The Better Mother by Jen Sookfong Lee
Set in Vancouver, Jen Sookfong Lee’s second novel criss-crosses the years from the 1940s, when young girls dreamt of careers in the naughty world of burlesque, to 1982 as AIDS becomes a grim reality for gay men. Lee deftly weaves together life stories from the perspectives of two central characters. The book opens in 1958 on the day that eight-year-old Danny loses his father’s cigarette money and encounters Miss Val, the Siamese Kitten of the burlesque world, who gives him a pack of cigarettes and, impulsively, her silk belt. Danny sees in that spontaneous gesture an enduring friendship and a future beyond Chinatown. Yet, as he matures, Danny’s life seems always to fall short of his childhood fantasy.
Lee’s characters are complex and, on occasion, irritatingly human. By the ’80s, Danny is estranged from his disapproving father and work-worn mother. He supports himself as a wedding photographer, an ironic choice for a man whose own lifestyle remains hidden from his family. Danny yearns for recognition as a celebrated photographer, but he forfeits that potential. Instead, he dwells in the painful reality of his own secret life cruising Stanley Park and longing to reconcile with his lover.
Ultimately, another chance meeting leads Miss Val and Danny to share their life stories more fully and to give the reader some hope that they might come to terms with themselves and the people they love.
— Marjorie Mitchell
Price: $29.95; Page count: 350