Sunday, April 30, 2006

Book Review - Cease to Blush by Billie Livingston

Holy smokes! I have been captivated by a book. That's the best feeling. I have been packing this novel around, sneaking reads whenever I have time, trying to savour it and make it last but wanting more to eagerly gobble my way through the pages and taste each delicious development. At the conference Friday I sneaked out of the AGM (well, that wasn't too difficult to give up) just so I could finish the last chapter in a quiet place.

The book is Cease to Blush, Billie Livingston's second novel. Livingston is a Vancouver author and poet and also the daughter of my good friend and poetry mentor, Irene Livingston. When I send Irene a poem and she really likes it, she tells me that it gave her goosebumps. Well, Billie's novel gave me goosebumps for 465 pages.

Cease to Blush is two stories: The story of Vivian, an actor who survives mostly by working in TV and movies as an extra, jobs like posing as a murdered prostitute. Her boyfriend Frank, who she met on a set, works as an extras wrangler, and is trying to convince her to do live internet porn chat to boost their incomes. When the story opens, Vivian's mom, Josie, a women's studies professor at the University of BC and ardent feminist, has just died of cancer. Josie's partner Sally gives Vivian a trunk full of her mom's belongings. When she opens it she discovers astonishing secrets about Josie's earlier life as Celia Dare, a nightclub entertainer who hung out with Frank Sinatra and Robert Kennedy and had mobster boyfriends. The story is about Vivian's journey of discovery as she searches for a connection between this dangerous and colourful character and the mother who she knew all her life. Along the way, both Vivian and Celia are revealed as complex and authentic people. There are great smaller characters too: Sally the neighbour who becomes mom's life partner; Vivian's sexually ambivalent best friend Len and her sleazy but at least partly loveable boyfriend, Frank. Then there's mom's old pal and fellow party girl and performer, Annie West. I'm already trying to figure out who should play that role in the movie.

The writing style is earthy, real and immediate. There are graphic descriptions of sex and death and lots of details about everyday lives of work, love, money, home. Through it all, Livingston steers clear of cliches and sentimentality. I'm easily distracted (and sometimes annoyed) by obvious historical and cultural references, but not so in this story. They're interwoven in a way that enhances the development of the keeps the action moving along. The work that must have gone into establishing the setting does not show. It seems effortless, and only fitting.

Part of Celia's story is told by Annie, who Vivian goes to visit, and part in letters that Celia wrote to Annie and Annie returned to Vivian. It's all through Vivian's eyes. The parts that Vivian can't know for sure, she imagines and writes herself, basing the narrative on details gleaned from articles, books and videos that she uses to research the people her mom knew and times in which they lived. This provides a revealing subtext about the process of writing a novel grounded in such a strong sense of place, incorporating real-life characters. The result is satisfying on many levels.

Next, Billie Livingston has a collection of short stories coming out called You Sound Tiny. While I wait for that I'm going to read her first novel, Going Down Swinging, and her poetry book, The Chick at the Back of the Church.

My 100% heartfelt, goose-bumpy recommendation for Cease to Blush. You're going to love it.

question: what are you reading?

mompoet - so many books!

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