The Anatomy of an Ordinary Existence

By Donna Rifkind,
who reviews regularly for Book World
Tuesday, December 25, 2007


By Frances Itani

Atlantic Monthly Press. 283 pp. $24

Who will remember the quiet lives, the ones unamplified by fame or glamour? This is the question that Canadian author Frances Itani asks in her new novel, "Remembering the Bones," which recounts the personal history of an inconspicuous woman in a small, unremarkable community. Preoccupied with medical concerns and with reminiscences about the gains and losses sustained during her long life, this unsentimental narrator creates an effective feminine counterpoint to the aged male protagonist in Philip Roth's 2006 novel, "Everyman."

Itani's Everywoman, Georgina Danforth Witley, has spent all of her nearly 80 years in the once-rural southern Ontario town in which her mother's family has lived for generations. A dutiful daughter, mother and wife (now widow), Georgie claims just one distinction. She was born on the same day in the same year as Queen Elizabeth II and, though she has only glimpsed the sovereign once from afar during a royal visit to Canada, she's felt a lifelong kinship with Elizabeth as "a kind of parallel life-mate." Georgie owns a bountiful collection of palace memorabilia -- postcards, matchbooks, speeches, scrapbooks -- and has kept a close eye on the queen, who was married the same year as she, and who gave birth to Prince Charles just one month before Georgie and her husband welcomed their daughter in 1948.

Unlike most royal watchers, Georgie receives a rare privilege: an invitation to celebrate the queen's 80th birthday with a lunch at Buckingham Palace, bestowed by lottery to 99 men and women throughout the Commonwealth who were all born on April 21, 1926. Leaving several days early so she'll have time to recover from jet lag and do some sightseeing in London, Georgie sets out alone for the two-hour drive to the Ottawa airport to catch her flight. But during a split second of carelessness, on the first curve past her driveway, her car slips off the pavement through a pair of railings and falls into the deep, thickly wooded ravine that borders her hilltop neighborhood.

Thrown clear of her car, in tremendous pain but still conscious, Georgie gathers her resources for survival. ("Never say can't" is the Danforth women's motto.) She knows that her family -- her daughter, a theater director in her early 50s; her 103-year-old mother, who lives in a local retirement home; and her sister in Florida -- won't notice she's missing, expecting that she's on her way to England. So she sets small goals for herself. At some point, when she's stronger, she will crawl to the car. For now, in an effort to remain alert, she will review her life. "Memory has always been my long suit," she declares. In this situation, she believes, it might save her.

She begins with a childhood exercise, remembering the bones of the human skeleton. Her Danforth grandfather, a doctor who was killed during World War I while tending soldiers at the Somme when Georgie's mother was 13, left behind a library of medical texts, including a 1901 edition of Gray's Anatomy. The illustrations captivated Georgie from the first moment she came upon them at age 6. "You might say a kind of imprinting took place," she muses, and credits the volume, along with the tireless teacher who taught all eight grades in the town's one-room schoolhouse, with sparking her love for learning. Although Georgie once dreamed of becoming a doctor or a medical illustrator, during her Depression-era girlhood there was no money for higher education, so she settled for working in her father's dry-goods store until her marriage to a jeweler in 1947.

Georgie continues through her life history, trying to divert herself from the pain of her broken bones, from her terrible thirst, from fear. She recalls her honeymoon, during which her new husband was stricken with polio, and the long months of his recovery. There is the "intense period" of young motherhood, when she "washed and ironed and painted walls and gardened and put up preserves and gave birthday parties and made radish roses and fancy sandwiches," when "all the days seem like one day." And there are the sorrows: the long-ago death of her baby boy; her husband's recent surrender to cancer.

What, after 80 years of such a life, has been the point? "I am not planning to make my exit in a gully," she says crossly, also noting that, on the day of the royal birthday lunch, the queen will be the only person in the world who knows she's missing. The modesty of Georgie's life seems almost outrageous in comparison with the queen's, whose every hour is obsessively scrutinized. "Women my age are invisible," Georgie notes bitterly. "When we reach our sixties, we're discounted, sidelined. . . . But it's our world, too."

Modestly, graciously, Itani is making a big statement here, posing an even bigger challenge than she did in her previous novel, "Deafening," a capacious saga about a deaf girl set during World War I. "Remembering the Bones" has none of that lovely novel's breadth or momentum; it's stuck, after all, with the static image of its elderly heroine lying in a ditch. Yet Itani succeeds in granting Georgie's story nearly as much gravity and loving scrutiny as royal watchers give the queen. "Don't I qualify?" asks the quiet voice. Against many odds, it does.

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