THE SWEET EDGE by Alison Pick (Raincoast), 284 pages, $21.95 paper. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN
Like an aerial map of canoe routes through the tundra, Alison Pick's debut novel tells you precisely where it's headed from the moment she leaves the shore. Fragile blond waif Ellen sweats through a summer as an assistant at a Queen West art gallery, where she cowers from her dragon-lady boss and tries not to say the wrong thing to the stylish scenesters who show up for openings.
Her boyfriend Adam, a prototypical leftist grad student, cracks under the weight of their relationship and heads to the Arctic for a two-month canoe trip to "get some space."
The Sweet Edge tracks their dovetailing journeys of self-discovery, flickering between Adam's bush-man trek through tundra and rapids and Ellen's adoption by an earthy pseudo-Buddhist feminist collective. Their narratives hop-scotch through patchy memories of how their relationship took shape.
Pick, a skilled poet who won 2002's Bronwen Wallace Award for best unpublished writer under 35, uses language cleanly with metaphors that shine. Even when dealing with broad stereotypes like the meditating lesbian collective member or the black-clad art snob, her talent for precise descriptions elevates her characters beyond mere caricature.
I wish she hadn't attempted to "mask" Toronto landmarks with silly names, though Coupe Bizzarre becomes Coupe Étrange, Slack Alice is Slick Amy. In a non-satirical novel, the cutesy quality falls flat and feels incongruous with the rest of the narrative.
Pick also wobbles a bit when it comes to plot: the growing apart/finding themselves/coming back together arc needs more drive, and certain "profound" coincidences seem forced.
Still, Adam and Ellen's relationship hews so closely to any number of rickety mid-20s couple stories sensitive New Age guy and insecure, people-pleasing chick fall in love and flounder through sex, work, abortions and quarter-life crises. Buoyed by the grace of Pick's prose, The Sweet Edge is a wholly enjoyable read that rings (sometimes uncomfortably) true.