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Clara Callan    by Richard B. Wright order for
Clara Callan
by Richard B. Wright
Order:  USA  Can
Perennial, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Shannon Bigham

Clara Callan, a single schoolteacher in her early thirties, resides in the small Canadian town of Linden. Her story opens in 1934 as Clara bids farewell to her younger sister. Nora boards a train to New York City, in order to pursue a career as a radio soap opera star. The sisters' parents are deceased and Nora's departure leaves Clara living alone in their childhood home, teaching at a school within walking distance of the house. Clara and Nora both attended the school (where their father was the principal) when they were children. There is little in Linden that Clara has not seen, and few people that she does not know.

Upon Nora's departure, the story unfolds into a fascinating account of the sisters' separate existences. Clara leads a seemingly quiet life in Linden, while Nora enjoys the exciting times of a budding actress in New York City. However, Clara's situation changes after Nora leaves, and she experiences unfortunate events, some foreseeable and some not. Clara evolves into a different person than readers met at the onset of the story. And it is clear that the townsfolk of Linden have a watchful, reproachful eye on her, and there is not a lot of freedom in Linden for a single woman who lives alone in the 1930s.

Though Clara and Nora are very different, the sisterly bond between them is tested and grows throughout the story. As Nora entrenches herself in her budding acting career and rubs elbows with various interesting people in New York City, Clara is isolated in Linden. She teaches school, enjoys summers at home, and survives harsh Canadian winters. The novel is almost entirely comprised of Clara's diary entries and letters between Clara and Nora, along with letters to and from Nora's friend Evelyn, whom Clara gets to know on a trip to New York City. The majority of the novel takes place in Linden (with occasional excursions by Clara to Toronto), although we also have a fine glimpse of New York City in the 1930s.

The author's writing is simultaneously impressive and easy to read. Wright does a masterful job of writing from Clara's perspective, so that it was easy to forget that the author is male. I pictured all the main characters in my mind as I read this engaging novel and particularly enjoyed reading Evelyn's letters to Clara. Clara Callan was the winner of the Giller Prize and Canada's Governor General's Award. Though this is the first Wright novel that I have read, it certainly will not be the last. I highly recommend it as a well written, engrossing story of two sisters and their separate but equally interesting lives.

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