Winnipeg Free Press Review - A Large Harmonium

Reviewed by: Sharon Chisvin

Sue Sorensen tells a universal story in A Large Harmonium. 

Forty-two-year-old Janey Erlicksen seems to have it all. She is a well-liked contemporary literature professor at a small Winnipeg liberal arts university, the wife of a handsome and considerate man, and the mother of a healthy and inquisitve four-year-old boy.

Yet in spite of all that she has, Janey is plagued by moments of doubt, depression and inertia. She worries about her husband's fidelity, her son's aggressiveness, and her own lack of creativity and career ambition.

Janey is the protagonist of Winnipegger Sue Sorensen's debut novel, A Large Harmonium. Sorensen, an English professor at Canadian Mennonite University, clearly understands the complexities and contradictions that linger on the surface of comfortable middle-class existence.

By successfully merging keen observations about domestic and academic life with elegant prose and elements of humour, she has produced a charming, engaging, thoughtful and affecting work that reads like a lightweight version of Allison Pearson's 2002 novel I Don't Know How She Does It.

Sorensen's heroine is not as witty, successful, smart or sassy as Pearson's fictional Kate Reddy (played by Sarah Jessica Parker in the current Hollywood movie version), but many of the dilemmas that she confronts are the same. As they did with Kate, readers will easily empathize with Janey's discontent.

"I examine my life and wonder what is the matter," Janey reflects. "All I can see is what ought to be health and happiness. Lovely boy, handsome and caring husband, blah, blah, blah."

As Janey ponders what exactly it is tht weighs her down, she plods through the motions of her routine; teaching, hosting family friends and colleagues, picking up her son, Max, from day care, planning romantic evenings alone with her husband, Hector, and supporting him in his musical pursuits. 

Hector is a music professor who, in his spare time, is composing an opera about Chaucer's patient Griselda. The harmonium of the title refers to the small seldom used organ stored in a practice room above Hector's university office.

The relationship between Janey and Hector is particularly well drawn, bouncing between love, affection, attraction, aggravation and impatience, often all in the same day.

Janey's relationship with Max who she calls, repeatedly and annoyingly, "the baby" or "Little Max," is equally well-illustrated. He is not an easy child and her reaction to his behaviour is never sugar coated.

Sorensen also presents Hector's pal and fellow musician Jam as a genuine, cleverly conceived character. Jam is a wandering, fun, commitment-phobic bachelor who often overstays his visits and in this process both enriches and threatens Janey and Hector's domestic balance.

Some of the novel's other secondary characters are less well imagined. Janey's in-laws and co-workers, as well as Max's always-available teenage babysitter Rene, are little more than caricatures. As a result there are a few too many moments in the narrative that do not ring true, where dialogue and action seem forced.

Overall, however, this is a very fine, plausible and articulate novel. Although it is set in Winnipeg, with references to Rae and Jerry's, the Viscount Gort, the Millennium Library and other local institutions, it tells a universal story, one that offers believable glimpses of contemporary middle-class life and the frustration and fatigue that accompany juggling careers, day care, parenthood, passions, hobbies, aging, faith, friends and family obligations.

 

Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.

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