Review by Andrea Westcott
by Meredith Quartermain
As a meta-narrative about the process of writing a novel, U Girl succeeds because novelist Meredith Quartermain has already thought through the writing process, so that her narrator Frances Nelson asks the narratological and existential questions Quartermain has, herself, already asked and answered. Quartermain reveals her philosophical themes by exploring how a novel finds and expresses itself. The novel opens with this confession: “Of course Frances Nelson isn’t my real name, and we weren’t from Cultus Lake, not the one on the map, but we were from a cultus lake, somewhere, nowhere” (1). In narrating her own coming-of-age story, Frances could be Mabel or Priscilla or Georgina because she is searching for her identity. As a fledging writer she wonders what “real writers call themselves” and who Frances would be in her own novel (21). She finds her answers as she writes.
While Frances could be coming from anywhere, the beginning of her quest brings her to Vancouver.
By setting the novel in her own backyard (in 1972), Quartermain draws beautifully on her knowledge of this region using pin-point geography to describe south-western British Columbia. She situates U Girl mostly within the Vancouver setting, with such specific nods as those to Spanish Banks, CKLG radio, Georgia Straight, and “the triangle between Broadway, Main and Kingsway” (22). On the one hand, we have a universal coming-of-age story, and on the other, the vivid local setting rich in its use of detail.
Quartermain structures the frame of U Girl around “a bunch of people living in a house” (88), Jack, Carla and Dwight, who live with Frances. They become the characters in her novel, taking on fantasy lives that diverge and cross with their own lives. The place where Frances goes to find her creativity, the “[w]indows in the dark mansion of [her] brain” (72), is the place her Prof Nigel calls her “darkness,” the place that attracts him to her and that he thinks her novel should be about (62). However, the windings of the novel follow more than the journey of Frances discovering what her darkness is; it also explores her “tree and mountain” self (119), her vitality, her “wildness” (206).
Frances’ exploits resonate from within their early 1970s culture: she and her girlfriends can have sex before marriage because “marriage was not for us” (3); she can experiment with weed and hash, maybe go to “be-ins and happenings” (73), check out Wreck Beach, all the while attending UBC as an undergrad in English literature.
Introduced and developed as a character willing to take risks, Frances quickly eases herself out of one relationship with Joe, and then she must learn to answer to the call “HEY U GIRL” (25) from Carla her new rooming/house mate. Frances subsequently moves into another, just as unsuitable relationship, with her professor Nigel, the object of her desire, “daring to think my wildness could match his Shakespeare” (169). After the end of her course with him, when he suggests she read Proust “because he showed how magical names were” (144), Frances eagerly plays the name game as they wend their way up to Desolation Sound on his sailboat, Windsong. However, the name of their destination becomes too prophetic, later, when he doesn’t call after the trip, and she finds herself spurned and desolate. The novel’s plot is not a conventional linear narrative where girl meets boy, faces crisis, and ends up with her Romeo. Quartermain is much more focused on her heroine’s identity quest than to allow her novel to become, as Frances asserts to Nigel, “some hokey formula romance” (116).
At the same time as Frances is trying to write her novel, she’s also trying to educate herself, find out who she is and where she fits into this particular world in which she’s found herself. In order to make enough money to continue with her studies in English, therefore, Frances also slings drinks at the Biltmore bar and files claims at an insurance company.
As the story develops, Quartermain evokes some wonderful, precise imagery: when Frances tries to find out what’s going on with a “domestic quarrel” (84) in Jack’s room, “[t]he grubby little fridge kept its blank face shut” (83). Later, at the Biltmore bar, brash UBC students “seethed and swirled around each other like rushing water crashing and tumbling through rapids, as certain as a river of where they were going” (91). Frances, thinking of her roots growing up, admits, “I’d crawled their forests [around Cultus Lake] like a flea in the fur of a bear” (144). Conversely, Quartermain invents a few tortured tropes: “Echoes of ‘down’ and ‘out’ slalomed down the white slope of this thought leaving interlocking zigzags in its pristine powder” (77). Perhaps this image reflects the fact that Frances is high on hash at the time! Quartermain matches her particular style with a highly literary tone. It’s a novel rife with so many references to literature, music and art that the cover art itself offers the reader a preview, with its west coast rendering of Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott.”
By her journey’s close Frances discovers where she fits in is not where she might like to think she would. Ironically, her infatuation with her well-heeled university girlfriend Dagmar causes her heartache, just as her love for her English professor proves to be one-sided. Yet a sense of belonging can come from odd places, as Frances realizes when she makes some deeper connections with each of her roommates, especially campy Carla. Yet, even more surprising, who would expect that Frances could feel such powerful sensations with “sleazy Dwight” (185) that she could not experience with Nigel, despite his “cool John Lennon stares” (140)?
In the end, we are drawn convincingly into Frances’ world. Readers of U Girl will also appreciate and enjoy recognizing so many local haunts revealed in these pages. The ones who are likely to be the most enchanted are those who can identify the myriad allusions, relate to the trials and triumphs of writing, or, like Frances, aspire to do so and grow in the process.
Andrea Westcott received her undergraduate degree from the University of Alberta in Honours English and her MA from Queen’s in Kingston, ON. Her MA thesis compared Carlyle to Disraeli. Andrea’s PhD, granted from the University of Toronto, is entitled “The Art of Anne Bronte”. Her teaching career began in the English Department at UBC, and since then, Professor Westcott has been teaching at Capilano University. She is a member of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Capilano University, researching and writing about women writers from the Victorian period through to the present. See, for example, the essay, “A Matter of Strong Prejudice: Gilbert Markham’s Self-Portrait”, published in New Approaches to the Literary Art of Anne Bronte edited by Julie Nash and Barbara A. Seuss.