Novel set in Bathurst Manor

Whereas writers of first novels often agonize over finding a publisher, that was not the case for Elyse Friedman, a 36-year-old Torontonian who has produced four screenplays and much comic material for radio and television.

Friedman’s first novel, Then Again, was snapped up by Random House, a major Canadian publisher, which has championed the book and is giving it serious promotion. The book is on prominent display in many bookstores and, already, Friedman has had discussions about turning it into a film.

Then Again is an offbeat, funny book, which is perhaps not surprising for an author who crafted comedic sketches for CBC Radio’s Definitely Not the Opera for two years. The story opens with an invitation that Michelle Schafer, the first-person narrator, receives from her brother, Joel, to attend a “blast-from-the-past” party in their family’s former home in suburban Toronto.

This is the house that Michelle knew from her childhood. She and her sister Marla return to find that Joel, a lover of weird stunts and practical jokes, has restored the house exactly as it looked in the 1970s. Further, he has hired look-alike actors to impersonate their deceased parents.

Interspersed with descriptions of the house as Michelle discovers it are flashbacks of a romantic relationship and what she learned from it. In keeping with its bizarre premise, the story escalates to a surprise and dramatic ending.

Friedman, who grew up in the Bayview-Steeles area of North York and moved as a teenager to the Annex, says she can’t remember where the idea for the story emerged. “It just popped into my head,” she said. “I’m the kind of person who dwells on the past: I like to walk or drive around places where I’ve lived before. So it’s possible it came from that, and from wondering what it would be like to go back to the house where you were raised.”

Again not surprisingly, the book contains a Jewish element. The three siblings are Jewish and their father was a Holocaust survivor. “The awareness of his past is always present in the house, and I think it has a definite lasting effect on the children. It’s part of what shaped their characters.”

(Friedman is also a playwright. Her first play, Jews Don’t Camp — How I Tried to Become a WASP and Failed, was produced by a Winnipeg theatre group several years ago.)

She wrote the novel because “I wanted to talk about the lingering effects on the children of Holocaust survivors,” she said. “There’s a residue that remains and has an effect on the children. I also wanted to explore the idea of subjective memory — how different siblings can have different takes on the same environment.”

Then Again is not necessarily a satire on suburban life, according to its author. “What I tried to do in a couple of spots is show that the suburbs are not as normal as they appear to be on the surface,” she said. “Having been raised in the suburbs, I find that there’s a desire there to have everything appear normal. But when you get in the front door, beyond the surface, you find that people are just as insane as anywhere else. I’m not a big fan of that kind of living.”

Her family’s reaction? “My brother and sister, they both love the book, they think it’s great. And my father also thought it was wonderful. There are some bits of autobiographical stuff in the book but it’s not really about them. So there was nothing too contentious for them.” ♦

© 1999