"The sun is pouring down, the air is sweet with the smell of caragana in yellow blossom, and it occurs to her for the first time that her own unrequited love affair has always been nestled inside the larger one between Saskatchewan and Ontario. Saskatchewan so bitter, tenacious, aware. Ontario so careless and immune. An affair between two landscapes and two histories no less real, and no less ongoing than are certain romances between people." So Norma Joyce, the protagonist of Elizabeth Hay's first novel, A Student of Weather, summarizes the meaning of her lifelong love for Maurice Dove,"a student of weather" from Ontario. Shortlisted for the Giller Prize, this coming-of-age story integrates the romance between Norma Joyce and Maurice Dove into the familiar Canadian theme of the relationship between East and West by employing the setting of Saskatchewan as an image of dust and death and tough characters that contrasts sharply with lush, green Ontario, the paradise where apples grow and where people can afford to be careless.
The novel begins in 1938 on a farm in Saskatchewan where two sisters nine years apart in age and worlds apart in terms of looks and personality live with their widowed father. Maurice Dove¨his name overtly suggesting a bird of paradise¨arrives from Ontario in the middle of a prairie blizzard at the isolated Hardy farm and offers the sisters an apple. In keeping with Hay's deliberate allusion to myth and fairy tale, the suggestive gesture inevitably elicits desire in both sisters for their charming guest. Sent to study the weather phenomenon of the 1930's prairie dustbowl, the "student of weather" enables images of weather and desire to intertwine in a way reminiscent of a D.H. Lawrence motif.
Norma Joyce, the younger sister, becomes Dove's adoring protTgT. He likens her to the prairie grasses blowing in the wind like soft hair¨like the soft hairs that cover her ripening body. Dove acknowledges her intuitive sense of the meaning of weather, saying "Some people are barometers, some people are weather-sensitive. Children are." He is also enchanted by her unusual personality and looks. But the beautiful daughter Lucinda is the true focus of his desire, the saintly obedient daughter who assiduously cleans the house wiping away the dust that relentlessly blows in as if to forestall the death that has taken away her mother and her baby brother, Norma Joyce's twin. She is well aware of a hard Prairie truth: "As little as you have, you could have even less. That was the lesson of the thirties. The possibilities of next-to-nothing were endless." Like the Sleeping Beauty waiting for the Prince to return, Lucinda lives to care for her father and to wait for her lover, little knowing that her immature and selfish sister would thwart her dream.
Norma Joyce, Hay's protagonist and most complex character, is an uninhibited prematurely pubescent child, described as "something out of season." A primitive product of nature, Hay could not describe her in more homely terms. She has a forehead "that would put Elizabeth I's to shame," her "ear lobes could double as pillows," and her "baggy eyes could sleep an army." The far-fetched description is ludicrous if not repugnant without any apparent thematic reason except to emphasize the free spirit that characterizes her. Sprouting body hair by the minute and possessing the same "dark gums" as her dog, Darwin¨this marks her as some kind of a mutant in the evolutionary scheme, and makes for a ludicrous description that repels the reader. If her homely appearance is meant to arouse antipathy towards Norma Joyce in the reader, then the same would result from her underhanded actions¨such as the destruction of Dove's letters to Lucinda¨in her pursuit of a man who is obviously not in love with her. When she moves to Ontario and informs Dove that she has given birth to his baby, she continues to nurture the pathetic hope that he will love her. He, however, chooses a wife who resembles Lucinda, and finally she must admit defeat.
While all readers of romance¨even a romance between such strange lovers as these¨long for a scene of consummation, the intimate scene to which this novel builds is less than gratifying. When Norma Joyce's desperate passion for Dove leads her to pitch a tent between their two houses, the inevitable happens but it would be easy to miss it since their sexual liaison seems to have come out of the dreams and fantasies surrounding the event of the preceding scene, Dove's afternoon nap; it seems, therefore, not to have actually occurred at all. While Hay develops a compelling synesthetic eroticism drawing on her ever-insistent analogies between weather and desire, she undermines its effectiveness by offering a clichT description of Dove's "eye-boggling" erection as he approaches his young lover. The language renders ludicrous the culmination of the prolonged lustful tensions between the two characters. But Hay truly goes "over the top" in her absurd description of the sex scene on the second night when Dove enters Norma Joyce's virginal body causing a pain so intense that "she wonders it wasn't broadcast on the news." Surely CBC is not broadcasting such events! And why does Hay repeat the scene of the oral sex¨he "enters her mouth" on the "third night"? This seems to diminish the emphasis on the natural characteristics of Norma Joyce's body that up to this point Hay has worked to convey. Moreover, it would be more logical to emphasize vaginal penetration since this liaison produces a baby, Johnny, who provides a connection between the two lovers throughout the novel in a predictable twist in the plot. The one strong point in Hay's description lies in the image of the dewy tent wet with erotic/sexual activity amidst the dusty dryness of the prairie land.
Thankfully, Hay's novel is divided into four sections, each introduced by an epigraph of thematic relevance. Without these divisions, it would be difficult to make sense of the novel's multiple (and not always meaningful) images and wandering narrative. While the omniscient narrator offers a view of Norma Joyce's character, we have no true sense of what deeper feelings and insights motivate her. Lucinda is too stereotypical a female character to care about. Dove is interesting initially but dissipates into an "immune and careless" Ontarian who years later does not even recognize his once-beloved Lucinda. Even the crusty patriarch, the sisters' father is described in almost comical terms as "General Eeyore eyeing his patch of weather. Gloomy, isolated, sorry for himself, and stubborn."
After years of the disappointments and painful losses that she experiences, Norma Joyce does redeem herself by accepting her relationship with her elderly father who wants to return to Saskatchewan to see their farm: "He had loved the hard grinding work of it. So had Lucinda. It was their calling. Brute labour had located their impressive backbones." Stripped of illusions, Hay's survivors exhibit the results of the severe training of Prairie weather¨the "prairie grit" that toughens its inhabitants and ensures their emotional survival. So, too, Hay's book survives its flaws largely because of the reader's interest in its extraordinary protagonist and because of Hay's erotic images of weather. ˛