Sunday, September 11, 2011


Story Description: 

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 in 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.
My Review: 

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.

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