Archive for the ‘Margaret Forster’ Category

Isa & May by Margaret Forster tells the story of Isamay (named for both her grandmothers), a graduate student working on a thesis about the role of grandmothers.  Examining the roles of historical figures such as Sarah Bernhardt, Vanessa Bell, and Queen Victoria, Isamay also uncovers secrets in her own family, where both her grandmothers have played important and conflicting roles in Isamay’s life. 

I was very close to my maternal grandmother.  Born in 1921 in what is now the Czech Republic, she lived through some rather awful times.  She’d grown up in a wealthy family, learning the skills appropriate to such a life, including sewing, baking (not cooking), and how to manage servants.  She was to start University, studying literature, in 1939 but the school was closed by the Nazis.  During the war, her father died after being ‘questioned’ by the Gestapo, and she married my grandfather as an alternative to being sent to work in a munitions factory in Germany (a favourite target for allied bombers).  Yes, very romantic.  After the war, communism.  Such fun for all.  In 1968, a few years after being widowed, she made the decision to leave the country and immigrate to Canada with her two daughters (ages 13 and 20).  She worked as a tea lady and a cleaning woman until she mastered English, eventually moving on to a role in research.  She had two grandchildren (me and my brother), retiring the year I was born, and to say that her life revolved around us is actually a bit of an understatement.  Growing up, more often than not it was my grandmother and not my parents or my nanny who picked me up from school.  She volunteered in the school library while I was in elementary school and lived in an apartment just a few blocks away from my house when I was young.  She could be strict and unyielding but my brother and I adored her, and we were adored in return.  There were very rigid rules about what was correct and what was not (correct: top grades, short hair, neat clothing, good manners; incorrect: we were too afraid to find out), and though this attitude both frustrated and amused us, we did as she said for the most part.

My grandmother (age 16 or 17)

So is it any wonder then that I jumped to read a book about grandmothers, when mine had been such a large influence on my development?

Unfortunately, despite how much I had been looking forward to this one, I found it ultimately disappointing.  I found both Isa and May appealing but not Isamay, the protagonist.  She seemed so…clueless, I suppose is the best word.  She knows almost nothing about her boyfriend Ian’s past, despite having been together for several years, and though this bothers her, she seems unable to articulate this frustration to him and so she just grows more curious and more suspicious, trying to piece together clues she gathers surreptitiously.  A very strange dynamic for a relationship.    

But it is Isamay’s naivety about grandmothers that frustrates me the most.  She does not understand why it is that one generation wants to see the next continue, why a parent is so eager to see their son or daughter have children of their own.  She dismisses the responses her grandmothers give her, about the importance of the future and continuity.  I found this entire outlook strange.  If you’re going to go looking for answers, admittedly from authorities on this matter, why would you not accept them?  Is it not basic human nature to want to see your line continue, to know that even once you are gone those related to you will remain?  That you made some mark on the work, left something of lasting value?  And to know that not only did you have children but that your children had children and so on, what relief.  Biologically, this is why we’re here after all.  Not to make money, not even to read books, but to propagate the species. 

I found the historical examples far more interesting than the predictable intrigues of Isamay’s own life.  Queen Victoria is always my favourite grandmother, but it was interesting to hear about some others that I knew less about, like Sarah Bernhardt and George Sand. 

Overall, an interesting concept but executed in a way that ultimately frustrated me with the lack of emotional connection between the protagonist and her subject.

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