Award-winning author Meredith Quartermain’s second novel and seventh book, U Girl, is a coming-of-age story set in Vancouver in 1972, a city crossed between love-in hip and forest-corp square.
Frances Nelson escapes her small-town background to attend first-year university ... Read more
Award-winning author Meredith Quartermain’s second novel and seventh book, U Girl, is a coming-of-age story set in Vancouver in 1972, a city crossed between love-in hip and forest-corp square.
Frances Nelson escapes her small-town background to attend first-year university in the big city. "You’ve got to find the great love," her new friend Dagmar tells her. But what makes it love instead of sex? And what kind of love bonds friends? She gleans surprising answers from Jack, a construction worker, Dwight, a mechanic and dope peddler, Carla, a bar waitress who’s seen better days, and her English professor and sailing friend, Nigel.
U Girl blurs the line between fiction and reality as Frances begins to write a novel about the people she comes to know. With seamless metafictional play and an engagement with place that has come to be Quartermain’s definitive style, U Girl tells the story of a woman’s struggle to be taken seriously – to be equal to men despite her sexual attraction to them, and to dislodge accepted narratives of gender and class in the institution of the university during the "free love" era. In this sprawling and perceptive novel, Quartermain takes us through sexual experimentation, drugs, jobs, meditating on Wreck Beach, sailing up through Desolation Sound, and studying at the University of British Columbia.
U Girl is a story that pays homage to local haunts and literary influences in equal measure. Quartermain brings to Canadian literature a wholesome and vital female perspective in this long-awaited bildungsroman.
Meredith Quartermain is known across Canada for her award-winning, cross-genre writing. Vancouver Walking won the BC Book Award for poetry Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, Nightmarker was a finalist for the Vancouver Book Award, and Recipes from the Red Planet, her book of flash-fictions, was a finalist for a BC Book Prize. In Rupert’s Land, her first novel, a town girl helps a residential-school runaway in Alberta in the 1930s.
Quartermain was the 2012 Writer in Residence at the Vancouver Public Library, where she led workshops on songwriting and writing about neighborhoods, and enjoyed doing manuscript consultations with many writers from the Greater Vancouver community. She’s now continuing these activities as Poetry Mentor in the Writer’s Studio Program at Simon Fraser University.
She has taught English at the University of British Columbia and Capilano College and led workshops at the Naropa Summer Writing Program, the Kootenay School of Writing, and the Toronto New School of Writing.
I liked Joe. He was gentle and sexy in bed, unlike fumbling Jim or fat Eddie, or guys I met at the beach or rock concerts. I liked his dark furry arms and shoulders, his kisses and cuddles. I liked hiking together, on trails no one else knew, up Vedder Mountain or Mount Cheam, pitching our tent, cooking our hot dogs, watching the sunset, then next day tracking mountain sheep, watching the rams butting and rutting. I liked fishing with him for chub and trout on Cultus Lake. I liked that we could escape Cultus Lake together for the city and the university, he to get his Bachelor’s in Education, me to get a Bachelor of Arts. I liked that he wasn’t a drifter like Dad who slept on a foamy in a warehouse. Instead, like Mom, Joe would settle into a steady teaching job. I liked that we were equals in that buddy kind of way, that Mom never had, even though she was more than equal.
By going in together we could afford a place with a proper bedroom and a bed, a proper bathroom, stove, refrigerator and sink and even a couch and dining table. Not one of those basement places where the bathroom was a toilet and a shower curtained off from the furnace, the kitchen was a hotplate on a TV table, and the beds were mattresses on the floor. Joe and I each paid half the rent, half the food. I made meatloaf, tuna casseroles, macaroni and cheese. He made instant coffee, fried eggs, and peanut butter sandwiches, as footsteps clumped overhead and we peered out our one window at people’s ankles going past on the sidewalk.
He didn’t study much, but he liked being on the hockey team. His Phys. Ed teacher was his favorite prof. I laid out my books every night on the rickety Formica table; he listened to Neil Diamond on the headphones or fiddled with the rabbit ears on our landlord’s cast-off TV till he got the hockey game. He got C’s and even failed a course at Christmas but he was going to make that up in Summer School. I showed him one of my poems. He said he wished he could write like that. You can, I said, What do you want to write about? He didn’t know. He didn’t have any favorite writers like I did.
– What about that story of your homesteader grandfather and that man he supposedly murdered?
– You write it, he said. Meaning me.
It was coming up for midterms in the spring. He went back to Cultus Lake on a fishing trip. I stayed in the city, and trundled the laundry over to the coin-op. Waiting for the machines, I read an old Georgia Straight article called “Why Women Go Gay” by a straight woman who turned her back on male supremacy, and decided to like women no matter how hard it was. Then she fell in love with one and never went back to men. Loving a woman, she said, was a lot less scary than sex with men.
Well, Joe certainly wasn’t scary in bed, far from it; it was just too bad he wasn’t really interested in Waiting for Godot or Plato’s parable of the cave, so we could talk about what we were learning at UBC. I folded our jeans and underwear, thinking if I loved Joe, I’d just stick with him. But did I love him? Did I really want to live with him for the rest of my life? Probably back in Cultus Lake?
Dagmar, my friend from English class, took me to the UBC Japanese Gardens to see the cherry blossoms. Where I come from, I said, a garden is where you grow tomatoes and beans. Then kicked myself for sounding like my father making fun of anything he thought middle class. Dagmar was going on a trip to Japan with her boyfriend, and she explained how Japanese gardens place every rock and tree according to Buddhist principles. Water and stone are yin and
yang; high rocks represent heaven; low flat rocks represent earth; middle-sized are humanity. I like islands, I said, wandering across a bridge to the back of the garden’s turtle-shaped islet. No man is an island, but I still like them; you find buried treasure on them.
From the island we watched a bride in long white tulle standing with her groom on another bridge, then agreed that marriage was not for us, and even if we did get married it wouldn’t be in that “get-up” as Dagmar called it. No, not for us, we said, not for a long time, not till we got our degrees, till we got somewhere on our own, though just where we didn’t know. What about your boyfriend, I asked, will it be him someday? She didn’t answer my question. She lit a cigarette and wondered where the carp were hiding. We wandered along the winding path past the tea house and the miniature moss-covered pagoda.
And what about your boyfriend, Dagmar said, is he the love of your life? She told me all about Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, and how it didn’t even matter that they were married to someone else; they went on wild flings to Paris; they wrote passionate letters to each other about writing and art and books; Vita dressed as a man; they made love in Vita’s castle at Sissinghurst. The love of your life, Dagmar said, you had to find that mad, nothing-else-matters passion – like Virginia and Vita or Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby.
We sat on a sunny patch of grass looking across the lake to the turtle island swimming in mirrored water; she showed me her Sociology paper, A++ blazing out from the front page, above the title, “Marx’s View of Women and Children. ” How simple and straightforward she made it, her thesis boldly stating the paper would discuss five ways Marx failed to consider women and children. It took her about a day to write it. I had struggled for weeks and finally called mine “Various Considerations on Marx’s Theory of Exchange” for which I rightly got a B. What a fresh new thought hers seemed compared to my scattering of barely understood summaries.
I wondered, though, if I’d ever care about Marxism as much as I cared about turtle islands. Dagmar pulled a notebook from her bag and handed it to me. She’d seen me writing in a little spiral-bound Hilroy, separate from our student notes. She thought I’d like to try something more “exotic. ” A properly bound book with hard covers of green suede. You’re writing a book she said, All you need to do is fill these pages.
She herself wrote poems. Two had been published in a magazine at the University of Victoria. She thought I should probably go into journalism, a lot of the best novelists started out as journalists. Like Orwell, she said. I was going to have to travel too, to Europe, I had to go somewhere besides Cultus Lake and Vancouver. Dagmar went on her own to Europe for months at a time. But then Dagmar’s dad owned an art gallery in the ritzy South Granville area.
I had to admit I didn’t love Joe in that mad-passion way. The great love of my life would love books a lot more than Joe did, and hockey a lot less. I had to admit I was never going to settle down and have kids with him, and wasn’t that the next step once you shacked up? I should never have moved in with him, but if I left now where would I go? We barely afforded together this underground cave with its proper furniture ten miles from campus. Alone, I thought, I’d end up in a Frat House on campus full of guys drinking and puking and screwing prostitutes. Or I’d end up on a foamy with the rats in Dad’s studio down on Water Street.
Housekeeping Room. According to the paper that was all I could afford. It made me think of men I’d seen hanging out on Water Street near doors to dingy stairs, men holding bottles in paper bags, men in clothes that hadn’t been washed for months, men picking up cigarette butts from the sidewalk, men who spat gobs of white phlegm, men who leered as you walked by keeping your eyes straight ahead, men who owned nothing but their welfare cheque, men who didn’t even have welfare cheques. I’d have to share a bathroom with men like that. My room would smell of sweat and piss, it’d be greasy, cramped and full of cockroaches, it’d be dark as Dad’s grungy toilet, with only a tiny dust-caked window.
But now I’d admitted that I didn’t love Joe, I had to go, somehow. I didn’t tell him. I wouldn’t until I found some place to move my stuff. He came back from the fishing trip with a good catch, and we put some trout in the tiny freezer for later. We carried on driving to campus in our separate cars, for his late night or early morning hockey practices. Driving through the forests of the University Endowment Lands, surrounded by the safe, restful feeling of thick trees, reminded me of Mom’s cottage at Cultus Lake. But then I thought sometimes on these trips how, in trees like this, you could never really see any distance, only out to the edges of the clearing, and how refreshing it was to look out over an ocean or a city up to a mountain. I thought about Mom and all Dad’s girlfriends over the years, the “open marriage” they supposedly had, and I wished he’d get it over with if he was going to leave her, or that she’d kick him out for good. Why, if she was so keen about me studying women’s rights at UBC, didn’t she enforce some of her own? It wasn’t like she went out with other men. When we got married, she told me (he’d been married twice before), it was understood he needed a strong woman who would support his art; I made a commitment, she said. Tammy Wynette, “Stand by your Man,” crooned through my head, which was not the way Mom thought at all; she was too smart for that. She had a Bachelor of Science. She even talked to me scientifically about Masters and Johnson and how women achieve orgasm. The real orgasm, the full deal – not the vaginal one which was a complete myth.
So I was going to leave Joe, but for a while I carried on making hamburger and onions on rice, listening to As It Happens on CBC. We dried the dishes, then I memorized Spanish verbs, or helped him with Algebra or an essay on Kinesiology. Or he listened to Led Zeppelin or The Mothers of Invention on the headphones. We tried new things out of Dad’s copy of The Joy of Sex. Following the pictures, though not the one of a woman pulling down another woman’s underpants. Women exciting each other are a turn-on for males, the caption read.
One night he wanted to know why I was looking at him funny. I said I was just working out an essay idea, but the truth was I was thinking about Nigel, my English prof, and what he’d said on the library tour back at the start of the course. Once you know how this works Nigel said in his beautiful English accent, you have the keys to all knowledge. We were standing in the Main Library with its granite arches, stone balustrades and churchy pointed windows. Like Oxford, I thought, and if I opened the card-catalogue drawers, Nigel’s England, whose empire stretched around the world, would flow into me and fill the hungry emptiness of my brain with histories of butterflies and skeletons, epics and mythologies, Bacons and Descartes, Napoleons and Nietzsches. Instead of rattling these foreign words in my empty head, I’d know them like old friends and weave beautiful thoughts with them in essays for Nigel.
I’d have the keys to Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton. The keys to castles, cathedrals, cloisters and the quadrangles of Oxford and Cambridge. The keys to laboratories, experiments, discoveries, atoms, molecules, and enzymes. The keys to ideas, motives, schizophrenias, societies, wars, extrasensory perceptions. The keys to Greek, Latin, French, and the language of sepulchers and chasms, bright-haired Maenads, lyres and clarions. The keys to all that was never seen and only vaguely heard of in Cultus Lake.
I’d slip through the carved oak doors of Main Library, losing myself in its hidden passages, one-person-wide stairwells, confusing maps of snaky arrows wiggling between blocks of shelves like clues in a treasure hunt or threads in an enormous maze – the maze of all knowledge. Here I’d find gold. I’d meld together something completely new, completely original, and add its card to the hundreds of drawers in the high-vaulted catalogue room. I pulled their little brass handles, and breathed in the scent of aged wooden boxes, the smell of secrets and wisdom.
It was too bad that classes met in concrete blocks with gridworks of identical windows, long hallways of identical doors, and rows of seats bolted to linoleum floors – the very opposite of the library’s quirky nooks and crannies. I dreaded entering the massive rectilinear block of the Commerce and Psychology building, its vacant boxy entrance filled with wind-blown rubbish, its sterile functional stairways, its black and white exterior mashing itself into the sky like teeth of an aggressive car salesman or an upended giant barbecue grill. Too bad none of my classes were held in the vine-covered stone Chemistry building with its oak desks and leaded windows.
– Yeah, I bet it’s for English, Joe said jolting me out of my daydream again.
I told him it was an essay on Natural Selection for Biology. Survival of the
fittest, he mumbled and gave me a funny look.
I found a room close to campus. In a house, that had once been grand, with wide veranda, elegant eaves and carved trim, a house with attic nooks under a dormered roof. Now it was chopped into rental rooms surrounded by concrete parking slabs. Stucco hid its original clapboard and closed its front veranda with aluminum windows, pitted by weather. Aluminum railing ran around the top of the boxed-in veranda but behind it you could still see the wood sashes of the original bay windows, and above that, under the triangle of the roof you could see a fan of carved spindles.
Cracked concrete steps stuck out baldly off the stucco box. I knocked on the water-stained door, the hollow-core, key-in-the-knob kind with three tiny rectangles of glass. Gauze curtains fluttered behind the aluminum windows and the landlady let me straight onto a plastic carpet protector in a room tinted aqua. A brown couch and armchairs – like something you’d buy from a catalogue – looked never used, their arms covered by white lace squares and plastic protectors. A TV stood on an aluminum cart with wheels in carpet-protecting cups.
From her accent I guessed she was from eastern Europe – wiggly lines around green and yellow patches I imagined somewhere near Russia, somewhere near the Black Sea, the place where fairy tales came from, which was somewhere near the Mediterranean, and a long way from the west coast of North America. She dried her hands on her apron, her hair too dark for someone around 55. Her hips and breasts stretched and tightened her flowered shift; I wondered how she could bend to scrub floors or put things in the oven.
She took me back down the concrete steps, round the side of the house, and I followed the tops of her knee-high stockings bobbing in and out from under her hem as we climbed the long wooden flight of outside steps to the second floor. We passed through a door of yellow bubbled glass to a dim hall, where I could just make out six dark paneled doors and a small fridge with a pull-down handle like a 40s icebox.
She stuck the key into the Yale lock and pushed open the door waving me onto a sea of plate-size cream and green linoleum flowers, my eyes dazed now by the light pouring in the bay window from which I could even see, past the chimneys of the houses across the street, the smoke-coloured bluffs of a mountain. It was the only room with a door to the balcony over the boxed-in veranda that was now the landlady’s living room. It was not greasy – a paint-chipped hotplate stood on a spotless cabinet in one corner. It was well furnished with an Arborite table on metal legs, two kitchen chairs, a single iron cot, the kind I remembered from summer camp, a book case and a chest of drawers, and it was only $55 a month. It was also painted the kind of bright turquoise you see around swimming pools or ads for holidays in Hawaii. The banana-coloured cabinet and dresser, and the pink and mauve bookcase, danced across the turquoise like someone’s crazy LSD trip. Could I paint the room, I asked. Yes, but her husband would have to like the colour.
She opened two doors in the hall, one led to a toilet and the other to a bathtub and sink, all rather grey and stained. The landlady had painted her eyebrows where hair used to be, and coated her face with cream and powder that did not hide the crease lines stamped vertically above her nose. She stood in her bulging flowered house-dress and blotched apron, hand on her hip. I wanted never to be someone like her.
“Quartermain takes her readers through the lens of a young woman challenging her small town looking glass with a much wider angle. ..Much like [the protagonist, Frances’s] characters in her novel [within the novel], the pace and lessons of life are far from stagnant and [Frances] continues to forge on to a new frontier. ” —Pacific Rim Review of Books
“Meredith Quartermain, however and as always, cannot disappoint with her new novel, U Girl. Recognition of Quartermain’s versatility leads to astonishment at her oeuvre. The contrast is sharp, for instance, between the dreamy flights of the poetic prose in I, Bartleby (her prior book, marketed as a collection of short stories) and the curt, realist prose of U Girl, which exhibits great restraint in the writing and shows Quartermain’s flexibility and mastery of her craft. ”
“A whimsical pleasure to read, and at times deeply felt and affecting … it will amuse and tease anyone who has ever been young, poor and confused about life. Which must be just about everyone. ”
—Vancouver Sun & Calgary Herald
“Quartermain has truly outdone herself this time. … This bildungsroman is an extraordinary new addition to Canadian literature … Readers should prepare themselves for a tidal wave of emotion, reflection, and new perceptions when they dive into Quartermain’s latest masterpiece. ” – Ubyssey
“As a meta-narrative about the process of writing a novel, U Girl succeeds … On the one hand, we have a universal coming-of-age story, and on the other, the vivid local setting rich in its use of detail. … In the end, we are drawn convincingly into Frances’s world. ”