Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Novel has more tangles than a bowl of spaghetti

  • Print

Toronto-based David Macfarlane's third novel has a lot of good things going for it, but there are too many disparate pieces that don't quite add up to a remarkable whole.

Macfarlane is best known for his memoir of Newfoundland, The Danger Tree, and the 1999 Giller-nominated novel Summer Gone.

In The Figures of Beauty, 20-something Oliver Hughson from Cathcart, Ont. (the setting of Summer Gone) spends one summer in the small Italian town of Pietrabella, a rustic village that has relied on the historic marble quarries for hundreds of years. It is local legend that Michelangelo himself travelled to the town to oversee the excavation of marble, though there is little actual proof of his presence.

Once in Pietrabella, Oliver begins an exciting relationship with Anna, a local sculptor. Indeed, it will be the most important relationship of his life, though he only stays in Pietrabella for four months.

In his 60s, Oliver is tracked down by Teresa, the adult daughter he never knew he had. Teresa's mother, Anna, has only just divulged any information about her and Oliver's summer together, and Teresa travels to Ontario to meet the father she has never known.

There is also the story of a tragic accident in one of the marble quarries in the 1920s, a savage raid through the town by the Nazis in 1944 and even a Welsh businessman who becomes so enamoured with the little Italian town that he becomes the chief marble exporter of the region. And herein lies the novel's greatest flaw: there are too many narrative threads.

The story does not unfold in chronological order and there are a number of different points of view; some sections are narrated by Oliver and some by Teresa. Long portions are supposed to be taken from letters that Oliver has included to Teresa in his will; still other sections have a more neutral third-person narrator.

The constant shifts in narration, often several times in one chapter, and the many seemingly unrelated and disjointed plot elements give the impression that Macfarlane is unsure of what direction he wants all of these threads to lead.

At the beginning of the novel, readers already know that Oliver and Anna do not reunite, and so there is little conflict or tension to their love story.

Even at the level of description, the writing is often overly figurative and inexact. When describing a particular sculpture of Michelangelo's, Macfarlane writes: "[Michaelangelo's] real battle was with beauty itself. It was never easy to find. He had no choice but to put everything that sits at the heart of a stone carver's soul into every stroke of his mallet."

The novel is filled with these vague, overly romanticized descriptions of beauty and sculpture, and rather than contribute to a greater appreciation of the art, these passages get to be tiring.

Macfarlane's novel is certainly ambitious. It draws from a beautiful and romantic setting and dabbles with some interesting subject matter. But it is ultimately unsatisfying.

The plot is too complicated for a casual reader, and more dedicated readers are likely to be frustrated by the disjointed and tangential narrative structure.

Keith Cadieux is the author of the novella Gaze, He teaches English literature and creative writing at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2013 A1

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Total Body Tune-Up: Farmer's Carry

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • MIKE.DEAL@FREEPRESS.MB.CA 110621 - Tuesday, June 21, 2011 -  Doug Chorney, president Keystone Agricultural Producers flight over South Western Manitoba to check on the condition of farming fields. MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
  • Bright sunflowers lift their heads toward the south east skies in a  large sunflower field on Hwy 206 and #1 Thursday Standup photo. July 31,  2012 (Ruth Bonneville/Winnipeg Free Press)

View More Gallery Photos


Are you concerned about the number of homicides so far this year?

View Results

Ads by Google