Ian Colford’s Reviews > The Birthday Lunch

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The Birthday Lunch by Joan Clark

Read in September 2015

3 of 5 stars

The Birthday Lunch is an account of a family struggling to regain its equilibrium following a sudden accidental death. Lily McNab is struck down crossing the street on her 58th birthday, leaving behind Hal, her husband of 33 years, daughter Claudia, son Matt, and her sister Laverne. Each of the surviving family members responds to Lily’s abrupt passing in a way that is distinctly personal. Clark probes these responses with the clear-eye of a novelist, and in the process creates a richly textured and emotionally authentic story that does not shy away from the mean and petty aspects of human nature. As in her previous novels Joan Clark's grip on the elements of her story is unwavering. The narrative is related from multiple points of view, and the author's skill is such that she can jump with apparent ease from one character to another, often within a single scene, without jolting the reader out of the story. Flashbacks are introduced at opportune moments, expanding on what we know of the characters and giving heft to their actions and motivations in the present. The New Brunswick setting is drawn in loving detail, coming alive with visual and sensory cues. It all adds up to a superb performance by a writer whose talents, late in her career, show no sign of diminishing. In the end, the story of Lily McNab’s death turns on a petty rivalry for her affections between her husband and her sister. If only Hal would stand up to his sister-in-law, if only Laverne would let go of the numerous minor disappointments that have soured her life, then Lily might still be alive. But human nature being what it is, the two are still goading each other in the book's final scene. The Birthday Lunch is a moving and disquieting novel. In these pages Joan Clark demonstrates that seemingly insignificant actions can have life-altering consequences.