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Playing House

by Patricia Pearson

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list price: $17.95
category: Fiction
published: 2004
imprint: Vintage Canada
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  • , Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour
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Somewhere between single girl Bridget Jones and working mother Kate Reddy is Frannie MacKenzie -- baffled, beleaguered and undeniably pregnant.

The one thought blazing through Frannie’s formerly trendy, savvy, sharp-tongued New York brain is that she wants to keep this baby -- despite her ultra-small apartment and not being completely sure how to spell the father’s name. Being pregnant is so out of character: how will she break it to her boss, her mother, let alone the father, Calvin Puddie (or is it Pudhey)?

Frannie’s problems multiply as she dives headlong into one hilarious complication after another: from being banned from the U.S. and marooned in Toronto, to actually falling in love with her baby’s father. “You don’t find the one, do you?” Frannie muses. “The best one, the Perfect One. You just keep running like Wil E. Coyote, until all of a sudden you’re off the cliff. You fall into your life with the man who is running beside you.”

In Playing House, Patricia Pearson has written a witty, heart-touching look at falling by accident into life’s most profound commitment. She deftly captures the self-doubt, messy bodily fluids and inconceivable love that accompany being a mother, and the trepidation and joy with which two people step across the threshold of parenthood and into a realm that is at once alien and completely right.

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New life announces itself as a mystery that a mother cannot solve. Something happens, a certain gear-shifting in the body that she notes, but makes no sense of. Especially if she isn’t planning to be pregnant. I shall offer myself as an example. I did not have a basal thermometer handy on my bureau, or any recall as to when I last had my period. I was not expecting to read What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I was barely even in a relationship, with a man about whom I knew little. I was simply going about my business, enjoying early spring in New York City, when all of a sudden I woke up in the clean morning sunshine to find that my breasts had inflated like dinghies and were heavier than my head.

Late for work, I fiddled with my bra straps irritably, to no avail. They had all the supportive power of Scotch tape. I searched through the clothes on the floor of my one-room apartment and dragged on a shirt taut with Lycra, then I cupped my breasts in my hands as I stepped gingerly down the four flights of stairs of my walk-up, arranging my arms just so -- as I entered the brisk-stepping crowds on Sixth Avenue -- so that I could look like I was clutching myself in vexed contemplation over the Great Issues of the Day, as opposed to holding my tits up.

My first assumption was that I had a bad bout of PMS, so I dosed myself with evening primrose oil. We were wrapping up our April issue at The Pithy Review, heading into the inevitable panic of magazine production. There were last-minute changes, troubles with ad placement, authors to placate after pompous sentences were slashed from their essays, an editor-in-chief who rendered himself inaccessible behind closed doors in a pointed sulk. It happened every month, as if none of us possessed a short-term memory.

I had, myself, a rant to scribble for the back page, which I’d put off until the last minute, and a half-finished play to complete by the first of April. There was a letter to be sent to the editor of The New York Times about the treatment of carriage horses in Central Park, and postcards home to be mailed, lists of ideas, Post-it notes about people to meet, cocktails and beet chips to consume at the Temple Bar.

Life in a city as opportunistic and exuberant as New York always felt busy, even if nothing got done. It was the whirl of the place, the sense of movement that mattered to me, and I grounded myself with small certitudes: I am here. I pay my rent. I like my friends. I have a membership to MOMA. God, when I think about it now, what a slender ledge of a life I was comfortably sitting on then.

On Good Friday, I was in Rizzoli’s bookstore contemplating the new Sylvia Plath biography, when I realized that my nipples were so sensitive that I couldn’t turn around quickly without crying out. For a few days, I donned the softest fabrics I could find in my closet -- an old cashmere sweater my mother had given me to coddle myself through a documentary on Kurds, a silk blouse, and double-wired bra to ineffectually brace me for dance lessons -- and still I walked around going, “Ow, ow, ow,” as if I’d fallen into a patch of nettles.

Perplexed, I peered at myself in my small bathroom mirror, which entailed leaning over sideways while standing on the worn enamel sides of my tub, effectively looming into the circular looking-glass from stage left. My breasts looked more or less the same as always. My nipples seemed darker, and even bigger, somehow, but I hardly ever looked at my breasts. I liked my waist and my rear end, but in truth my breasts grew in a bit droopy from the outset, with the nipples too low on the orbs, as if Mother Nature stuck them on during a game of pin the tail on the donkey. I had a tendency to fling my arms above my head like the Venus de Milo whenever lovers were afoot, in order to lift the nipples to a more acceptable position. It took a bit of work, this maneuver, especially when I had to walk across the room to answer the phone. But worth it, you know, for not revealing everything your nakedness actually offers to say.

I’d been arm lifting quite a bit of late, because of a fellow named Calvin Puddie. No. Pudhee. Or no, that doesn’t look right -- I think it could be Puhdey. In any event, it’s some sort of French-Canadian name, or more specifically Acadian, as in the French who emigrated to eastern Canada, and otherwise to Louisiana.

“That strikes me as a rather stark pair of choices,” I told Calvin on our second date. “Either they opted for the frozen, craggy coast of Cape Breton and slogged away in coal mines, or they got to do Mardi Gras? A or B?”

“Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that,” he said lightly. But being a rather laconic man, he chose not to elaborate.

I knew that Calvin’s father was a coal miner, and that he himself had been aiming no higher than a job as a janitor at the local veterans’ hall when someone pointed out that he was musically gifted and ought to pursue it. This inspired him to head to Halifax to study music, after which he moved to Toronto, and from there, at some point, to New York. He worked as a jazz musician, living off the avails of his art, which was the annual salary equivalent of two Smarties and a piece of string.

We met at a bar called the Knitting Factory, where a band was playing Indonesian gamelan music. It was something a friend had dragged me to, and that friend bumped into Calvin, whom he knew through a mutual friend, who was a friend of other friends. So various friends gathered, and obediently listened to the occasional ping followed by half an hour of murderous silence, as is the tradition in gamelan music, and my friend from work said, “Frannie, that guy over there is also Canadian.”

Therefore you must meet him, because you are of the same nationality.

So, after several vodka tonics, I did, and he was funny, if quiet. Very, very quiet, really, bordering on mute. He sat there in an old fedora with his hands placidly in his lap, gazing around inscrutably, tapping his brogues on the floor as if absently filling in rhythmic gaps for the musicians on stage.

He reminded me of Canada in small, distinct ways. His self-effacement was familiar, and he understood certain expatriate secrets, such as where Alberta was and how it felt to be treated like a doofus in Manhattan for being Canadian, as if we were a nation of cheerful, unimportant people with Down’s syndrome.

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Contributor notes

Patricia Pearson is a writer and mother who has won two National Magazine Awards, a National Author’s Award, and the Arthur Ellis Award for best true crime book for When She Was Bad. Pearson’s commentary appears regularly in the National Post and USA Today, as well as occasionally in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Times of London and the New York Observer.

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Editorial Review

“Hilarious…. Pearson is an award-winning journalist and crime writer, as well as a master of hyperbole and comic characterizations. You see, Frannie MacKenzie, a quasi-autobiographical creation — as a woman and even as a new mother — is the antithesis of super. And you love her, and Pearson, all the more for it…. Pearson's sophisticated storytelling is not only satirical but side-splitting.”
Toronto Sun

“A deft new comic novel by Canadian author Patricia Perason. Frannie seems to be wedged in the literary crawl space between Bridget Jones (single woman, bad habits, looking for love) and Kate Reddy (married, harried working mother of two in the smash British novel I Don’t Know How She Does It).”
“Think Bridget Jones’s Diary and Sex and the City meet Good Housekeeping and Today’s Parent. Vodka tonics meet baby bottles. Designer clothes meet grubby little hands…. I’m partial to Playing House, because Patricia Pearson is the edgiest writer and Frannie is smart, funny and genuinely screwed up — motherhood and the weird transformation it requires of her actually makes her have panic attacks. Unlike the other two mommies, who only made me smile in recognition here and there, Patricia Pearson made me laugh out loud. ”
Ottawa Citizen

“Told in Frannie’s self-deprecating voice, Patricia Pearson’s Playing House is a witty, laugh-out-loud account of, well, angst at the entanglement of commitments that come with an ‘Impending Infant' and with the arrival itself…. Frannie … is a loveable, hilarious protagonist…. By book’s end, I felt as if I had been entertained at a dinner party by Frannie, her exploits and her take on becoming a mother, where I had grabbed the arms of my dinner mates on either side, mothers all, to keep myself from falling off my chair in laughter.... ”
The Globe and Mail, Denise Chong

Playing House is a riotous romp into the territory of 'accidental pregnancy' and childbirth. Like motherhood itself, the book is beguiling and bewildering, engaging and exasperating and, ultimately, a lesson of love.”
—Alison Wearing, author of Honeymoon in Purdah

“Toronto Writer Patricia Pearson’a debut novel is a funny, quirky look at unplanned parenthood....This premise, despite its serious nature, provides lots of laughs and poignancy in the hands of an author who’s obviously very experienced with babies....Throughout the fast-paced fiction, the characters adapt to their sudden, surprise self-imposed family life in a realistic way. However, the plot never loses its sense of humour, even during the more dramatic moments.”
Winnipeg Free Press

Playing House plays the perils of parenthood like a Canuck road movie. It’s a trip.”
Toronto Star

“[A] sharp satire of love, life and Canada…. All the suffering and all the joy is there. These are fully realized characters in what often feels like a half-realized culture. And I’m not talking about Canada, I’m talking about family.”
Montreal Mirror

“The Bridget Jones comparison is accurate, but Playing House is not a wannabe. Rather, it’s fresh, funny and sweet without being sugary.”
“Pearson’s description of her heroine’s journey into motherhood is as painfully accurate as it is funny.”
Literary Review of Canada
“Too well written to be dismissed as ‘chick lit.’”

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