The Age of Hope by David Bergen
Innocence, despair, profit, longing and hope – the stages of Hope Koop’s life and the chapters in David Bergen’s latest novel, The Age of Hope. I can’t say I’ve loved any of David Bergen’s previous books but since this one is on the 2013 Canada Read’s list and seemed to be, possibly, interesting I thought I’d take it on a plane trip – then I’d have to finish it no matter how bored I was. And I will admit I was bored by the writing, but not by the story – until I finished it and wondered what I could possibly write about it.
It is the story of a woman’s life, born in a small town outside of Winnipeg in 1930 – my mother’s generation, I can relate to that. If I tell you too much about the story you will discover nothing for yourself when you read it, but there are some typical attitudes and realities of the time that we all know already of course – such as, there is no point in a woman getting an education because she won’t need it after she marries since she will never have to work – your husband and your family should be all a woman needs to have a very satisfying life – the good life (money) is to be desired and can be achieved through hard work. I can picture these people clearly, they were my parents and their friends. I know exactly what they were wearing, drinking, smoking and the cars they were driving. I know their kids, the eldest daughter was me, the sulky, nasty teenager who just wanted to get out of there, with little or no regard for her parents. David Bergen describes this life perfectly – but it is flat as the prairie on which it takes place. I kept waiting for him to breath some life into his characters but it never happened – they remained simply artifacts. Even the observation that “really children could break your heart” left me screaming “say it again with feeling”!
By the time Hope is sixty years old, spending her time worrying about how she looks, I thought about my own generation, sandwiched between aging parents and grandchildren, most of us still working, too tired to care much about how we look as long as we are clean and dressed. By now there have been a few things in Hope’s life that are far less than perfect, but still they are just events that seem to hardly touch this cardboard couple.
Which isn’t to say there are not bits of this book that are delightful. I especially loved Hope in bed with a heavy book – she cut the book into three pieces – read each one, the middle section “the front few pages hung loose, and she tore those off and discarded them”. I laughed at anyone other than myself mutilating a book in this way - when we travel my husband and I will often share a paperback mystery. I read more quickly, so I start and when he is ready to begin we tear the book into pieces so he can read as I continue.
When one of Hope’s daughters begins to write a novel about a woman born in 1930 she wonders if there is anything in the life of such a “woman that is worth exploring? A woman does not fight in wars, does not invent, does not make something out of nothing…most women your age had children and raised them….they took the mother for granted.” So true. And yet, of course, women of that generation did accomplish a lot, some did establish careers before or after having families, they had children young and then had years to be themselves after the children left home. There was the women’s movement, David Bergen has created a character for that role in this novel, so its not been left out, even if Hope stands on the sidelines except for one very out of character episode.
I read this book in one go – the best way when time allows – while visiting my mother, 86 the week I was there. At the risk of giving anything away, Hope does not live to be 86 and I was sorry for that – I felt she died too young and without ever having a voice – that magic something that an author needs to give his characters life.