Barfoot, Joan 1946–
Barfoot, Joan 1946–
Born May 17, 1946, in Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada; daughter of Robert (a salesperson and farmer) and Helen (a teacher) Barfoot. Education: University of Western Ontario, B.A., 1969.
Home—London, Ontario, Canada. Agent—Bella Pomer, 22 Shallmar Blvd., PH2, Toronto, Ontario M5N 2Z8, Canada. E-mail—[email protected]
Writer and journalist. Windsor Star, Windsor, Ontario, Canada, reporter and religion editor, 1967-69; Mirror Publications, Toronto, Ontario, feature and news writer, 1969-73; Toronto Sunday Sun, Toronto, 1973-75; London Free Press, London, Ontario, 1976-79, 1980-94, current affairs columnist, 1997-2000.
Writer's Union of Canada, PEN Canada.
Books in Canada Award for first novel, 1978, for Abra; London YM-YWCA Women of Distinction Award, 1986; Marian Engel Award, 1992; longlisted, Man Booker Prize, 2002; Huron University College Medal of Distinction, 2005.
Abra (novel), McGraw-Hill Ryerson (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1978, published in England as Gaining Ground, Women's Press, 1980.
Dancing in the Dark (novel), Macmillan of Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1982.
Duet for Three (novel), Macmillan of Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1985.
Family News (novel), Macmillan of Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1989.
Plain Jane (novel), Macmillan of Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1992.
Charlotte and Claudia Keeping in Touch (novel), Key Porter Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1994.
(Editor) Fred and Norah Egener, A Time Apart: Letters of Love and War, Ginger Press (Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada), 1995.
Some Things about Flying (novel), Key Porter Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1997.
Getting over Edgar (novel), Key Porter Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1999.
Critical Injuries (novel), Key Porter Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2001, Counterpoint (Washington, DC), 2002.
Luck, Knopf Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2005, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 2006.
Exit Lines, Knopf Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2008.
Barfoot's writings have been translated into several languages, including French, German, Italian, and various Scandinavian tongues.
Dancing in the Dark was adapted for film.
During the last quarter of the twentieth century, Canadian author Joan Barfoot earned a reputation as a talented novelist. In such works as Abra, Dancing in the Dark, Getting over Edgar, and Critical Injuries, she explores regions of the human psyche and heart with an acuity appreciated by readers and noted by critics, some of whom have compared her favorably to American novelist Anne Tyler and Canadian writer Carol Shields.
Barfoot grew up in Owen Sound, Ontario, where she cut her teeth on the Canadian classic Anne of Green Gables and other L.M. Montgomery stories. "They were about girls who had spunk and individuality," Barfoot remembered in a Toronto Star article by Ken Adachi. "Later, of course, I read Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro because they told stories about people who really exist. I come from the same sort of country as Alice Munro; when I read her books I feel I know her places and her characters." After earning a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Western Ontario, Barfoot worked as a reporter and editor at a handful of Canadian newspapers. As a journalist she demonstrated an ability for capturing telling details, a talent she put to use in her novels. She began her first novel, Abra, while working for the Toronto Sun and finished it while employed by the Free Press in London, Ontario.
In 1979 Barfoot burst onto the literary scene with Abra, a tale about a middle-class woman who abandons her husband and children to live a reclusive life in rural Canada. The novel earned critical acclaim, as well as a Books in Canada Award for the best first novel. Enthusiasts of the novel include Books in Canada and Toronto Star critic Sheila Fischman, who noted that by writing with "intelligence, sensitivity, and inventiveness," Barfoot was "able to take what has become a hackneyed theme and make it new." London Tribune contributor Kathryn Buckley reported that although Abra "reads as the egotistic and heartless escape of a possessive neurotic from life and responsibility," the book is "written with honesty and sincerity."
According to another Books in Canada contributor, Douglas Hill, Abra is "tough, complex, and convincing in the emotional truth it delivers." Even with such accolades, reviewers were not unanimous in their assessments. For example, David Godfrey, writing in Books in Canada, commented that the novel suffers from "psychological unbelievability." Despite the novel's perceived flaws in the characterization and morality of Abra, Waddington determined that "Barfoot presents the reader with a very real problem." She continued: "I can't believe in Abra's premises or her solutions, but Barfoot's novel convinces me of the reality of the problem."
Barfoot followed Abra with Dancing in the Dark. This tale of a perfectionist homemaker who murders her husband and is institutionalized in a mental hospital is told through the first-person narration of the homemaker. Screenwriter and director Leon Marr adapted the novel as a film starring Martha Henry in the title role. Barfoot was pleased with Marr's efforts and gratified to see her work appear in another medium.
During the mid- and late 1980s, Barfoot broadened the focus of her novels to include the views of members of extended families and lovers in such titles as Duet for Three and Family News. Using flashbacks and monologues, Barfoot explores the relationships among three generations of women in Duet for Three, "a lonely, rare novel," according to Library Journal contributor Janet Boyarin Blundell. Toronto Star contributor Judith Fitzgerald also found much to like about the novel, including Barfoot's characterizations and use of details: "From the first sentence, Barfoot's eye for detail and ear for rhythm rings remarkably true." Fitzgerald also wrote: "It's a first-rate novel by any standard."
Barfoot returned to a more intimate scale with her 1992 offering, Plain Jane. About a lonely library worker who begins a correspondence with an incarcerated man, the plot of Plain Jane hinges on the question of what Jane will do when the convict is released from prison and wants to meet her. According to Toronto Star contributor Geraldine Sherman, although the suspenseful plot "smooths over most reservations about the writer's intrusive style and her pathetic central character," the conclusion is "artificial" and begs the question of "how the story really ends."
While entering middle age herself, Barfoot began to pen novels about middle-aged characters. These works include her 1999 novel, Getting over Edgar, which a Toronto Star entertainment writer described as a "splenetic comic tour de force" of mid-life crisis. The plot of the novel revolves around Gwen's attempts to reinvent herself after the accidental death of her philandering husband, Edgar. Thus, the novel begins with Gwen having a one-night stand with a young bartender named David, and it continues in alternating chapters to tell each character's story after that momentary junction in their lives. These characters are dynamic and treated with "an affectionate optimism always tempered by perceptiveness and clear-sighted wit," according to Margaret Walters in the London Sunday Times. Ali Smith, writing in the Scotsman, asserted that its structure "keeps this novel compelling" until finally the "taken-for-granted stereotypical characters are redeemed as real and vulnerable and complex people after all." "Joan Barfoot's novel should be welcomed for adding to the limited number of rebellious females in fiction," noted London Sunday Times critic Amanda Craig.
Having successfully used the alternating-viewpoint structure in Getting over Edgar, Barfoot used it again in her much-acclaimed Critical Injuries. As in the former novel, the two main characters are an older woman and a younger man; yet this time both characters are not finding their way toward more fulfilling lives, but rather dealing with the aftermath of serious injuries. When Isla stops in at an ice cream store for her favorite treat, she is accidentally shot by Roddy, a teenager who tries to rob the store. The bulk of the novel details in alternating chapters the repercussions of the robbery: the critical injuries—physical and psychological—to both protagonists. The work elicited comments from reviewers, of whom several praised the novel's tone, plot, characters, and setting. Dubbing Critical Injuries "a serious work of literature … and a pleasure to read," Craig, writing again in the Sunday Times, praised Barfoot's "unsentimental voice [that] encompasses humour, anger, power and delicacy." Likewise, New Leader contributor Lynne Sharon Schwartz described the novel as "a sophisticated, appealing story of family life put to the most grueling test." Yet Schwartz deemed Isla's husband, Lyle, "almost too noble to be true," and found Barfoot better able to portray the middle-aged Isla than the teenager Roddy. Stylistically, the "writing is by turns lyrical and biting, complex and simplistic," commented Phyllis Richardson in the Times Literary Supplement. Whether or not the ending is successful was open to debate. As Lindsay Duguid commented in the London Sunday Times: "Sometimes the solutions to hard problems may seem easily won, but this is an honest book with a saving wry humour."
Barfoot's next novel, Luck, begins with the death of Philip, who dies in his sleep at the age of forty-six. To some, Philip's death may seem unlucky, while others may view it as a blessing to die so peacefully. Philip is the husband of Nora, a sculptor, who wakes up to find him dead beside her. Not only is Nora shocked at his death, but so are the two other women who share the house with Nora and her husband: Beth, a model for Nora, and Sophie, the housekeeper. The novel follows the three women as they run the gamut of emotions for three days leading up to Philip's funeral. In the process, Barfoot explores the lives and various perspectives of the three women, who are all very different. The author focuses primarily on their view of Philip's death and their own lives in terms of chance and luck and secrets from the past. "It's a simple device, so simple that it needs much technical skill, wit and insight to carry it off," wrote Amanda Craig in the London Independent. "Barfoot … is more than up to the challenge."
Several reviewers had high praise for Luck. A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that "Barfoot … may finally get the recognition she deserves for this brilliantly conceived, masterfully realized … novel." Evelyn Beck, writing in the Library Journal, noted that "the spare prose is lovely" and that "the portraits of the three women are compelling and detailed." Other reviewers also focused on Barfoot's prose. In an article about Luck, Atlantic contributor Christina Schwartz noted that the author's "writing is exuberant." Although most reviewers focused on the theme of "luck" in the novel, some also noted that the novel has a larger scope as well. Sarah Watstein wrote in Booklist that the three women are a family in many ways and that Luck "is very much a novel about family and home."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 18, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1981.
Howells, Coral Ann, Private and Fictional Words: Canadian Women Novelists of the 1970s and 1980s, Methuen (London, England), 1987.
Moss, John, editor, A Reader's Guide to the Canadian Novel, 2nd edition, McClelland and Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1987.
Thiersch, Antje, The Reality B(ey)ond: Triviality and Profundity in the Novels of Joan Barfoot, Galda & Wilch Verlag (Cambridge, MA), 2002.
Atlantic Monthly, May, 2006, Christina Schwarz, "A Close Read: What Makes Good Writing Good," p. 130.
Belles Lettres, May, 1988, review of Duet for Three, p. 6.
Booklist, December, 1986, review of Duet for Three, p. 546; July, 2002, Melanie C. Duncan, review of Critical Injuries, p. 1820; December 1, 2005, Sarah Watstein, review of Luck, p. 24.
Books, December, 1997, review of Some Things about Flying, p. 19.
Books & Bookmen, June, 1986, review of Duet for Three, p. 27.
Books in Canada, April, 1979, Dave Godfrey and Douglas Hill, reviews of Abra, pp. 3-4; January, 1980, Paul Stuewe, review of Abra, p. 20; October, 1982, "A Literary Tour de Force that Stunningly Portrays a Housewife's Descent into Madness and Murder," review of Dancing in the Dark, p. 19; October, 1985, review of Duet for Three, p. 23; October, 1989, review of Family News, p. 26; May, 1992, review of Plain Jane, p. 42; November, 2005, Ann Diamond, "Running out of Luck," review of Luck, p. 5.
Canadian Book Review Annual, 1994, review of Charlotte and Claudia Keeping in Touch, p. 150; 1997, review of Some Things about Flying, p. 171; 2000, review of Getting over Edgar, p. 138.
Canadian Forum, July, 1990, review of Family News, p. 31.
Canadian Literature, winter, 1992, Family News, p. 157; spring, 2007, Jennifer Fraser, "Luck of the Draw," p. 129.
Chatelaine, October, 2001, Bonnie Schiedel, review of Critical Injuries, p. 16.
CM: Canadian Materials for Young People, January, 1990, review of Family News, p. 24.
Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, spring, 2007, Isla J. Duncan, "Travels through This Place: Joan Barfoot's Gaining Ground as Quest Narrative," p. 219.
Entertainment Weekly, March 10, 2006, Alanna Nash, review of Luck, p. 72.
Essays on Canadian Writing, spring, 1995, review of Plain Jane, p. 154.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), April 10, 1999, review of Getting over Edgar, p. D12; September 29, 2001, review of Critical Injuries, p. D10; November 24, 2001, review of Critical Injuries, p. D15.
Homemaker's, November, 2001, "Barfoot Online," p. 27.
Hungry Mind Review, November, 1989, review of Family News, p. 40.
Independent (London, England), February 6, 2005, Amanda Craig, "What the Beauty Queen Did with Her Herbal Tea," review of Luck.
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1986, review of Duet for Three, p. 1462; May 1, 2002, review of Critical Injuries, p. 589; October 15, 2005, review of Luck, p. 1097.
Library Journal, December, 1986, Janet Boyarin Blundell, review of Duet for Three, p. 132; June 15, 2002, Nancy Pearl, review of Critical Injuries, p. 92; December 1, 2005, Evelyn Beck, review of Luck, p. 109.
London Tribune (London, Ontario, Canada), July 18, 1980, Kathryn Buckley, review of Abra.
Maclean's, October 18, 1982, review of Dancing in the Dark, p. 76; October 21, 1985, review of Duet for Three, p. 85.
Ms., February, 1987, review of Duet for Three, p. 19.
New Leader, July-August, 2002, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, review of Critical Injuries, pp. 27-28.
New Statesman, March 21, 1986, review of Duet for Three, p. 28.
New York Times Book Review, April 5, 1987, review of Duet for Three, p. 19.
Publishers Weekly, October 24, 1986, review of Duet for Three, p. 57; October 30, 1987, review of Duet for Three, p. 65; October 17, 2005, review of Luck, p. 37; March 6, 2006, Stephen Marche, "Chance Encounters," p. 40.
Quill & Quire, September, 1982, review of Dancing in the Dark, p. 58; September, 1985, review of Duet for Three, p. 78; April, 1992, review of Plain Jane, p. 23; October, 1994, review of Charlotte and Claudia Keeping in Touch, p. 32; August, 1997, review of Some Things about Flying, p. 30; March, 1999, review of Getting over Edgar, p. 60; September, 2001, review of Critical Injuries, p. 44.
Scotsman (Edinburgh, Scotland), August 7, 1999, Ali Smith, review of Getting over Edgar, p. 11.
Sunday Times (London, England), September 5, 1999, Margaret Walters, review of Getting over Edgar, p. 8; October 21, 1999, Amanda Craig, "Good Is Bad, but Bad Is Better," p. 40; March 30, 2002, Amanda Craig, "A Time to Reflect," p. 15; April 21, 2002, Lindsay Duguid, "Miracles Can Happen," p. 45.
Times Literary Supplement, September 27, 1985, review of Dancing in the Dark, p. 1070; July 11, 1986, review of Duet for Three, p. 766; April 5, 2002, Phyllis Richardson, "Taking the Road to Self-Improvement"; October 28, 2005, Carol Birch, "After the Funeral," review of Luck, p. 22.
Toronto Star (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), October 13, 1985, Judith Fitzgerald, "An Intense Novel of Ties That Bind," p. A15; April 27, 1986, Ken Adachi, "‘Wonderful!’ Says Author about Film of Her Book," p. B7; April 4, 1992, Geraldine Sherman, review of Plain Jane, p. K13; September 24, 1994, Betty Jane Wylie, "Between Friends," p. J21; March 28, 1999, "The Act of Living Fully; Joan Barfoot Explores the Second Chances Extraordinary Events Can Offer," p. E1.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), July 18, 1980, Kathryn Buckley, review of Abra, p. 9; March 15, 1987, review of Duet for Three, p. 6.
Allreaders.com,http://www.allreaders.com/ (January 21, 2008), Tena Van't Foort, review of Family News.
Joan Barfoot Home Page,http://www3.sympatico.ca/jbarfoot (March 28, 2005).