Stephanie Jones: Book Review - The Quiet Spectacular by Laurence Fearnley

Publish Date
Thursday, 6 October 2016, 9:59AM

Loretta is a woman on the verge, a medical school librarian whose quotidian days are being drowned out by an insistent inner voice asking “What’s the most dangerous thing you’ve ever done?” One part of a feminine trio in author Laurence Fearnley’s The Quiet Spectacular, Loretta’s life revolves around her tween son Kit, the youngest of her three children, and her job as a school librarian. She runs the household she shares with Kit and his stepfather Hamish, whose financial irresponsibility troubles Loretta. She anticipates misfortune.

Drawn to a wetlands sanctuary near her home, she finds a mysterious, well-appointed den, and returns to it repeatedly. In Loretta’s circle, “[t[]ackling the rail trail or walking one of the major tracks was about as wild as it got”, and she channels her boredom and trepidation into The Dangerous Book for Menopausal Women, her collection of mini-biographies of interesting women that seems to serve as a personal manifesto. Something resembling menace is in the air, too – a local woman who recently bought a property through Loretta’s real estate agent friend has vanished.

Loretta’s story is abruptly succeeded by that of Porsche Chance, a teenager who knows the older woman as Ms Reed and admires the librarian’s composure in the face of smartphone-brandishing mean girls. Chance has been called by her surname since birth, her Shakespeare-appreciating mother Trudy having unwisely delegated the paperwork to her father, a car nut who conceals his reading difficulties behind disdain for books. Chance’s woes lie at the feet of Trudy, whose notion of responsible parenting is to prepare her daughter for the world’s demands and disappointments by imposing an exacting reading regimen and showing her no affection whatsoever.

Chance has spirit and a work ethic on her side, however, and the thin light of hope shimmers in the third part when she encounters Riva on the same wetlands track to which Loretta has lately been escaping. Riva is a self-made woman who shrugs off adversity as readily as she shed her more prosaic birth name, Ruth. Like Loretta and Chance, Riva has a personal pool of grief stemming from the illness and death of her much-loved sister. Riva is the creator of solace, a self-described “wetland equivalent of classicist Mary Beard” who uses funds from the sale of her outdoor-clothing company to establish and maintain the wetlands, home to precious native plants species and described with considerable care by Fearnley.

Though the arcs of all three characters intertwine, the novel’s tripartite structure, which airs each voice in turn, results in a sense of disconnection. Perhaps this is because early narrative threads are left to hang, and we never find out what becomes of Loretta’s book, or whether her frustration over Hamish’s workshyness abates or festers and erupts.

Or maybe the tide of emotion ebbs because no one takes it to the horrid Trudy, even after witnessing, in a tautly written and affecting scene, Chance’s humiliation by her mother. Loretta and Riva eagerly and capably step into the maternal void in the girl’s life, but it feels like a cheat when the villain gets away with it. (It is no spoiler to note that the missing woman remains so, ghosting the reader and thumbing her nose at Chekhov’s gun.)

The Quiet Spectacular might be most satisfyingly read as an environmental polemic which shows how the sincere efforts of even one person can stem the tide of habitat destruction. As a character drama, it is muted, more quiet than spectacular, amounting to something less than the sum of its parts.

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