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In her latest novel Semi-Detached (Cormorant Books) Elizabeth Ruth paints a tender and deeply gripping story about love and finding home. Through a story that spans 70 years about the love between a star-crossed sapphic couple in the 1940s struggling with their forbidden romance, and the young real estate agent in 2013 who finds parallels in her own story with her wife, the novel examines the treatment of lesbian women over time.
The novel begins with a quote from Carol Shields about endings. Elizabeth Ruth tells us about the significance of the quote to her novel: “Shields’ thoughts on women and fiction, her sharp-eyed, and listing prose style were an example to me that every word must carry its weight, and her life and death a reminder that I needed to get on with things.”
The epigraph for my new novel, Semi-Detached quotes the late, great Carol Shields, from an interview she gave in 2022 in The Guardian. The interview was especially poignant because she was speaking about finality, knowing that she had advanced breast cancer, the disease that would take her life the following year. The epigraph reads: “Having one foot in one world, and the other in the real one. For me, endings are never really endings…”
Shields’ novel, Unless features a girl sitting at the corner of Bathurst and Bloor in Toronto and a love that is or isn’t enough to bring her home. I opened Semi-Detached with a different girl (Astrid) on a different corner (Greenwood and Gerrard) in the same city. Then, a few years into the writing, I too received a diagnosis of breast cancer. It was not lost on me that Unless turned out to be Shields’ last novel. So, I wrote Semi-Detached with a heightened awareness of mortality – tick, tick, tick – and infused it with as much intimacy and love of life as possible.
In her essay, “Arriving Late: Starting Over,” Shields describes how she revised her approach to coincidence in fiction, particularly “women’s fiction.” She came to believe that because coincidence exists in life, it should appear in our stories if they are to be truthful. I too reject a traditional notion that good writing “must never indulge in the artifice of coincidence, or use domestic details in any way beyond the decorative. Synchronicity in fiction feels authentic to me. Domestic details? I centred my novel around a house and its curious contents! Coincidence in Semi-Detached is not a device; serendipity fell out of the narrative naturally.
Astrid, my teenage ghost, is wandering the east end of Toronto, desperate to reconnect with her old life and loves. Laura, a real estate agent, is dealing with a marriage straining against her infertility. How will she tell her partner she’s done one final IVF cycle against Cat’s wishes? How will she navigate grief around the death of her own mother? Astrid is also navigating that liminal space between the world of the living and the world of the dead. She has only until the snowstorm ends to get back home, and who knows when that might be. There it is again, the ever-present ticking clock, the constraint of mortality, tragic and beautiful. That’s the soul of Semi-Detached, and the reason for this epigraph.
Writers work in conversation with other writers, living and dead, whether we acknowledge them or not. Shields’ thoughts on women and fiction, her sharp-eyed, and listing prose style were an example to me that every word must carry its weight, and her life and death a reminder that I needed to get on with things. One word in front of the other, Shields seemed to say, nudging me forward.
 Shields, Carol. “Arriving late: Starting Over” in How Stories Mean, edited by John Metcalf and J.R. (Tim) Struthers. 244-251. The Porcupine’s Quill. 1993.
 Ibid. p246.
 ibid. p247.
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Elizabeth Ruth was named one of ten Canadian women writers you need to read by the CBC. She teaches creative writing at University of Toronto. Elizabeth’s first novel, Ten Good Seconds of Silence, was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, Amazon.ca/First Novel Award, and City of Toronto Book Award. Smoke, her second novel, was chosen for the One Book, One Community program. Her third was long-listed for Canada Reads. She lives in Toronto. Her website is elizabethruth.com
Thanks so much to Elizabeth for that compelling introduction to her novel. Find Semi-Detached here on All Lit Up.