Two novels with much in common may appeal to very different readers

Elizabeth Cran
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What do Portrait of Julia and The Hull Home Fire have in common?

A number of the main characters in each book really lived.

The backgrounds of each — Canada, France and England in 1920 and St. John’s in 1948 — are detailed and authentic.

A surprise pregnancy features in each one.

Yet the differences may be more important than the similarities, and the books may appeal to different kinds of readers while each being good in themselves.

The Hull Home Fire (Flanker, $19.95) is by Linda Abbott, a retired school teacher with more writing talent than most. Her characters, especially the Gibbs family, mostly belong to the lower middle class, while in Portrait of Julia (Formac Publishing, $29.95), they range from wealthy Montrealers upward to David, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII).

This novel also features two famous artists, Henri Matisse of France and James Morrice of Canada. Robert MacNeill, the author, has written three novels, some non-fiction and much journalism. He has also received many awards, including the Order of Canada in 1997. His background and part-time home iare in Halifax.

The Hull Home Fire is a straightforward narrative in which three stories are blended. One is the obvious — how carelessness, laissez-faire and ignorance combined to start a terrible fire in which over 30 old people, some of them bedridden, died. A second is the love story of Henry and Mary, both of whom work at the Hull Home. Henry wants to become a doctor and has just been accepted at McGill University’s medical school, while Mary finds herself pregnant and wants to keep this from Henry.

The third and final story tells of the resentment and anger felt by Tom Gibbs for his brother who left home to become a doctor and has never been heard from since.

With much skill in a plain but literate style, Abbott weaves these stories together into a novel almost anyone can enjoy. It’s recommended.

Portrait of Julia is more complicated to assess. Julia, who is well-off, is determined to be a modern young woman making her own decisions. She has some talent as an artist. She’s beautiful. She doesn’t think she can develop as she wishes in Canada, and she believes in free love.

Some of the best passages in the book describe the techniques of painting, as Julia visits her old teacher, Morrice, who decides to paint a full-length nude of her.

She finds herself pregnant, but doesn’t know by whom. She falls madly in love with an upper-class Englishman and then rejects him. At the end, she’s confused. Nevertheless, this, too, is an excellent book.

Elizabeth Cran is a freelance writer who writes a book review column for The Guardian. To comment or to send her books to review, write her at Her new address is: 95 Orange Street, Apt. 101, Saint John NB, E2L 1M5. or call her at 506-693-5498.

Organizations: Formac Publishing, McGill University, The Guardian

Geographic location: Canada, France, England 95 Orange Street

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