Out of Focus by Margaret Buffie

When Bernie was thirteen, she told her mother, “When you stop being a drunk, I’ll call you Mom.” She’s sixteen now, and still calls her mom Celia. Things have started to look up for Bernie and her younger brother and sister. Celia is marrying Mario, who loves the kids and is a genuinely nice guy. They’ll have a house instead of a roach-infested apartment, her little brother won’t have to worry about the bully down the hall, there will be groceries in the fridge, and just maybe, Celia will sober up.

So Bernie thinks, until the morning of the wedding when she finds that Celia (who didn’t showed up for her own bridal shower the night before) has called the whole thing off. There are three constants in Bernie’s life: looking out for her younger brother and sister, her love of photography (a legacy from her photographer father, who left them years ago), and that Celia will never stay sober, no matter how many times she promises. Calling off the wedding is just one thing to add to a long list of disappointments.

Then Bernie finds out that her mother has inherited Black Spruce Lodge, a former guest lodge on a lake in Ontario, from an aunt Bernie’s never heard of. Celia wants to sell it outright, but Bernie sees a way out. She blackmails Celia into staying at the Lodge for the summer, and plans on fixing it up and opening it to guests again. But the place is a mess, and even with help from the neighbours, Bernie’s got a lot to deal with. There’s Jack, who’s funny and friendly, and quite literally the guy next door. And Tony, the good-looking novelist renting a cabin across the lake, who seems quite taken with both Celia and Bernie. And then there’s Bernie’s anger with her mom, herself, and everyone around her.

I wasn’t really able to get into Margaret Buffie’s last few books–the Seeker trilogy–but much to my delight, this is much closer to some of her older books like Who is Frances Rain and My Mother’s Ghost. (Though I think my favourite is still The Guardian Circle, which was also published as The Warnings.) This is not just another problem novel. There’s a very vivid sense of place–specifically Ontario lake and cabin country. (Which is often described as the quintessential Canadian experience–not necessarily the case for this prairie girl. But anyways.) And the characters–Bernie’s not a martyr, and her mother’s not a monster. This is a book where nobody’s perfect. Sure, it’s obvious that Bernie shouldn’t be trying to hook up with the older writer; that’s kind of the point there. The message is also pretty plain that she needs to stop living life vicariously behind her camera. But the sheer complexity of her relationship with her mother and reactions to everything going on in her life are perfect. And in the end we’re left with a definite feeling of hope for all involved–things are starting to get better, and it’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be okay. That’s what I wanted for this family we’ve come to know and care about, and I think that was the best part. Hope.

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