Mona Lisa Smiled A Little
by Rachel Wyatt
Published by Oolichan Books
207 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Avoiding the Terrors
Reviewed by J.M. Bridgeman
Mona Lisa Smiled A Little, Rachel Wyatt's fourth book, is a collection of 18 linked stories packaged as a novel. The episodic stories, in chronological order, set in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, and Rwanda, offer picaresque glimpses into the life of Almeida Kerwell, a woman approaching retirement. In Almeida's world, most of the action happens to other people, or outside the frame. Almeida seems to prefer the geographical solution; she moves around, but her changes are situational or cognitive. Suggestions of real growth are unconvincing.
The charm of the writer's voice keeps the reader reading. With each story so self-contained, there is no propulsion from the plot. The stories share an overall theme such as "we are never too old to learn" or that "even older women seek -- something."
Almeida does not seem to know what she seeks. Is she just moving to avoid something, or towards something that she wants? Speaking of her two years of wandering, Almeida says: "She had allowed rocks and waterfalls to offer her lifelines. She had lived by scenery, as though it was her own soul but external." The mystery of what she is seeking and whether she finds it is left to the reader to solve without help from plot or character.
The tips from the writer (about what Almeida is seeking and whether or not she finds it) are in the images that are planted but do not seem to be always tended or harvested. With a few exceptions, each story introduces a different image. For example, allusions to an unnamed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis weave through the story "Heroine," hinting at Almeida's fear of abandonment and widowhood, adding depth to the themes of "do what you must" and "the need for kindness when we dare to judge the actions of others." But the potential of this reference to the deified Queen of Camelot as she might relate to ordinary women seeking role models is not fully developed, as one expects of a novel. Her things are auctioned off; we never see her again in any other story.
These linked stories are about "culture failure." Almeida is floundering in a culture seemingly devoid of ritual to help carry her through life changes and significant loss. A society, as Wyatt's stories depict, that takes women for granted. That celebrates only the maiden seductresses. That tolerates abuse, seeming to prefer women as victims. That reduces them to halves while offering few hints on how to make yourself whole.
Although her culture fails her, Almeida also sees that, at important junctures, she fails herself. Almeida recognizes, in "Becoming Chinese," that "there is no health in us," and, in "Heroine," that she has become a watcher. She never breaks through her denial to realize how dependent she is, how she cannot imagine herself alone, how she seeks validation from her relationships. Watching the lives of others, or of people on television, in old movies, in travel brochures, she tries to find some meaning in that larger world and apply that meaning to her own situation, to herself. Not realizing that she's got it backwards, that she is observing through the wrong end of a telescope, with images rattling around inside her skull looking for something to attach themselves to. Somehow, this line from "The Unknown Russian" seems to sum up her life: "She left her coffee mug in the sink to ward off that awful image and put her coat on." A feeble reaction, from a woman who prefers to avoid confrontation. Her habit is reflected in one-line jokes or single-sentence conclusions tossed in to summarize or to grab the last word at the end--"The rich have more options."
As a reader, I could not help liking this character. At the same time, I felt a bit sorry for her, and I knew she would not like that. This sense of reality is of course a tribute to Rachel Wyatt's craft. Her stories are gentle, and observant, and entertaining in their avoidance of "the terrors of completion," their quest for the upbeat, for color and light. | September 1999