Natural Order

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Natural Order

by Brian Francis

Doubleday Canada | August 23, 2011 | Hardcover

Natural Order is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 4.

“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, 8.54 × 6 × 1.27 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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Reviews

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Do yourself a favour ...spend time with this story Honest, believable, raw with emotion. The perfect summer book!
Date published: 2012-06-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful! Armed with the knowledge that author Brian Francis was a 2009 Canada Reads Finalist, I picked up Natural Order . I was not disappointed, in fact I was enthralled. Natural Order takes place in small town Canada, and spans some 70 years,beginning in the late 1940's and ending in approximately 2007. Our narrator, Joyce Sparks, now an elderly widow in a nursing home , looks back over her life, starting from when she was in her late teens. Joyce serves as a wonderful narrator, cantankerous, witty and tender-hearted. The story begins with the obituary of her son, John Sparks, born in 1953 and passed in 1984, apparently of cancer. As we read about Joyce's young years as a young wife and mother, we learn that Joyce has tried to keep many secrets about her son John, who as a young child preferred " girlish pursuits". The story is beautifully told, by turns heartbreaking and hilarious, but always poignant and honest. Natural Order is peppered with engaging and vividly portrayed characters. The story is ultimately redemptive, but I had a tear in my eye as I finished the book. A wonderful and very engaging read.
Date published: 2011-11-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Everything you need is in your own backyard Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning of the review: Natural Order by Brian Francis is really sad. Its sadness is worth sinking into, however; it’s a nuanced and multilayered exploration of loss, of aging, of the sins we commit against those we love the most. The story is told from the perspective of octogenarian Joyce Sparks, who is in a nursing home, commentating tartly on her fellow ‘inmates,’ the staff, and her surroundings. Her voice is one of the most authentic I’ve read in a long time—she’s a snappish, sharp old woman, more brittle than frail. Both her son and her husband are dead, and she doesn’t seem to have any friends. Joyce tells us her story across several different timelines, and Francis shifts us effortlessly between her soda-jerk era teenaged years, her motherhood, and the years between the deaths of her son and her husband, and her time in the nursing home. She touches on her infatuation with Freddy, her obviously gay schoolmate, whose suicide after leaving town and falling in with a “bad crowd” in Hollywood is greeted as almost inevitable by the people back home. Joyce is left in Balsden, married to a man she chooses out of loneliness, becoming increasingly frightened yet stubbornly unseeing of her small son’s own “tendencies.” She can barely move for the guilt she feels, for the remorse toward her son, her husband, what could have been. Joyce cleaves to the idea that she is alone because she deserves to be, because she drove everyone else away. This is a gutsy move: in many ways Joyce is supremely unlikeable. Even as you’re reading through her understanding that what she did caused all of the destruction in her life, you want to grab her by her shoulders and shake her. Her unenlightened views on homosexuality, her meddlesome nature (no matter how well intentioned), and her ability to drive away and segregate her son, whom she adores and alienates by equal measures, are enough to make you scream. Where the novel falls down a bit is in this mire of guilt. It can become, if not tiresome, then certainly tiring. Every page is Joyce telling us what a terrible mother and wife she’s been. Metaphors and language are at times a bit heavy-handed as well. The parallels between Freddy and his mother and Joyce and her son are a bit too pat, a bit too coincidental. If their stories were told and no names were given, you wouldn’t know which of the two women were being described, and this takes away from the rest of the well-crafted realism. Where the novel succeeds, beyond its exploration of the difficulties of being gay for most of the twentieth century, and especially in a small town, is in its portrayal of the very elderly. The rest of Joyce’s life has whooshed by, but she’s stuck in an interminable morass of days in the last home she’ll ever know, where the staff care only because they are paid to, the food is terrible, and the activities are banal. Brian Francis’ Joyce is such a believable, perfectly rendered character, and her world of the nursing home is at once tragic and mundane. Joyce’s is a sad, no-nonsense life, one that will break your heart but that is absolutely worth visiting. ~*~ Like this excerpt? Read the full review, plus other book reviews, at http://editorialeyes.wordpress.com
Date published: 2011-10-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Loved It!! Joyce Sparks lived with her husband, Charles, and son, John, in Balsden, Ontario, Canada, a small town of 40,000 people. Now 86 years old, Joyce resides at the Chestnut Park nursing home and shares a room with 82 year old Ruth Schueller. Ruth can’t communicate with Joyce because she is mute. Marianne, Joyce’s niece takes care of all her finances. Marianne is Helen’s daughter, who was Joyce’s sister. Joyce met her husband, Charlie, at the dance pavilion one summer night. He was shy and she was lonely. They married 6 months later but a few months into the marriage Joyce began to wonder what they had in common. Joyce was still fixated on her pre-marriage friend Freddy Pender who everyone said was “fruity”. However, Joyce and Charlie stayed together and had their son, John. John was an odd boy from the beginning and when in kindergarten his teacher, Miss Robinson, approached Joyce. She pointed out that she was “concerned” because John liked to play with dolls, the kitchen set, and lined up with the girls to be chased by the boys when playing tag. Joyce does not dare tell Charlie any of this. Did Joyce ever suspect that her own son might be a homosexual? You bet she did but chose instead to keep the Curly Q Sue doll she bought him hidden from Charlie, her family and friends, only allowing John to play with her when Charlie was at work. Joyce tried all of John’s life to demand privacy and secrecy. Even from her own husband she hid his homosexuality. But in her own mind, she only focused on him being gay and never really expanded her mind about John in other ways. Admitting to anyone, even herself that John died of AIDS was an impossibility. She allowed a 4-letter word to carry so much weight. I loved this book and read it in one sitting. All the characters were well-developed and everyone seemed “real”, to be human. From her sister, Helen, to her friend, Fern and Mr. Sparrow, and to Freddy and Walter, they all had their own voice and a real uniqueness about them. Having said all that, I was really disappointed with the ending of the book. First, I didn’t expect the story to end where it did and secondly, it ended very abruptly. I felt a bit ripped off at the end, but I suppose you could always imagine in your mind your own ending. A great book overall and I would highly recommend it to anyone, as I really did love it.
Date published: 2011-09-11

– More About This Product –

Natural Order

by Brian Francis

Format: Hardcover

Dimensions: 384 pages, 8.54 × 6 × 1.27 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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