‘The Party Wall’ by Catherine Leroux

Book Reviews

The Party WallReviewed by Tom Ingram

Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall follows four pairs of people—mother and son, husband and wife and two sets of siblings—as they discover surprising details about their pasts that change the relationships with each other they once enjoyed. Through drastic reversals, the book examines the bonds we form with each other and questions the nature of siblinghood, love and the connection between mother and child.

There is Madeleine, who must come to terms with the illness of her son, Édouard, and a crisis over whether she is truly his biological mother. Simon and Carmen are siblings trying to determine the identity of their father while their mother is on her deathbed. Monette and Angie, two little girls whose exploits punctuate the other characters’ chapters, are just trying to get some snacks from the store and return home without being bothered.

The fourth pair is Ariel and Marie, an ambitious politician and his wife. Along with Madeleine and Édouard, these two characters’ story make for the longest and most interesting portions of the book. Ariel, climbing to power as opposition leader and then prime minister, “refines an argument, improves his standing in the polls, defends his position, aims higher, qualifies without lying, drives his point home without shouting, bends without breaking.” Marie laments the loss of their privacy when the two of them become a public spectacle, “bodies that must be guarded.” They are both adopted, and the eventual revelation of their biological parents carries an uncomfortable truth and the seeds of Ariel’s political downfall.

Madeleine and Édouard live a wretchedly twee existence. Édouard roams the countryside looking for adventure while Madeleine takes in stray travellers at her home, a seaside cabin near a lighthouse. Some of Madeleine’s visitors are people Édouard has met in his travels, “living postcards sent by her son, who never writes.” Things pick up when Édouard returns home with news of his illness, a serious kidney problem that requires transplant. He remains strangely aloof, revealing his illness by saying bluntly, “Mother, I’m sick. I need a kidney.” Madeleine’s struggle to get through to him makes up much of the conflict of their chapters, and it is made even more difficult when the donor compatibility test seems to suggest she is not his biological mother.

Together, the chapters on Madeleine and Édouard and Ariel and Marie carry powerful Sophoclean and Wagnerian overtones that Leroux manipulates deftly. But these sections suffer from being set in a rather silly sci-fi, dystopian future where hooting yokels riot about the teachings of biology and force their children into boot camp. Whole passages of surpassing beauty are ruined by proximity to something cringe-inducing.

Adoption is a major theme of the novel. Aside from Madeleine and Édouard’s scare, and Ariel and Marie’s dark secret about their biological parents, there is Simon and Carmen’s anticlimactic discovery that they are not biological siblings. This shatters the search for their real father, which had been a fixture of their lives for decades, and opens a rift between them.

Leroux uses these revelations of biology and familial relationships to investigate what really unites two people. For Simon and Carmen, the discovery that they’re not biological siblings changes their relationship. But it also forces them to adapt and grow. The same is true of Madeleine and Édouard, who manage to find something in common after the transplant and genetics are sorted out. Though theirs is a romantic not biological relationship, Marie and Ariel’s relationship is tested when they are in exile among the barbarian horde of Saskatchewan. But they choose to see it as an opportunity to reconcile their elite political life with the private aspects of their love. Though for them things end tragically in true Wagnerian fashion, the contradictory priorities that wracked their life in Ottawa are resolved.

While the novel has poignant moments, it has its missteps as well. Early on, Leroux likens an adopted baby to a baton in a relay race. The comparison can’t help but bring to mind cartoon imagery, and the plight of the many adopted characters never quite recovers all its gravitas.

Ultimately, The Party Wall wraps everything in too neat a bow. Like Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests trilogy, in which one play’s exits correspond with entrances in another, Leroux manages to solve each character’s mysteries in some other thread. It’s a neat trick if you can manage it, and Leroux certainly can, but it creates a tidily closed causal network that leaves nothing to be explained or pondered at the end.

While this can make for an unsatisfying ending for some, the journey there is full of insightful passages, dynamic characters and surprising situations. The Party Wall is a searching investigation of familial ties of biology and biography and the complex ways in which self-discovery affects our relationships.


Biblioasis | 200 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN 978-1771960762

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Contributor

Tom Ingram


Tom Ingram is a Winnipeg writer of nonfiction, criticism, and journalism. He holds a bachelor's degree in music from the University of Manitoba and is presently pursuing advanced study in music theory.