Natural Order

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Natural Order

by Brian Francis

Doubleday Canada | August 23, 2011 | Hardcover

4.5 out of 5 rating. 4 Reviews

"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 nurses.
 
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 love.
 
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 loss.
 
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 all?
 
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.

Format: Hardcover

Dimensions: 384 Pages, 5.91 × 8.27 × 1.18 in

Published: August 23, 2011

Publisher: Doubleday Canada

Language: English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0385671539

ISBN - 13: 9780385671538

Found in: Fiction and Literature

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– More About This Product –

Natural Order

Natural Order

by Brian Francis

Format: Hardcover

Dimensions: 384 Pages, 5.91 × 8.27 × 1.18 in

Published: August 23, 2011

Publisher: Doubleday Canada

Language: English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0385671539

ISBN - 13: 9780385671538

Read from the Book

The buzzers keep me awake at night. That’s one thing that hasn’t gone—my hearing. Most everything else has faded. My taste. Vision. Even my voice, which comes out sounding like a scratch in the air.   The buzzers bleat in the hallway like robot sheep. We keep our strings close to us so they’re easy to reach and pull. Mine is attached to my purse. Before I go to bed, I always set my purse on my night table. During the day, when I’m in my room, I keep it on my bed. I always have it near. Sometimes, at night, when the sounds wake me, I’ll stare at my purse until I fall asleep again. It’s not a particularly nice purse. I don’t even think it’s real leather.   Most of the buzzers you hear aren’t for what you’d call real emergencies. Usually, someone needs an extra blanket. Or someone had a bad dream. More often than not, I think people pull the buzzer just to see how long it takes for someone to come to their room. I did that, the first few months after I came here. I’d pull the string and count the seconds, panic building.   17, 18, 19   What if I’d fallen out of bed? What if I was having a heart attack?   34, 35   What if I’d broken my hip?   42   What if I was dead?   Joyce Sparks.   My name is on the wall outside my room next to a straw hat with a yellow ribbon and a couple of glued-on daisies. The hat reminds me of my sister, Helen, although it
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From the Publisher

"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 nurses.
 
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 love.
 
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 loss.
 
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 all?
 
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.

About the Author

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.

Editorial Reviews

“Good, sharp, vivid writing.... When he hits the emotional high notes, Francis never wavers. In fact, if you value your dignity, I implore you not to read the final sixty pages in a public place: You will cry, hard, probably more than once.” — The Globe and Mail “ Natural Order is structurally complex, highly readable, and poses interesting questions about generational change and the divide between small-town and big city lifestyles. . . . Illuminating and moving.” — Quill & Quire “A remarkably honest and uniquely Canadian book. . . . and an emotional story skillfully drawn.” — Fashion (Zoe Whittall)   “(Brian Francis’s) prose kept reminding me of Alice Munro, not only in its unfussy precision, but in its constant refusal of easy sentimentality. . . . Very affecting.” — National Post (Scott MacDonald) “Good, sharp, vivid writing . . . when he hits the emotional high notes, Francis never wavers. In fact, if you value your dignity, I implore you not to read the final 60 pages in a public place: You will cry, hard, probably more than once.” — The Globe and Mail “In this at once sad and uplifting story, Francis inhabits the mind of an elderly woman episodically remembering her life and coping with her son’s sexuality and early death. . . . The novel is smart enough to complicate Joyce’s dilemmas by addressing not just the constraints of small-town society in
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Bookclub Guide

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 years.

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 mind?

5. As tragic as some of the events are in this novel, there are also many funny moments and observations. Do you have a favourite?

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 worst?

8. Discuss the impact of the many secrets throughout the novel.

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 character?

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?

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