to the hospital,” she says and hangs up before Hal can get in another word. Pleased that her sister has stood her ground, Laverne savours the moment and when Lily returns to the table, she congratulates her for standing up to Hal.”

So how do you think Lily responds? Can you choose the words she might use given the fact that she is consistently loyal to Hal?

These relational dilemmas are common in many families and sometimes they get worked out and sometimes not. And sometimes we don’t pay sufficient attention because we think we have all the time in the world and then some.

There is an interesting subplot dealing with art and the Dutch Masters, in particular Pieter de Hooch’s work titled Woman and Child in an Interior which Laverne saw in the Rijkmuseum and was captivated by to the extent that she incorporated a version of it in her apartment when it was newly renovated. The insides of the front and back covers of the book are reproductions of this work and add an interesting dimension to the character of Lily’s sister Laverne.

Have you read any of Joan Clark’s novels? The Victory of Geraldine Gull? Latitudes of Melt? An Audience of Chairs?  She has written many others including two collections of short stories and several novels for young adults.

She was inducted into the Order of Canada in 2010 and received the Marian Engel Award for her body of work in 1991. She lives in Newfoundland and was raised in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

I have read the three titles listed above and recommend all of them. I will read Eriksdottir next.


2 thoughts on “The Birthday Lunch by Joan Clark”

  1. Oh, I just loved this. Loved it. And I am glad that I am chronically behind in my listening, as I just “discovered” the interview with JC and Shelagh Rogers on CBC’s “The Next Chapter”, and I found out some interesting details which fed into her writing of the book (but, simultaneously, I was glad not to know them before). You would enjoy finding them too!

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