The Idyll Inn, the setting for Joan Barfoot’s brilliant eleventh novel, Exit Lines, is a pastel-hued care facility designed for seniors “with healthy incomes but varying hopes, despairs, abilities and deformities.” In scathing detail, Barfoot describes the Idyll Inn’s plastic plants, inoffensive art and pallid recreational activities, all familiar to any reader who has had occasion to visit such a place — or to live in one. Running the show (or so she thinks) is priggish administrator Annabelle Walker, charged with keeping the residents happy, or at least as happy as is required to keep a tidy profit flowing to far-away investors.
But not all residents of the Idyll Inn choose to acquiesce. Sylvia Lodge, one of the Idyll Inn’s first residents, prides herself on her steely backbone, despite crippling arthritis. Affluently widowed, she has selected the Idyll Inn as a less objectionable alternative to a perilous dwindling at home. She coolly refuses to be bossed, certainly not by Annabelle Walker (about whose family Sylvia keeps a dark secret), or by her estranged daughter, Nancy, from whom she keeps yet another, even more explosive, secret. Sylvia is determined to unapologetically lay claim to her lifetime of choices, responsibilities and blame, not yet aware that her icy solitude will shortly be broken by the company of three soon-to-be-intimate friends.
Given the facility’s small population, the Idyll Inn’s new inhabitants are bound to have crossed paths. And indeed many have. Wheelchair-confined George Hammond, once a handsome shoe store—owner with a stay-at-home wife and adored daughter, long ago cupped Sylvia’s feet in his hands and admired her well-formed calves. He has done far more with Greta Bauer, his former clerk, whose loneliness as a young immigrant widow with children rendered her available for a comfortable and seemingly uncomplicated affair. Now deposited under the same roof by absent children, the former lovers are in a position to reflect on the consequences of their choices.
Completing the newly formed coterie of friends is tiny Ruth Friedman, a retired Children’s Aid worker who keeps many of the city’s darkest secrets, and whose passionate late-in-life marriage to fellow social worker Bernard did not include children of their own. Now also widowed, her grief unfathomably deep, she has taken to cheerfully reading horrifying news stories aloud to her new friends, who are soon to discover that these daily doses of gloom are less for their edification than they are in service of a desperate project for which Ruth needs their complicity.
In the wryly funny and wholly compassionate Exit Lines, acclaimed author Joan Barfoot once again treats her readers to an intimate encounter with some fascinating characters engaged in the fight of their lives. Sylvia, George, Greta and Ruth are at times tender, angry, hilarious and deeply flawed, but always utterly and captivatingly human. How do we treat the elderly in our lives? How do we intend to grow old ourselves? Will we ever come to the end of longing? Exit Lines brings to the surface these and other fundamental questions about the nature of life, and its closing.
About the author
Joan Barfoot is one of the most engaging, entertaining, and original voices in contemporary fiction; her eleven novels capture the lives of people as they lived in the last twenty years of the 20th century and the first twenty years of the 21st. Readable and sophisticated, her work has been frequently compared to Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, Alice Munro, Margaret Drabble, and Fay Weldon. Her novels have been nominated for, or won, numerous prizes, including the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Books in Canada (now Amazon.ca) First Novel Award, and the Man Booker Prize, and they have been translated into French, German, Italian, Swedish, and Danish. She is also the recipient of the Marian Engel Award. Her novel, Dancing in the Dark, was adapted to an award-winning feature film by the same name and it was entered into competition at Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival. At the peak of her powers, Joan Barfoot’s books are splendidly realized tragicomedies with note-perfect narration, mordant wit, and wonderfully neurotic casts of characters; she shows us human relationships revealed in all their absurdity and complexity. The body of her work can best be described as scintillating comedies of manners which are also profound meditations on fate, love, and artifice.
Excerpt: Exit Lines (by (author) Joan Barfoot)
AT THREE IN THE MORNING . . .
At three o’clock in the morning, that defenceless hour when anything feels possible and nothing human or inhuman out of the question, the Idyll Inn’s only sounds are the low hum and thrum a complicated building makes to keep itself going. Like any living body, even a sleeping or unconscious one, a building has to sustain its versions of blood and breath, so there’s a perpetual buzz to it, white noise in the night.
With only those faint sounds for companionship, three o’clock in the morning is an uneasy hour for the wakeful. It is also the most discreet hour for dodgy, unsavoury acts. Still, while those abroad tonight in the Idyll Inn may find their moods swinging between severely apprehensive and hopeful, there remains potential for a kind of slapstick comedy. If they are discovered, whether too soon, too late, or quite irrelevantly, their lookout will bumble about causing as much tripping and confusion as possible, while the others are to divert authority with exclamations and flailings and jostlings.
If all goes well, there’ll be no repercussions. If all does not, they’ll be in big trouble. They have chosen nevertheless, not lightly, to draw on whatever reservoirs they possess of determination. Stubbornness. Will. Solidarity in the cause of friendship and, they suppose, of its surprisingly expansive boundaries.
On their side is the unassailable fact that whatever transpires, barring on-the-spot discovery, the odds are decent that no one will ever find out. Resistance is high, they understand, to seeing them clearly at all. Or as one of them has previously remarked, “Most people would rather paddle the Amazon than be tourists around here.”
People are cowards, she meant.
So were they, once.
Well, they can’t be cowards tonight. In the morning, though, the real morning, they intend to have a bit of a lie-in. Either life will go on as unaltered and perilously as life at the Idyll Inn ordinarily does, or they’ll be indulged with extra treats and particularly kind words. Either way, it’s nice to have cosiness and comfort to look forward to, if only because the prospect of even a small reward at the end helps keep a person going, really.
GOOD BUSINESS, WELL DONE . . .
Nearly four seasons back, during a blessedly balmy spring run of late-April days, move-in time has finally come to the Idyll Inn. From start to near-finish, from plans and permits to all the necessities and some of the graces, construction on this plot of riverside land in this small city has taken just eight months, including the periodic disruptions of winter. During this time and even before, when it existed only in theory, the place has been an object of interest and curiosity; in some cases, suspense; in a few others, desperation.
This Idyll Inn is the latest addition to a small chain that is not locally based. The corporation is not called something obvious like Idyll Inn Inc. or Ltd., but is a numbered company run by a management group on behalf of a collective of professionals, mostly dentists and doctors, interested in untroublesome, steady investment in what’s bound to be a growth industry. The expectation is that as the chain thrives, it will become a bigger firm’s takeover target, so from every perspective, present and future, its investors must prosper–how can they lose?
The paved parking lot, which will be adequate for the ordinary run of events, is insufficient for so much simultaneous activity, so each day during moving-in week there’s a muddle of small vans and trucks arriving with their loads of possessions, leaving not much later empty. There is, too, considerable risk of dented fenders, bumped bumpers, in all the forwarding and reversing and squeezing by large and small cars, many of them occupied by tense multi-generational groups up to their necks and nerve endings in emotions of one sort and another.
How purposefully strangers hustle through the parking lot, how swiftly and surprisingly movers wielding sofas and chairs in the corridors overtake those slowly taking up residence–how alarming and rude.
Never mind, their day will come.
At this stage in the numbered company’s expanding history, there’s a vast, detailed, operational template governing services, menus, staffing levels, recreational offerings, cultural and religious observances, decor and other fundamental amenities, right down to the number and location of phone connections in individual suites. Overall design, however, varies from one Idyll Inn to another, depending on lot size and shape. This Idyll Inn, if viewed from the unlikely vantage point of the air, more or less resembles a sperm: a rounded head with a long two-storey tail.
The tail section contains forty suites, twenty up, twenty down, all brightly painted, with shiny fixtures in their bathrooms and large windows in their main rooms. The main room in each suite provides lots of space, adaptable to individual taste, for chairs and sofa as well as TV set and sound system, coffee table, an end table or two, and various meaningful knick-knackeries. Each suite also contains an array of built-in cupboards, closets, drawers and shelves for storage and display purposes, which means that bedrooms don’t have to contain closets and drawers, and so can be on the small side, really only big enough for a human or two plus bed and side table.
Ten main-floor suites along one side of the sperm-tail’s long central corridor even have decks attached, which will be useful for outdoor leisure activities such as sitting in lawn chairs in the upcoming good weather. Those rooms and decks, which overlook the river flowing by, or in deep summer, drying up, are more expensive than the rest, and not everyone can afford the extra cost on top of what is already a substantial basic rent.
That rent includes the friendly, communal, well-intentioned features located in the single-storey part of the building which would, from the air, form the plump head of the sperm. Circling about from the main double-doored entrance are several rooms: a large lounge with plants and paintings, low tables, soft chairs and hard ones, where sociable people are expected to gather to chat and play cards or word games, or to rattle away at the computer on a desk in one corner; a crafts and activities room with long schoolroom tables and chairs, and tall cupboards behind whose doors are the papers, glues, paints, yarns and mosaic tiles that are to become drawings and placemats and small candy dishes; a laundry room, another benefit of the place, one more dull burden lifted; a kitchen outfitted with restaurant-quality cooking and refrigerating equipment; the open space of the dining room, where almost everyone upstairs and down will gather for breakfast, lunch and supper at round tables, getting to know each other quite swiftly, if they don’t already, for better or worse. Since this Idyll Inn is located in such a small city, a mere forty thousand citizens give or take, it’s safe to assume that many residents will already know, or at least know of, each other. Again, for better or worse.
The dining room’s grandest feature is a great wall of windows facing, like the most costly suites, the river that winds by bearing ducks, canoeists, anglers, assorted debris. Better than television, is the idea; and also light, as has been proven, affects people’s spirits. Research in design indicates that a happy crew, or at worst a tolerably amenable one, should be the result. Not that, once residents are installed, their moods will necessarily count for much–certainly not to the distant investors, as long as the money rolls in. The Idyll Inn is rather like a Brazilian mine or a sweatshop in China that way.
Some afternoons and evenings the dining room will be cleared for various entertainments. Every day there’s to be a minimum of one organized activity somewhere in or outside the building, and holidays will be marked as they arise and as they represent the customs and beliefs of the residents. Here in this city, there’ll be no need for any very exotic or even multicultural celebration, but whatever does come up is well covered.
Completing the circle, back near the main entrance, is the staff office, which this week, possibly every week, is busy with harried people, women, on a steep learning curve. Across from it is the ill-named library, a dark-panelled room with no books except a set of encyclopedias and a severely out-of-date atlas, but with a wide-screen TV and a fireplace, two large sofas and several easy chairs–rather lush, in an English unlettered-country-gentleman sort of way.
And that’s it. The landscaping remains to be done, but otherwise the contractors have met most of their deadlines. Incomplete landscaping doesn’t prevent the place from opening for business, although, aside from the parking lot, the property is bogged down in spring mud. Soon, however, it will be covered in sod and dotted with decorative rocks and perennial flowers and shrubs, and no doubt residents will enjoy observing this happen as spring and summer unfold. Many are probably interested in gardening, and the rest should be pleased enough to watch workers working.
It’s in the interests of its distant investors that the Idyll Inn be comfortable and attractive in order to appeal to prosperous clients. At the same time, there must be responsible limits, which in practice means that the walls are painted appealing shades of pastels, and the chairs and tables are both efficient and homey, and the floors look like real tile, and the flowers and plants placed here and there out of the way are either full-grown and thriving or fake, and the art on the walls is unobjectionable, mostly prints of gardens, seashores and animals grazing in fields; but which also means that under the paint the drywall is not always smooth, the chair at the computer desk in the lounge is by no means ergonomically top of the line, the floor tiles are stick-downs, and the flowers and plants camouflage a certain draftiness around some of the windows.
Those doctors and dentists with their numbered company and expanding empire have no intention of being directly involved with–of even visiting–this Idyll Inn or any other, so it’s fortunate that Annabel Walker exists. She grew up in this city, left at twenty, returned at fifty, and in the interim trained and worked restlessly in nursing, briefly and radically in auto repair, and finally and practically in accounting. She has already worked at a larger Idyll Inn elsewhere, although not as manager. She is unencumbered and plain, and looks fairly worn down by the world, and at this stage is likely to remain unencumbered and plain, if not necessarily worn down, and so can presumably be counted on to concentrate on running this Idyll Inn.
During the months of construction, she has spoken extensively and intensively with a great many people. She has cracked the whip with contractors to keep schedules nearly on track. She has interviewed and hired staff, supervised the distribution of instruction manuals and the showing of corporate videos on required procedures, and is already keeping an eye on one or two staff with a view to possible firings. She has been responsible for furnishing and stocking the place, within the limits specified by the Idyll Inn rules. All that is good business, well done.
She has also, when possible, personally interviewed prospective residents. She has reviewed their histories, medical and otherwise, checked their credit, conducted tours, allocated suites, heard a great many stories. Unlike a newcomer to town, she knows there will be people at the Idyll Inn over whom she’ll particularly have to exert her authority, and here, quite possibly, comes one now.
MUSTN’T START ON A SOUR NOTE . . .
Not for Sylvia Lodge an ignominious arrival in the hands of others, that sure, helpless sign of having waited too long. She comes to the Idyll Inn under her own steam, not counting the taxi driver, who gets no tip–imagine honking from her driveway instead of ringing the doorbell, imagine not helping, and never mind that she doesn’t particularly need help with only a purse and a small fabric suitcase containing toiletries, mainly.
He can mutter, “Cheap old bitch,” if he chooses, but he’d do better to turn his mind to the benefits of courteous service. Another time she might set out to instruct him about who may lie behind the rangy flesh of an eighty-one-year-old female, which in this instance happens to be a good tipper, but today she has other concerns.
She is not one of those superstitious people who hesitate before pride in the nervous belief that it precedes a fall. Pride, in fact, helps hold her upright, and therefore upright she proceeds along the short walkway and through the two sets of automatically opening glass doors of the Idyll Inn entrance. There’s not much time before her moving van will arrive, her possessions in the hands of two scruffy young men she found through the classifieds. She has culled fairly ruthlessly, but there’s still a lot of life travelling behind her, and she wants to be organized for it and prepared to direct.
Her new home sweet home. But mustn’t start on a sour note, or a dubious one.
It is mid-afternoon. She woke early this morning, melancholy as any normal human would be. Besides closely supervising the young men as they loaded her selected remaining possessions into their van, she took a last stroll around her garden, admiring particularly the hardy spring tulips and tough, graceful forsythia. Indoors she observed the light slanting through leaded windows, patterning bare hardwood floors, and ran her fingers over the naked fireplace mantel and shivered at the echoey sound of her solitary voice when she made the sentimental mistake of saying aloud, “Goodbye then, old house.” She cooked herself an asparagus omelette for lunch, on the theory that future omelettes would likely be of the cooling, rubbery variety, possibly not even involving real eggs.
“Striking . . . sparkling and inventive, full of penetrating wit, sharp observation and touches of compassion which are moving, yet unsentimental. . . . Exit Lines is more fine fiction from a gifted writer always one step ahead of the reader.”
— The London Free Press
“[A] fine, fine novel”
— The Vancouver Sun
“The novel’s true and most valuable elements [are] the webs of human interconnectivity, the disloyalties, snippiness and, uniquely, the empowered appreciation of old age as the continuation of a life. . . . Another worthy Barfoot novel of disarming insight and complexity.”
— Toronto Star
“[Exit Lines] displays Barfoot’s wry wit and deft take on spoken, and unspoken, relationships.”
— Edmonton Journal
“Biting, sly, sardonic . . . Exit Lines is shot through with pathos, poignancy and insights about aging on virtually every page.”
— The Gazette (Montreal)
“This is powerful stuff . . . a poignant read that unsettles, haunts and disturbs with the best literary sensibility.”
— The Independent
“Barfoot’s clarity of insight, wicked sense of humour and zest for life shine through this darkly compelling work.” — The Canadian Press
“A vivacious examination of life and what makes it worth living. Barfoot finds a witty balance between domestic fiction and the novel of ideas.”
— Calgary Herald
“A must-read for anyone who plans to get old or doesn’t plan to, but gets there anyway. . . . Fun, engaging and compelling.”
— Winnipeg Free Press