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Character Parts: Who’s Really Who in Canlit

by Brian Busby

The sour scent of wasted opportunity clings to the pages of Character Parts. The book proceeds from a tremendously appealing premise: an exposé of the real-life role models for various Canadian authors’ fictional creations. But in developing that idea, author Brian Busby has made several questionable decisions.

The promo material for the book hints at gossipy thrills, playing up Mordecai Richler’s take on the Bronfman family in Solomon Gursky Was Here and Margaret Atwood’s on Barbara Amiel in The Robber Bride. It’s smart marketing, but readers snagged by that hook will be disappointed: such titillation is the exception in Character Parts, not the norm. And when it is included, it’s with very little context. For example, Busby tells us that Atwood ridiculed Robert Fulford in a 1990 short story as payback for Fulford’s memoir – but he doesn’t bother telling us what exactly Fulford wrote to rile her in the first place.

What the book lacks in depth, it attempts to make up for in breadth. Its 500-plus individual entries, one for each fictional character, range across books from various time periods, dating all the way back to the 1700s and including many that are now forgotten (in some cases rightly so, Busby admits). The reach is admirable and the research undeniably impressive, but the result is nearly unreadable.

One problem is the triteness of most of the examples. No reader will be surprised to learn that many authors modelled characters on their parents, spouses, acquaintances, etc. This information alone carries little interest, and too often the book becomes a mind-fogging parade of factoids. In cases that do warrant longer consideration, Busby’s prose is devoid of delight. A long recap of the life of Else Ploetz, the first wife of Frederick Philip Grove, should by rights be fascinating; instead, it’s hard to follow.

To be fair, the format here may not be intended for easy-chair reading. But even as a reference book, Character Parts misfires. It’s organized alphabetically by character name, which means that multiple examples from a single novel are scattered awkwardly throughout the text. And how likely is anyone to search by character, anyway? Surely listings by author, with subdivisions by title, would be more useful? A separate listing of role models would also be helpful, to show at a glance how many fictional makeovers, say, Conrad Black has received over the years.

Occasionally, the book does illuminate its central subject with an intriguing bit of information. Margaret Laurence discovered a new sympathy for her grandfather after completing what was originally planned as an unflattering portrayal of him. And Mavis Gallant realized that she’d based a whole story on a family she knew in Paris – but only after she saw the piece in its French translation. These glimmers amid the gloom, though, are too brief and too rare.