Zoe Whittall is a writer that keeps surprising me. Every time I think I know her style and what she’s about, she throws a literary curveball. After two strong books of poetry, she’s suddenly written a novel. Bottle Rocket Hearts is assured, gripping and sincere. Though equally accomplished, her prose is nothing like her poetry.
Like most Canadian first-time novelists, Whittall has written a coming-of-age story. Eve is an 18-year-old CEGEP student who is growing up and into her queer self in 1990s Montreal. She’s obsessed with her first girlfriend, Della, an older woman committed to both polyamory and lies. The novel begins with Eve holed up in Della’s apartment, unable to bring herself to leave for days.
We watch Eve’s transition from college to university, from apathy to activism, from sheltered suburbanite to city grrrl. She struggles with jealousy and self-definition, and slowly finds her own politics. Whittall captures the frenetic way we experience and shed adolescence; in just under two years, Eve witnesses the failure of a province, of a romance and of her wide-eyed innocence.
Whittall gets the tone just right, so we’re reading about a young woman but not reading young adult lit. Her characters are richly detailed and wonderfully, quirkily vibrant. From Eve’s two queer and artsy roommates to her best friend from childhood to her drunken Aunt Bev, the people in this book jump out of the pages and into your heart.
And who isn’t in love with Montreal? Whittall captures the city in a shockingly visceral way, transporting readers into its opposing romantic and depressing rhythms. In the ’90s it was a town of cheap rent and exploding art and activism. But it was also a town of skinhead violence, bad drugs and biker bombs. Whittall takes her readers’ hands and gently guides them through the most beautiful and harshest seasons and history.
Much of the novel is set against the backdrop of the 1995 referendum. Whittall captures the confusion of the vote, the class and race issues, and the impossibility of knowing what was right. She smartly personalizes the situation by making Eve’s girlfriend half-French and adamantly separatist, while most of Eve’s Anglo friends and family are firmly in the “no” camp.
Whittall’s refusal to make Eve decide is one of the most intriguing aspects of this book and is responsible for its lovely complexity. When Eve does vote, she doesn’t reveal her choice. Likewise, the author’s take on polyamory remains undisclosed. There are no simple solutions in the world of this book, instead a dedicated personal investigation by Eve. For this reason, Bottle Rocket Hearts never becomes preachy despite being chock-full of righteous politics. Whittall lets her characters breathe and fail like real humans, rather than forcing them to be cardboard cutouts for ideas.
My beefs with Bottle Rocket Hearts have little to do with the writing and everything to do with the editing. Sadly, this book is one of the sloppiest I’ve seen, an anomaly for Cormorant Books. It’s riddled with typos, it switches tenses mid-paragraph and it favours US spellings. The mistakes are so constant that I was jerked out of the story. Perhaps most irksome is the fact that a book with a focus on English-French tensions is tainted by misspelled and accent-less French. Shouldn’t language have been a priority?
As I understand it, the copy editors were so into the book that they forgot to do their jobs. If this is true, it is certainly a compliment to Whittall, but I hope they won’t be working on other good books in the future.
Also baffling is the structure. It begins with the end, then goes back in time and brings us chronologically to the end again. This stereotypical bookending does little for the story and feels like a clunky add-on; it would have been more effective to begin with chapter two.
That being said, I read the book twice. Both times I laughed and was moved, and I constantly marvelled at Whitall’s inventive turns of phrase. Bottle Rocket Hearts is a delightful novel whose characters will stay in my thoughts for a long time to come.