Twins follow disparate paths in Harmer’s compelling new novel
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Time is fluid in Liz Harmer’s novel Strange Loops, and it indeed moves in looping patterns as the main characters repeat their actions over a 20-year period.
Strange Loops is Harmer’s second novel; her first, The Amateurs, was selected as a finalist for the Amazon First Novel award, while her stories, essays and poems have been published widely. Raised in Hamilton, Ont., Harmer now lives in southern California, where she writes and teaches.
Fraternal twins Philip and Francine have an ongoing love-hate relationship. Physically similar, their personalities are very different. Philip is introverted and careful in his emotions and actions, while Francine is expressive and impulsive. They are raised by a mother who rarely shows any emotion, but is extremely critical of her children — especially Francine. Victoria often warns her teenage daughter not to allow men to take advantage of her. Later in the book, it is revealed Victoria was sexually abused as a child, which could partially explain her inability to nurture her children.
When they are in high school, Philip begins to worry about his sister’s relationships with boys. There’s a rumour Francine was sexually active with a Grade 12 student, and he’s afraid she will get pregnant. Victoria tells the twins and their older sibling, Steven, that men will have sex with anyone, and it’s up to them to set personal boundaries.
To ease his stress over not being able to control his sister’s actions, Philip starts attending a church youth group run by the charismatic and handsome Pastor Howie, a married man in his early 30s. Howie seems to bestow the holy spirit and grace on those teens who attend the weekly group, and Philip is a convert.
When Francine discovers her brother’s newly found religious passion, she also decides to join. Philip confesses to Pastor Howie that he’s afraid Francine will spoil things, but the pastor says they can’t prejudge her actions. It takes Philip some time to realize his sister’s attraction to Pastor Howie isn’t an innocent teen crush, but rather a stronger connection that will have serious consequences. His fears are confirmed when he follows Francine and spies her embracing Pastor Howie.
Francine believes she and Pastor Howie’s relationship is appropriate even though she’s a few weeks shy of her 18th birthday when they have sex. “Our souls are ageless. How can you refuse this?” she asks. When she returns home from spending the weekend with Pastor Howie, her mother suspects something has happened — but no one except Philip knows the truth.
In the book’s main plot loop, Francine is shown in her mid-30s as a married mother of two sons. She and her easy-going husband Jamie run a coffee shop that’s popular with university students. She has spent years trying to finish her thesis dealing with Mary Magdalena’s relationship with Jesus following his crucifixion, while also teaching at a local private high school. There she meets Andrew, a handsome teen student who confesses that he has a crush on her. As much as she knows it’s wrong, she allows their love affair to develop. In many ways, she takes on the role of Pastor Howie and is willing to gamble her family away to satisfy her desires.
Francine is a character whose actions are designed to cause damage if they are made public. It seems the only person to uncover her deceptions is her twin. Philip assumes the anguish and fear of having to keep the secret of Francine’s two socially unacceptable love affairs.
Harmer’s writing is skilful, and she manages to portray both twins in a realistic manner, helping make Strange Loops a compelling read.
Andrea Geary is a freelance writer in Winnipeg.
Liz Harmer will discuss Strange Loops on Thursday, March 23 at 7 p.m. at McNally Robinson Booksellers’ Grant Park location, in conversation with host Seyward Goodhand. There is no cost to attend.
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