Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan

Two Solitudes by
Trade Paperback, 517 pages
Two Solitudes
Rating: 9/10


Two Solitudes follows the lives of the Québécois Tallard family between 1917 and 1939: Athanase, a rigid intellectual who considers himself a model French-Canadian citizen; his young second wife Kathleen, out of place in a small town that doesn't take kindly to strangers or to the English; Athanase's older son, Marius, who rages and blames the English-Canadians (including his stepmother) for all of his problems; and young Paul, who is brought up with both French-Canadian and English-Canadian ideologies, gliding between both worlds but perhaps comfortable in neither. On top of the issue of French-Canadian and English-Canadian cultures, it is a turbulent time in history: wars, clashing religious views, and modernization within business and society all collude to create a difficult life to navigate as this divided family struggles to make peace with each other and with their identities.

Reason for Reading

I'm reading the Canada Reads nominees, and Two Solitudes is this week's choice in the Twitter Book Club.
Actor and producer Jay Baruchel will be defending Two Solitudes, the pick for the Quebec division.

Why you should read this book

I was in high school during the Quebec referendum of 1995, and while the idea of Quebec separating from the rest of Canada was much discussed, I've never had a clear idea of why some Québécois feel so strongly about their identity that they would want to become their own country. After reading Two Solitudes, I can finally begin to understand these passionate views even if I can't agree with them. In beginning the novel, the focus seems to be on the division between the English and the French in Canada, but it quickly becomes apparent that everything is divided and changing. Athanase, an old-fashioned but likeable character, tentatively tries to keep up with a world that is modernizing far too fast for his baby steps. His friend Captain Yardley, a wise and joyous character who eagerly embraces the future, faces the disappointment of seeing members of the next generation tied to antiquated ideas of what can make a woman a proper marriage. The story is bookended by WWI and WWII, adding to a sense of drama and fuelling great economic changes within the Canadian borders as lives are lost across the ocean. The cultural identities of these characters are so entangled in personal relationships that many of the things said about Ontario or Quebec could be swapped out with the names of loved ones or enemies.The afterword by Robert Kroetsch mentions that the women in the story 'steal the show' for the contemporary reader, which is very much true. It is a relief when Kathleen bursts in with her story, introducing a bit of scandal and a discontent that is starting to build within younger women. Paul's love interest also opens up a more artistic world, a breath of fresh air after Athanase's sombre political and religious-themed pensiveness. The contrasts in this novel are everywhere, but never stronger than when comparing the French and the English, a struggle that is contained within Paul, whose optimism gives him strength and hope to unite this cultures, even though almost 70 years after the novel was published, we can still see the divisions within Canada. Two Solitudes presents us with the roots of Canada's identity and manages to wrap it up within a great story and some great characters.

Why you should avoid this book

There are a lot of the old traps of classic Canadian literature at work here - the writing can get a bit dry and stodgy, and there are bouts of intellectualism for its own sake ('show, don't tell' could be applied to a number of places that might be interesting for the background of Quebec but cause the pacing to suffer). While dry and stodgy is practically part of my Canadian heritage and gives me the warm fuzzies, this won't be to everyone's tastes. Still, largely enjoyable, especially considering how much I learned about Canada.

Opening Paragraph

Northwest of Montreal, through a valley always in sight of the low mountains of the Laurentian Shield, the Ottawa River flows out of Protestant Ontario into Catholic Quebec. It comes down broad and ale-coloured and joins the Saint Lawrence, the two streams embrace the pan of Montreal Island, the Ottawa merges and loses itself, and the mainstream moves northeastward a thousand miles to the sea.

Fabulous quotes

He often wondered how much Marius knew. The boy worshipped his mother's memory. Athanase sighed. There was a mystery too deeply rooted in his relations with Marius for him to comprehend its full meaning. He had loved the boy. He still did, but apparently love was inadequate where there was no understanding.
Heather watched her sister take off the rest of her clothes until she was sitting naked on the bed. 'Do you mind if I ask you something?' she said quietly. 'Do you really love Noel?'
Daphne laughed. Her slim, lissom body, golden in the shaded light, moved gracefully as she threw her silk underclothes on to a chair. 'Give me a dressing gown,' she said.
Heather went to her closet, pulled a garment from a hanger and handed it to her sister. When she had wrapped it tight about her body, Daphne stood for a moment watching Heather's face. 'Love is an old-fashioned word, darling. Why do you bother using it?'
'Do you know a better one?'

Also by

Barometer Rising; The Precipice; Each Man's Son; The Watch that Ends the Night; Return of the Sphinx; Voices in Time; Cross-Country; Thirty and Three; Scotchman's Return and Other Essays; The Other Side of Hugh MacLennan: Selected Essays Old and New; Oxyrhynchus: An Economic and Social Study; Seven Rivers of Canada; The Colour of Canada; Rivers of Canada.

Fun Tidbit

Two Solitudes won the Governor General's Award in 1945.

Would I read more by ?

While I'm glad I read Two Solitudes, I'll probably be okay accepting this as MacLennan's definitive work and stopping here.

One Response to Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan

  1. Pb Jessop says:

    A fine pithy treatment. Returning to TS after nearly 40 (???? ) years for my wondrous book club. Yes the writing is 40’stodgy … I laughed out loud when sex was referred as ‘knowing’ a woman. But it is the blatant belief in “purity” that stuns me on this reading….purity of faith, of love, of culture. That purile and futile attempt of excluding the new and the innovative and the creative in order to maintain purity speaks to the factions in the middle east and elsewhere. Not only is it a current and valid reading of/for Canada today it is of the world. The ending with the opening of WWII will force those who can see to watch the costs of purity unfold in
    all its gory detail. And we continue to watch…

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