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The Understanding by Jane Barker Wright  

You’re invited to a party at the Whitechapels’ place. You know them, of course. Isobel won’t stop having babies. Solly, a cabinetmaker of international repute, won’t stop sleeping around. Because they’re also attractive, talented, charmingly eccentric and known for their selfless good works, the world thinks well of them.

While Isobel keeps track of their nine children, Solly makes exquisite furniture and operates a job-training program for street kids. The Whitechapels enjoy a mellow, benevolent kind of fame. Then their daughter, Magnolia, becomes pop music’s latest angry darling and a harsh light is cast on lives which for years have been played out in flattering amber.

In the autopsy by media that follows, it’s revealed that Isobel kidnapped Magnolia as an infant. Something ugly happened at a Gulf Island commune during the Seventies; now Isobel is about to pay a price. Fame and notoriety co-exist.

One does not attend parties at the Whitechapels’, anymore.

Review text

‘The characters in Jane Barker Wright’s The Understanding seem to live life as if it were one long hummed note. Biographies of great people are written from just such a premise. They trace present achievement back as far as they can to support the unifying take on that person’s life. But it’s surprising to see it played out against the backdrop of ubiquity, surprising and chilling.

‘There’s Solly Whitechapel, whose ‘‘upbringing had occurred in a sphere that was exclusively Anglo-Saxon, [where] wealth was expected to behave itself ... as if God Himself had made a generous donation.’’ But Solly does not behave himself. He has a voracious appetite for living outside the lines especially where women are concerned, seducing his mother’s friends and their daughters, too. So when he meets Isobel, a pale, underdone oddity against the well-toasted summer white of the rich, he doesn’t know that she’ll be around the longest of any of his women.

‘Teenaged Isobel comes from a poor family but has made friends with a rich girl who introduces her to Solly. Isobel knows her friend covets Solly, but when he says ‘‘come,’’ she does as if she had been waiting her whole life for that exact word from this exact man.

‘Solly and Isobel drive west in his Ford Fairlane to be hippies in British Columbia. Isobel has nine children while Solly sleeps with a succession of women of all shapes and sizes, women who often become her friends after Solly is done with them. In between women, Solly plays at being an organic farmer and a maker of art furniture. He even has a piece at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

‘On the outside, the Whitechapels seem to have made a success out of their hippie legacy until their daughter Magnolia, a famous singer, goes missing. Then the glare of publicity reveals the manipulative depths they have unconsciously sunk to in order to fulfill their destinies. When all is said and done, Barker Wright throws a cool eye over those who would deceive themselves into thinking that they can be anything other than their true selves.’

—Elizabeth Johnston, Globe and Mail

Review text

The Understanding is a fast-paced and lively novel, filled with well-drawn and fascinating characters. Wright is adept at creating suspense as she slowly reveals the secrets hidden under the serene surface of her protagonists’ lives.’

—Lynne Perras, Canadian Book Review Annual

Author comments

In an interview with Alan Twigg of BC Bookworld, Jane Barker Wright says that she’s always wanted to write about an abiding, long-term relationship. It’s a state that’s commonplace in life, especially middle-life, but virtually absent in modern literature. She’s more interested in the compromises, surrenders and shared experiences that keep people together than she is in the indifference and acrimony that pull them apart.

At the same time, she became obsessed with a woman who could not stop having babies. The recognition of the end of the child-bearing phase is a poignant moment in many women’s lives; even childless women reach a point when they realize that the baby option is no longer viable. Aging is about the gradual narrowing of possibility. With that poignancy in mind, Wright began to imagine Isobel Whitechapel.

Wright then became fascinated by the logistics of raising a large family in Vancouver in the Nineties. How much milk, bread, peanut butter and toilet paper does the family need? Whose soccer game do you attend? Whose baseball game do you miss? How do you ever manage to pay for their shoes?

By the time she’d finished the last draft, Wright was saddled with a family dealing with a huge, almost overwhelming, crisis. But meals still have to be cooked, concerts have to be attended, illnesses still have to be treated. Children expect a certain predictable regimen.

‘I’ve always thought that parenthood is one of the big subjects,’ says Wright, ‘as big as war or love. If someone writes a novel about war, it’s automatically endowed with a kind of gravitas because of the resonance of the theme. If a woman writes a book about motherhood, it’s gently condemned as ‘‘domestic’’, as if the producing and nurturing of life is less monumental than the destruction of it. But the issues are the same: risk, power and lack of it, despair and hope.’ Wright ends by saying, ‘‘an ordinary life can be as gripping as an extraordinary one’’.


Jane Barker Wright was born in 1953 and educated in Ontario. While at Queen’s University, she fell in love with a metallurgical engineer and so has lived in Trail, B.C., Sydney, Australia, Tumbler Ridge, B.C. and Greymouth, New Zealand. She now lives in Vancouver with her husband. They have a moderate number of children.

Her first novel, The Tasmanian Tiger, was published by Polestar Press in 1988. She has written a book column for Horticultural Magazine for many years.

The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.

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FICTION / Literary


ISBN-13: 9780889842427

Publication Date: 2002-09-15

Dimensions: 8.87 in x 5.62 in

Pages: 192

Price: $19.95