Many of the letters in A Memoir of Friendship are about writing and reading, books and manuscripts; Blanche Howard and Carol Shields swapped book recommendations and writing frustrations and philosophies alongside the everyday stuff and nonsense of life.

In 1993, Blanche wrote to Carol Shields, two years after their novel, A Celibate Season, was published:

“And thank you for all those nice things you said about me. We seem to stand in relation to one another as mutual mentors, since I am always in awe of your talent and studying your work and methods for enlightenment. Odd to have a relationship where mentorship works both ways, isn’t it?”

In A Celibate Season, each writer adopts the perspective of a spouse whose marriage is strained by the period of separation occasioned by the wife’s decision to take a government job in Ottawa, which requires that the husband remains home to pay the phone bill (or, as it happens, not pay it) and to raise their daughter and son.

Each writes a series of letters over several months. (A brief mention is made to their preferring posted letters to e-mail, which seems to have been written into the paperback reprint in the later-90s, and which is ineffective, because later, when there actually are time-sensitive matters, surrounding transportation arrangements, a couple obviously would have altered their preference to keep communication open, had email truly been an option.)

This is the era when it was not unheard of for women to keep their maiden names when they married, not unheard of for women to return to work after they had children, not unheard of for women who choose to remain childfree. Not unheard of, but not common either. So Jock’s decision to prioritize her career halfway across the country would have been uncommon.

Chas’ unemployment adds complication. When he misses a beat, it’s not because he’s being expected to work the sort of double shift that Jock (for Jocelyn) has accepted unthinkingly; he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. The crises range from how to manage unexpected and lingering houseguests to an inordinately large purchase of lentils (predating Jock’s departure).

Jock’s adjusting too: navigating a politicized environment, being off-stage when transformations in parenting and housing responsibilities unfold, and she’s reaching for integrity in situations where its nature seems to shift rapidly.

There are many subtle references to space and territory and the kind of apathy that arises when one is too far away to understand how other people are living their lives. When Jock flies north for work, she sees the land differently: “Hours and hours over frozen tundra. I think I really understood for the first time the vastness of Canada and the audacity of a civilization that would try to capture and change it.”

Those who are predisposed towards the epistolary form will enjoy the novel immensely, for the intimacy and immediacy of it all. It’s also an excellent opportunity to observe the ins and outs of relationships that are less clear when one can depend on scenes and dialogue to navigate the between-spaces.

Jock, for instance, is troubled when she learns that her daughter has had her first period, an event for which Chas was unprepared. (“Curious, isn’t it, that half the world is involved in a ritual of which the other half is ignorant? It makes you wonder how many other mysteries there are that are guarded by one sex against the other.”)

But the unease she experiences when she learns that her son is out well past midnight most nights is something else. Not because she thinks her husband Chas should be handling it differently (the teenager’s grades are still good, he’s not breaking any rules) but because she can’t observe the specific details and interactions which would allow her gut to respond. Even when you can exchange letters or talk on the telephone, gestures and tone and environment are all lost, and each conversation is isolated and staged. Intimacy erodes, with matters small and large.

And everything is changing, all the time, for wives and husbands, for women and men. Jock writes: “I guess invading space must be next, that’s what little boys dream of now. (Little girls? I notice no one ever cleans space up.)”

Shove those bulk-buy lentils into the airlock, teleport the unfolded laundry into the cargo hold, and wash the fingerprints off those handheld screens: because whether Jock is only coming back home between assignments or whether she’s giving up on her parliamentary work, she’s in motion. Growing. Becoming.

(Earlier this year, I reread Small Ceremonies, and I’ve been reading The Box Garden and A Celibate Season with Bookish Beck; we’re reading Larry’s Party now and planning to reread Happenstance together. Let us know if you’d care to join.)