July 23, 2019

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Character sketch brief but refreshing

When readers first meet Miriam Moscowitz, she is a clever, ambitious, headstrong, serious and selfish 22-year-old woman finishing an undergraduate degree in literature and dreaming of a career in academia.

When readers bid goodbye to Miriam, she is a clever, ambitious, headstrong, serious and recently retired academic and author. At age 70, however, she is no longer selfish. She is loving, giving and the heart of her family.

Miriam is also at the heart of Cary Fagan’s lovely new novel The Student. Fagan is a children’s book author and a Writers’ Trust and Giller Prize nominated novelist. He lives in Toronto, where this novel is set, first in 1957 and later in 2005.

Fagan captures both these eras with precision, touching on the fashions and fads, political climate and culture, and issues and ethics that define each time period. While social justice activism and gay rights figure heavily in the latter era, not-so-subtle racism and misogyny prevail during Miriam’s youthful days.

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When readers first meet Miriam Moscowitz, she is a clever, ambitious, headstrong, serious and selfish 22-year-old woman finishing an undergraduate degree in literature and dreaming of a career in academia.

When readers bid goodbye to Miriam, she is a clever, ambitious, headstrong, serious and recently retired academic and author. At age 70, however, she is no longer selfish. She is loving, giving and the heart of her family.

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Miriam is also at the heart of Cary Fagan’s lovely new novel The Student. Fagan is a children’s book author and a Writers’ Trust and Giller Prize nominated novelist. He lives in Toronto, where this novel is set, first in 1957 and later in 2005.

Fagan captures both these eras with precision, touching on the fashions and fads, political climate and culture, and issues and ethics that define each time period. While social justice activism and gay rights figure heavily in the latter era, not-so-subtle racism and misogyny prevail during Miriam’s youthful days.

When Miriam confides to a professor her desire to pursue a PhD, for example, he reacts with horror. "Whatever do you want to do a PhD for?" he asks her. "To spend several years of your life, not to mention the valuable resources of the university, for nothing. You’ll get married and that will be the end of it and a spot that could have gone to a genuinely worthy candidate will have been wasted."

Devastated by his pronouncement, Miriam impulsively abandons her academic plans, acts out, betrays her boyfriend and runs away from home.

While her escape doesn’t last long, Fagan jumps ahead almost 50 years before sharing with readers what transpired upon her return.

It is then that he reveals that Miriam did not relinquish her dream after all. But she didn’t give up marriage or motherhood either.

This novel is slim — a day’s read — and as a result, Fagan’s summary of Miriam’s journey from runaway to grandmother is a little too quick and unsatisfying. There are surprises embedded in Miriam’s story, but too little attention is given to them and to the major events and decisions that shaped her adult life.

But Fagan makes up for this shortcoming with his refreshing characterization of the older Miriam.

In this novel, 70 is not old, and Miriam is definitely not an old woman. She is bright and inquisitive, agile and active, sharp and in control. She runs up the stairs, climbs ladders to the attic and bends down with ease to look for grandchildren hiding under the bed. Although she wonders about her younger self and tries to re-imagine how and why she thought and felt as she did, she is neither obsessed with the past nor worried for her future.

She has plans and dreams to pursue and lessons still to be learned. She is proof that 70 is indeed the new 50, and that, contrary to what she had been told in her youth, it is possible to have it all. Or most of it, anyway.

Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.

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