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The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay

  womannextdoorThe Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay is the fourth of the five books selected Canada Reads 2009 that I have read this winter. Published in 1978, it is the first in a six-book series The Chronicles of the Plateau of Mont Royal. I did not read this book when it was first publ ished and might never have done so if not for the Canada Reads challenge. I would have missed a terrific book. It is a very funny book – and I don’t know about you, but r ight now, surrounded by so much talk of economic doom and gloom occasionally keeping me awake at night, laughing aloud while reading a funny book is a good thing.

This novel takes place over a single day, May 2, 1942, and begins “Rose, Violette and Mauve were knitting.” The three sisters sit on their balcony, on a day that is unusually warm for one this early in the spring. They are knitting baby booties and watching the neighbours come and go along rue Fabre. I was captured immediately and within pages I discover I am reading the thoughts of a cat – named Duplessis, no less, and loving it.

Along with the cat there is a large, extended family at the centre of the novel - mothers and fathers, a grandmother, assorted cousins, aunts and uncles and various children, all so mixed together that at first it seemed to be just a swarm of family. 

Then, as each character is gradually more fully revealed, we come to know them as individuals. Every member of the family and the neighborhood has a role to play – the loving mother who cherishes and nurtures her children; the terrified pregnant woman who has no information about reproduction and childbirth and dared not ask her doctor; a couple of pretty young “working girls,” caring and compassionate, keeping busy with soldiers about to go to war; the grumpy aunt, who feeds the family and desires in her heart to be loved; the nasty grandmother feared and revered; the nosey shopkeeper watching everyone on the street; the dying, retired courtesan who declared “if I had some little ache or pain, I’d knock it out with a twenty-sixer of rye or gin”; the young girl who discovers the power of her budding sexuality while encouraging a dangerous encounter in a playground; and Uncle Edouard who is most certainly gay. And the several “fat women” on the street.

This world is captured through the eyes of the children Marcel and Richard. As Tremblay says “My first vision of the world was of these women who forgot that I was there and who said things they would never have said had they known I was listening.”

This novel is all about the shifting interactions between the characters. One of the sweetest is between the main “fat woman” and her husband Gabriel. Alone in their room talking about the coming baby, so badly wanted by his wife, that in spite of their age making the pregnancy unseemly, he had agreed to her desire for this last child. As they discuss the name of the coming child he says, “I love you, you know.” Doing a little research about Michel Tremblay I discovered that he was in fact born in 1942, a planned child after the death of earlier children – much like that of the “fat woman” and her husband in his novel. He says, “I arrived in their life like a gift from heaven, a treasure that they prized more than any other in the world.”

I suspect that each reader will come away with a different take on what is actually happening in this novel.

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