Canada Reads: Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan

twosolitudesAt first glance Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan seems like a natural choice to sweep Canada Reads. It is an iconic Canadian novel and Governor General Award winner that captures the plight of the English and French in Quebec in the early part of the twentieth century. MacLennan’s writing is clean, crisp and timeless, concealing the fact that it was written more than sixty years ago.

But as I got more into the novel, I became less convinced. The plot moves along at a snail’s pace. This is largely due to MacLennan’s impromptu ravings over the (multiple) two solitudes that form the backbone of the novel. He expounds many times and at length on the dichotomies that prop his story up: French vs. English, Catholic vs. Protestant, Religion vs. Science, America vs. Canada and the list goes on. I think I prefer a little more subtly. Overall, these digressions make the novel about 200 pages longer than it should have been.

Some of the characters in Two Solitudes, however, are truly memorable and Canadian. I am thinking specifically of Yardley, the retired seaman from Nova Scotia who decides to buy a farm in the all French outpost of St. Marc. He is one of those characters in Canadian literature that you can’t help but love. I put him up along side Matthew Cuthbert. The relationship that develops between Yardley and young Paul is one of the sustaining factors of the novel. This relationship is certainly more plausible that the supposed romance that takes between Yardley’s granddaughter and Paul. But now I am digressing much as MacLennan does.

Initially I thought Two Solitudes would fair quite nicely in the Canada Reads debates, but now I’m not so sure. Away, defended by Charlotte Gray, and The Age of Hopedefended by Ron MacLean will surely surpass Two Solitudes. I think Two Solitudes‘ defender Jay Baruchel has a lot of popular support, but can he stand up to the likes of Gray and MacLean?

Who would like this book? The usual CBC Canada Reads crowd – that goes without saying. I think this novel would also appeal to the historically and politically minded. It really is a key work in depicting Canada’s social history.

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