I have a bad habit of critiquing books while I'm reading them. Even when I'm immersed in the story and enjoying myself, part of my attention is on how and why the book works. It gives me pleasure and mostly I can't help it.
"Dance, Glady's Dance" was an exception. It reached past my over-analytical head and connected with my emotions. It made me happy, even when it was making me sad.
I'm not entirely sure how Cassie Stocks did that but I'm very glad she did.
"Dance, Glady's, Dance", like many of the best things in life, requires you to use a little bit of imagination and to be willing to hope.
The story starts with Frieda Zweig looking, at twenty-seven, for a fresh start where she can put aside her former life as a would-be artist and live a life more ordinary. She asks herself:
"Who was I going to be? I was more inclined towards inertia than upward mobility and didn’t like most people enough to devote my life to helping others less fortunate than myself. I’d work somewhere, I thought, watch TV in the evenings, and become wholly involved in the lives of non-existent people. I’d develop my own life of quiet desperation, as Emerson’s buddy Thoreau suggested the mass of men (and, presumably, women) led."
To help with this self-imposed task, Frieda defines "Five Steps To An Ordinary Life":
1. Get a real job.
2. Stop seeing the world as a series of potential paintings.
3. Learn how to talk about the weather.
4. Do the things that normal people do.
5. Figure out what normal people actually do.
Although the initial tone of the book is light-hearted, "Dance, Gladys, Dance", is not a comedy. Frieda uses humour to distance herself from her problems and to suppress the strong emotions that always result in her needing to paint. True, Frieda's reality is often orthogonal to the surface of life as most of us live it and she spends a good deal of her time puzzled and occasionally defeated by everyday things like shopping for clothes, but Frieda is bright and intuitive and kind and fundamentally serious in her approach to life.
Frieda's doomed attempt to embrace the ordinary leads her to renting a room in a Victorian house owned by a widower who teaches photography at a local Arts Centre. After she moves in, she meets, Gladys, the ghost of the first woman to live in the house.
In addition to a cleverly designed set of events in the present day that weave together the fates of a number of strong characters, we have chapters that tell us more about Freida's life and how she came to give up on the idea of being an artist and, bit by bit, we hear Gladys' story.
Many of the characters in the book are damaged or in pain because they lack belief in their own talent or they have given up on their belief that they can be who they want to be. The book shows women in particular as being at risk of losing themselves in this way or being denied the right to use their talent.
The message of the book seems to be: trust yourself, use your talent and take the small opportunities we all have to make the world a less awful place to live in. Delivering this message without coming across as either didactic or sentimental is what makes this book such a triumph.
"Dance, Gladys, Dance" was Cassie Stocks' first novel. In 2013 it won the Leacock Memorial Medal, awarded to the best book of humour written in English by a Canadian writer.
You can find an interview with Cassie Stocks on writing "Dance, Gladys, Dance" here.
You can find details of her biography here.