In 1972, the tune Everything I Own was a hit for the Californian soft-rock band Bread. It was later covered by a variety of artists as a love song and while that proved to be a popular interpretation, it wasn't true to songwriter David Gates's original intent: the sincere, heartfelt lyrics were actually written in memory of his late father.
This fact wasn't lost on author Raymond Beauchemin, a former editor on this newspaper, who has named his playful, introspective, first novel after Gates's song and instilled it with a sense of loss and yearning - plus a twist. While the novel focuses on the love between a father and son, it's not a memorial to their eternal bond. Instead, it tracks the nature of the resentment that sprang up between them, grew more intense, and permanently scarred their relationship.
The book is narrated by Michel LaFlamme, a successful 43-year-old pop and folk songwriter living in Montreal with his wife, a Quebecer. Michel was born in the United States but his working-class father moved the family to the southern Quebec town of Sabrevois in 1970 when Michel was 10, and he has lived in Quebec ever since.
The book begins with Michel being stuck on one of Montreal's many bridges as he's driving to the airport to pick up his stepdaughter, Laurence (whom we later learn has been away in Europe for a decade). "I neared the centre span, and congratulated myself on the decision to take the bridge instead of the tunnel that morning," Michel says. "And then traffic stopped… I felt suspended, mid-errand, mid-voyage, mid-thought."
He turns on the radio and hears a song that launches his thoughts backward in time. "I hit the button several times before the scan function stopped and I found myself crossing another bridge. Bijou was on the radio." We discover that Bijou Boisclair, Michel's wife, known simply as Bijou, was a member of a pop-folk band called Beaupré, and is a massive star in Quebec and much of the world. To this point, we've been given no indication that Michel was married to a music legend, but all the book's major themes will come together as the story of their love and music is told.
Named after a song, the novel is also structured like one. The sections of the book are listed as "verses," with shorter "choruses" in between, ending with a bridge and a final chorus. No mere gimmick, the book-as-song device hints at the careful structure Beauchemin devised for this time-shifting narrative. Fluid transitions occur as tonal shifts when new facets of Michel's life come to light and subsequently accrue meaning.
The story all takes place as a sentimental journey in Michel's memory, as he searches for what has made him feel so unsettled about his songwriting and his marriage. Flashback scenes form a portrait of the artist as a young Quebecer, then slip forward to scenes that show the effects of Michel's past on his troubled present life with Bijou.
Looking back, Michel relates many enjoyable scenes of his teenage years going to concerts, dating girls and listening to records with friends equally obsessed with music. But it's a more serious story than Almost Famous, the Cameron Crowe film it echoes at times. Michel tells of the death of his grade-school friend, Claude, and Claude's hatred of his father. And Michel learns hard lessons about the ugly side of Quebecois nationalism from his friend, Marc, who insults Michel for being born in the United States. "Did my French sound so different from his?" Michel wonders. "And how could I 'think like an American' when I'd spent more than half my life in Quebec?" Michel is baffled by Marc's refusal to listen to any music that sounds "British, American or black," touching on the major theme of Quebecois politics, including the failed referendum in 1980 to separate from Canada, and racism's part in the sovereignty movement