My Father Took a Cake to France
2nd Ed: Feb. 15, 1992
Jump to a specific review:
- Aritha van Herk, University of Toronto Quarterly Fall 1993
- Rhonda Batchelor, Monday Magazine September 1992
- Assigned Reading, Mary Beth Knechtel, New Directions, June 1993, 30-33
- Patricia Morley in Quill & Quire, Sept 92, p 65.
Aritha van Herk, University of Toronto Quarterly Fall 1993
Pungent and articulate…
There were many excellent collections of short fiction published in 1992. .
. . For me, the most outstanding was without question Cynthia Flood’s My Father Took A Cake To France. Pungent and articulate, the stories throw ordinary situations into new relief without the relentless overtelling that less astute writers succumb to. . . . Traversing the line between frailty and strength, between desire and repression, Flood manages to capture the essence of short fiction’s situational contingencies with instinctive skill. Whether she uses as her subject the blunt betrayals of the body or the delicate sea currents of emotion, Flood is a fiercely incisive and wryly comic writer. . . .
Rhonda Batchelor, Monday Magazine September 1992
Flood’s real talent lies in her ability to get under the skin of her characters.
In addition to her obvious skill as a fiction writer, Flood’s real talent lies in her ability to get under the skin of her characters. Men and women are discovered at times of personal crisis when their interactions with others are crucial. The underlying message is that the way each of us lives has its effect on the way someone else lives. Flood’s grasp of this stems from a highly developed social conscience.
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Assigned Reading, Mary Beth Knechtel, New Directions, June 1993, 30-33
The title story…won the Journey Prize for fiction…
The title story of Cynthia Flood’s latest collection, My Father Took A Cake To France, won the Journey Prize for fiction in 1990. It was judged the best short story published in Canada in that year, and it is a gem. This story ranks right up there among the best of Canada’s best writers — Mavis Gallant, Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood; it will be anthologized for generations to come; it will be made “assigned reading” for college and university courses. In fact it is assigned reading for a course I teach at Langara College in Vancouver, so I won’t pretend to be non-partisan about this book; however, I can account for my good opinion of it.From the start, you know you are dealing with a perspicacious and seasoned intelligence. Hers is a mind that is unmistakably Canadian, unabashedly leftist, decidedly feminist, deftly ironical, and wholly charitable — a melange of seeming disparate elements, you might think. The magic lies in how Flood melds them together, or perhaps stitches is the better metaphor, since the lead-off story, “The Meaning of the Marriage,” supplies us with an apt analogy for storytelling in the image of a crazy quilt:
“To follow a pattern–log cabin or wedding ring or Texas star–is one thing, to create ex nihilo quite another. Buying material would be a dreadful waste. No. The quilt-maker must use whatever has come to her ragbag through the years, and thence generate a design that exploits those random colours and textures, displays them to their utmost brilliance. Thus she is midwife to a metamorphosis. In her quilt, the scraps and bits and tatters fuse and then explode into a shapely galaxy of shattered stained glass.”
The narrator herself looks back along three generations of her forbears, piecing together scraps of memories and bits of family lore, marvelling at the “magnificent resurrection” of her step-grandmother’s mauve silk wedding dress and at the complete absence from memory of the grandfather who outlived two wives and was buried by the third. This beginning story has no ending, since no one alive now remembers how it ends, but each story that follows adds its pattern to Flood’s intricate narrative design.
The title story recreates in imagination a scrap of memory from the early married life of the narrator’s parents–her mother keeping house in Paris in 1928 while her father reads History at Oxford. This brilliant young scholar is quintessentially Canadian (Anglo-Canadian, that is)–he despises French Canadians and loathes the vulgarity of “ratty raw Canada” with its grotesque place names like Lake Muskoka and Hogtown, a mere “blueprint” of a country, culturally benighted every bit as much as St Louis, Missour was to T. S. Eliot. Appropriately enough, the young scholar carries in his pocket a copy of Eliot’s The Wasteland, balanced by Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale in the other pocket: “. . .a wonderful novel, a masterpiece, no one writes like that any more. . . .” As he treads the culturally and historically rich streets of London with his “flat Canadian [feet],” he is filled with rage and romantic regret over the deprivations he has suffered and will suffer due to his origins and his prospects: “”There will never have been the small English manor house. . .” of his youth, and he will never make his wife a marchioness.
This man is filled with resentments over what has never been and with nostalgia for the present tense: “. . . what my father feels is nostalgia for the moment, right now while it is still the moment,” revealing a dissociation from life common to those who can only experience themselves as spectacle–Here I am, suffering. He berates his sister who did nothing with her musical training, although the daughter-narrator finds out at his funeral that the sister sacrificed her talents and ambitions for the sake of educating “the gifted older brother.” He yearns for his wife to be “fragile, delicate,” although “my mother is and always has been a handsome woman, energetic, with snapping hazel eyes and a lively play of expression.” He prefers women to be confections, like the pretty English shopgirl in the bakery where he purchases the extravagant cake. He glories in the self-sacrifice and the high romance of his gesture, oblivious to the possible inappropriateness of his gift.
The narrator in this story interlayers past, more recent past, and present time like a well-made torte; the voice in “The Schooling of Women” is more directly telling Flood’s personal history, and it will sting with the shock of recognition those women who were undergraduates in the 50s, or even earlier.
Remember sweater sets? Remember hiding your pincurls under head-scarves? In women’s residences at university, the narrator and her gaggle of instant bosom friends study The Canon Of Great Literature written by men–white, dead men–but they also learn “about abortions, about attempted suicides” and they are exposed for the first time to other young women who don’t quite fit the stereotype. Marfa is in Slavonic Studies, “whatever they were,” and parades naked in her room with a paper bag over her head, according to rumour; Janie challenges the patriarchal authority with questions such as, “Why aren’t there any women professors here?” and “Why does Milton hate women?” Janie wears suits like a man but, it appears, ends up sleeping with the professor just the same. Nora, embarking on a model’s career, is “wonderfully thin.” She looks askance at the starchy residence meals, and throws up a lot in the communal washroom. Bulimia-anorexia [sic] didn’t have a name yet. The narrator and her friends watch, and learn “how her lip pencil moved along her flesh to form the mouth of her desire.”
[The final story] fittingly draws together the various strands Flood has been plying throughout the book: political issues and personal anguish, memory and imagination, past generations and the new, hopeful one–all those dialectical opposites that divide us. “Working with those black and gold fibres that are my mother’s hair, I make things,” says the woman in “The Skein,” summing up in simple fashion Flood’s own complex achievement here.
Other stories in the collection focus on the socialization of women: their marginalization, in contrast to the experience of the next generation, is explored in “Winter Into Spring” where Deborah and her middleaged friends lament “free trade, Palestine, daycare, the ozone layer, reproductive rights. Nothing had the passionate bite of Vietnam.” The Morgentaler ruling was cause for celebration for those women who “had radicalized through the abortion issue,” but it also “told them that their youth was quite gone.”
Political activists of the 60s and 70s begin to react in patterns remarkably similar to their parents’ generation, as the 90s unroll. It shocks them to discover that their most important experiences are irrelevant to their children. “By now, there were rebellious eigbhteen-year-olds who did not know where Vietnam was (Hal found this incredible, unbearable). They thought ‘The Killing Fields’ was kind of a neat war movie.” The story “For The Record” juxtaposes historical clips of information about the life of Greg Chisholm, an old leftie from the 20s and 30s, against glimpses Hal gets of Chisholm and his wife at a Ziegfeld Follies flick at the Van East Cinema. “People had always listened to what Greg Chisholm said. The gathering opened, a little Red Sea before its Moses. . . .” Flood’s ironical touch here, as elsewhere in this collection, is deft and discreet. (It’s like being frisked by an expert; you hardly know it’s happened.)
The final story in the book, “The Skein,” contains the bitterest memories of all, in that it traces the painful breakdown of marriage, but at the same time if offers the most hope of healing, in the personal recovery of the woman-narrator. The image of “the skein” is descriptive of the narrative technique here, since Flood weaves together several strands of spoken and unspoken dialogue between characters referred to as “the woman. . .her mother. . .the husband. . .the therapist.” They could stand as representative types; they indulge in all-too-familiar power games of recrimination and manipulation.
“The husband: You’re just like your parents. [It’s true. It’s as if the woman I love disappears, she’s swallowed up oir vanished or something, she isn’t there any more. There, that’ll shut her up.]
The woman: [The translator breaks down. She has no answer to the awful accusation. True at so many levels, untrue at so many others, the charge paralyzes her vocal cords.]”
The woman’s conscious mind and her dream life are the battlegrounds for skirmishes between the elements of shame and guilt and fear. But the weaving of the story itself reveals a process of healing. “You are not yet well. You are only better,” the woman addresses herself.
In this, “The Skein” fittingly draws together the various strands Flood has been plying throughout the book: political issues and personal anguish, memory and imagination, past generations and the new, hopeful one–all those dialectical opposites that divide us. “Working with those black and gold fibres that are my mother’s hair, I make things,” says the woman in “The Skein,” summing up in simple fashion Flood’s own complex achievement here.
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Patricia Morley in Quill & Quire, Sept 92, p 65.
…includes some of the best stories I’ve read in years…
Readers who missed Cynthia Flood’s first collection, The Animals in their Elements (1987) really should make an effort to catch her second, which includes some of the best stories I’ve read in years. . . . [In one story] the narrator admits that her imagination “requires a toehold on the known world.” It’s a good image, and an apt description of Flood’s fiction, lit by memorable analogies that are trenchant and poetic. Her images can be whimsical, fantastic, or biting. A master quilt-maker is “midwife to a metamorphosis. In her quilt, the scraps and bits and tatters fuse and then explode into a shapely galaxy of shattered stained glass.”
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