"It's beautiful," I said, even though it wasn't my style. It
was cut glass and silver. Something a movie star might wear. Is
this what my boy thought of me? I wondered as he fastened it around
my neck. He called me Elizabeth Taylor and I laughed and laughed. I
wore that necklace throughout the rest of the day. In spite of its
garishness, I was surprised by how I felt: glamourous, special. I
was out of my element amidst my kitchen cupboards and self-hemmed
curtains. I almost believed in a version of myself that had long
since faded away.
--From Natural Order by Brian Francis
Joyce Sparks has lived the whole of her 86 years in the small
community of Balsden, Ontario. "There isn't anything on earth you
can't find your own backyard," her mother used to say, and Joyce
has structured her life accordingly. Today, she occupies a bed in
what she knows will be her final home, a shared room at Chestnut
Park Nursing Home where she contemplates the bland streetscape
through her window and tries not to be too gruff with the
This is not at all how Joyce expected her life to turn out. As a
girl, she'd allowed herself to imagine a future of adventure in the
arms of her friend Freddy Pender, whose chin bore a Kirk Douglas
cleft and who danced the cha-cha divinely. Though troubled by the
whispered assertions of her sister and friends that he was
"fruity," Joyce adored Freddy for all that was un-Balsden in his
flamboyant ways. When Freddy led the homecoming parade down
the main street , his expertly twirled baton and outrageous white
suit gleaming in the sun, Joyce fell head over heels in unrequited
Years later, after Freddy had left Balsden for an acting career in
New York, Joyce married Charlie, a kind and reserved man who could
hardly be less like Freddy. They married with little fanfare and
she bore one son, John. Though she did love Charlie, Joyce often
caught herself thinking about Freddy, buying Hollywood gossip
magazines in hopes of catching a glimpse of his face. Meanwhile,
she was growing increasingly alarmed about John's preference for
dolls and kitchen sets. She concealed the mounting signs that John
was not a "normal" boy, even buying him a coveted doll if he
promised to keep it a secret from Charlie.
News of Freddy finally arrived, and it was horrifying: he had
killed himself, throwing himself into the sea from a cruise ship.
"A mother always knows when something isn't right with her son,"
was Mrs. Pender's steely utterance when Joyce paid her respects,
cryptically alleging that Freddy's homosexuality had led to his
destruction. That night, Joyce threatened to take away John's doll
if he did not join the softball team. Convinced she had to protect
John from himself, she set her small family on a narrow path
bounded by secrecy and shame, which ultimately led to unimaginable
Today, as her life ebbs away at Chestnut Park, Joyce ponders the
terrible choices she made as a mother and wife and doubts that she
can be forgiven, or that she deserves to be. Then a young nursing
home volunteer named Timothy appears, so much like her long lost
John. Might there be some grace ahead in Joyce's life after
Voiced by an unforgettable and heartbreakingly flawed narrator,
Natural Order is a masterpiece of empathy, a wry
and tender depiction of the end-of-life remembrances and
reconciliations that one might undertake when there is nothing more
to lose, and no time to waste.
Brian Francis' first novel Fruit was a finalist
in the 2009 CBC Canada Reads competition. The story of a gay
teenager growing up in Sarnia, it was named one of NOW
Magazine's Top 10 Books of the Year, picked as a Barnes and Noble
"Discover Great New Writers" selection and was described by
Entertainment Weekly as "sweet, tart, and forbidden in all
the right places."
The recipient of the Writers' Union of Canada 2000 Emerging Artist
Award, Francis has also worked as a freelance writer for a variety
of magazines and newspapers. He grew up in Sarnia, Ontario, and now
lives in Toronto.
Natural Order is his second novel.
1. The phrase "natural order" is used more than once in the
narrative, by different characters, with different meanings.
Discuss the layered meanings of the title.
2. The novel begins with John's obituary. Did it accurately
convey the circumstances around his death, and life? Considering it
must have been penned by Joyce herself, what does it reveal about
her response at the time? How did this opening affect your
experience of reading the rest of the book?
3. "A mother always knows when something isn't right with her
son," says Mrs. Pender to Joyce, before admitting that she failed
Freddy, or that he failed her, "I'm just not sure which of us
failed the other first." (p. 71) What do you think of these
statements? Discuss Mrs. Pender's influence on Joyce through the
4. Contemplating the vanishing deer habitat around her house,
Joyce says "I think about that deer often. I wonder what will
happen to it once the dump trucks and bulldozers and chainsaws move
in. Who will protect it? Where will it go?" (p. 49) Later, Joyce
looks for the deer, knowing she won't see it (p. 72) and thinks
about the deer as an old woman too. (p. 153) What triggers her
thoughts about the deer? What does it really represent in her
5. As tragic as some of the events are in this novel, there are
also many funny moments and observations. Do you have a
6. "That's the problem with getting old. Time bends and shifts.
Memories spring up, uprooted." (p. 10) Discuss Joyce's grasp of
time. How did the shifting chronology of her narrative affect your
experience of the unfolding plot?
7. "The real moment of that first death, the true one, took
place in a bedroom with a crying boy and a mother walking out." (p.
215) Discuss the moment John comes out to Joyce, and her response.
Is her behaviour understandable? Is it forgivable? Of all the
mistakes she makes as a mother, which do you think is the
8. Discuss the impact of the many secrets throughout the
9. "Everything I ever did in life, I did wrong. Everything I
touched, I destroyed." (p. 11) Do you think that Joyce is being
fair to herself? Why/why not? Does she find redemption?
10. Discuss the final scene of the book. What is happening?
11. "Sometimes, I'm not sure if my life happened the way I
remember it, and there's no one left to verify the facts." (p. 10)
Do you consider Joyce to be a trustworthy narrator? How might the
story have been different if told through the eyes of another
12. "Things either happened before or after John's death. The
world was cleaved in two." (p. 327) Have you had an experience that
marked your own life like that?