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.
Exit Lines is the eleventh novel from acclaimed Canadian writer Joan Barfoot, whose work has been compared with that of Anne Tyler, Carol Shields, Margaret Drabble and Margaret Atwood. Her other novels include Luck, nominated for the 2005 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Critical Injuries, longlisted for the 2002 Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the 2001 Trillium Book Award, and Abra, for which she won the 1978 Books in Canada First Novel Award. Her 1982 novel, Dancing in the Dark, was adapted into a movie of the same name, winning three Genie Awards including Best Adapted Screenplay.
In 1992 Barfoot won the Marian Engel Award, which the Writers' Trust of Canada annually presents to a female Canadian novelist in mid-career.
Joan Barfoot was born and raised in Owen Sound, Ontario. After graduating from the University of Western Ontario with a degree in English literature, she worked as a journalist for various newspapers including the Windsor Star, the Toronto Sun and the London Free Press.
Of her transition to fiction writing, Barfoot said in an interview that “it became evident to me that an ambition and desire to be ‘a writer,’ which I’d always felt, was one thing, and a fairly lethargic and lackadaisical thing at that. The actual act of writing is quite different. In fact, until I finally left journalism, thus abandoning my other professional identity, I didn’t call myself ‘a writer’ even though I’d already published several novels. Now, of course, something has to fill the blanks on various forms, so I do. But I still don’t have a business card. What would it say? ‘Joan Barfoot: Thinks, feels, types; re-thinks, re-feels, re-types.’”
“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