Book Review: The Age of Hope by David Bergen

FROM THE FRONT FLAP: “Born in 1930 in a small town outside of Winnipeg, beautiful Hope Plett appears destined to have a conventional life. Church, marriage to a steady you man, children — her fortunes are already laid out for her, as are the shiny modern appliances in her new home. All she has to do is make a good marriage with Roy Koop. And Roy does lover her deeply. But as the decades unfold, what seems to be a safe, predictable existence overwhelms Hope. Where — among the demands of her children, the expectations of her husband, and the challenges of her best friend Emily, who has just read The Feminine Mystique — is there room for her? And just who is she anyway?”

The Age of Hope is award-winning author David Bergen’s seventh novel. Representing the Prairies and North region in Canada Reads: Turf Wars, The Age of Hope will be defended by Ron MacLean, one of Canada’s most recognizable broadcasters (host of CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada, host of CBC’s Olympic coverage and more).

As I turned page after page of The Age of Hope, my hope [intentional] of finding some sense of connection with Bergen’s latest work slowly faded. I remember thinking that Hope reminded me of Betty Draper, the fictional wife of the lead advertising exec on AMC’s Mad Men. At the surface, everything seems so good – a happy marriage, children, a house, regular outings to go shopping in the city, a new car every couple of years…but just below the surface, there’s a strong sense of having “settled”, of doing what was expected.

I just didn’t “get” Hope. On the one hand, she’s a keen, almost impartial observer of her own existence. Yet she makes every effort to blend in to what’s expected of her. Rarely does the massive incongruity between these two things prompt any action. But I think the few, small acts of rebellion she undertakes while married to Roy are very important in her later years, laying the foundation for her eventually realizing that she deserves to try to pursue happiness on her own terms (with Arthur).

I think the time in Hope’s life that appealed to me most was after Roy lost the car dealership. She found a capacity to actually live – to be realistic, adaptive, to take on a paying job for the first time in her adult life. I admired how she found small ways to foster a sense of normalcy in their day-to-day lives. I got the sense that Hope surprised herself as she discovered her capabilities during this time of financial hardship.

I finished reading this book about a week ago and have been giving it a bit of thought over the past few days. Upon consideration, I think its most significant relevance for me is that it’s prompted a renewed appreciation for how fortunate I am to have grown up 3 decades later than Hope. Over the intervening years, there was a fundamental shift to a society where I never felt compelled to consider settling, where I felt free (and encouraged) to pursue my dreams and explore my interests. So I give thanks to the women’s liberation movement, for re-shaping things so that I don’t have to make an effort everyday to blend in to the life everyone expects of me. And I’m sorry that Hope didn’t have that same freedom.

RATING: 3 out of 5 stars. The Age of Hope is a very readable series of excerpts from the life of Hope Koop – a very ordinary life, set in a very ordinary town on the Canadian prairies, all very familiar. Perhaps that’s the point – most of us live ordinary lives in ordinary towns. Everything doesn’t have to be extraordinary all the time. The trick is to find a way to be in an ordinary life – to live it, rather than letting it carry you along.

RECOMMENDED: Maybe for those interested in what it was like to be a housewife and mother in the 1950s? Or for those who wonder why the women’s liberation movement came into being in the 1960s?

RANKING:I didn’t dislike this book…but I didn’t really like it, either. I look forward to hearing how Ron MacLean defends The Age of Hope in the debates next week. It’s my view they’re all stronger contenders and this one will be out of the running after the first round.

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