Also like Binchy, Kindellen-Sheehan doesn’t try to grab the reader with tragedy or mystery in the first few pages. Instead, she begins by painting an idyllic picture of three summers her family spent near Cacouna on the banks of the St. Lawrence, downstream from Rivière-du-Loup. Before you know it, you’re seduced by the setting and charmed by the little girl.
Kindellan-Sheehan was the second oldest of eight in a family which moved from Montreal to Winnipeg to Toronto and then back to Montreal as their father rose through the management ranks at Imperial Oil. Money wasn’t a problem – they always had a nice house, good things to eat, and bicycles to ride – so this isn’t a book about childhood deprivation. Nevertheless the children struggle with temptation. Sheila and her older sister set themselves up as washroom attendants during their parents’ Christmas party and “mortify” their mother when they collect $1.25 in small change from the guests. Sheila steals twenty dollars from her father to buy a new bike. The girls spend money intended for bus fare to go to the movies and buy candy, taking a taxi and charging it to their father’s account.
Sheila agonizes over this petty larceny. After all, this is a family which went to Mass together every Sunday, and whose parents, as a young couple, made a pilgrimage on foot from Quebec City to the shrine at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. To give herself a clean slate, Sheila makes a “grand confession” when she enters adolescence, and says she deeply regrets disappointing her mother by not being the good girl she might have been.
But Sheila’s Take is not just about childhood. Kindellan-Sheehan gives us her life in 14 episodes. Hard things happen: a neighbourhood plays a nasty sexual game with her, her mother’s mother is meanly distant, a brother and his wife are killed on their honeymoon. What’s more, her mother dies, her father grows old, and her husband Tom struggles with cancer, finally succumbing in his early forties.
The book ends as Kindellan-Sheehan overcomes her grief after her husband’s death by taking up one of her joys from childhood. She buys a blue mountain bike. She rides it “back into life…It’s wheels pushed me against the currents of hard times, and glided me down steep hills to smoother roads.”
This is the kind of ending Maeve Binchy gives her novels: the heroine courageously faces trouble and finds inner strength. Yet Sheila’s Take should not be confused with Binchy. In places it is lyrical – the descriptions of the shore of the St. Lawrence are particularly evocative – but the episodes do not always read smoothly from one to the next, and more editing could have eliminated some repetitious detail.
More importantly, the book lacks the coherence of both good fiction and the best memoirs, even though a very interesting narrative threa – the chasm between the religious life of Kindellan-Sheehan’s parents and her own spiritual life as an adult – is hinted at. She writes about looking for solace in therapy after her husband dies, and spends a long chapter describing her obsession with making his gravesite a garden: apparently she found little comfort in prayer and not much hope in promises of heaven. A better book by a daughter from a family where faith and religious practice were so important would have had more to say about that contradiction. Without it, Sheila’s Take is just a nice collection of memories. Too bad it’s not more. mRb