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His Whole Life

3.78  ·  Rating Details ·  1,010 Ratings  ·  190 Reviews
Starting with something as simple as a boy who wants a dog, His Whole Life takes us into a richly intimate world where everything that matters to him is at risk: family, nature, home.

At the outset ten-year-old Jim and his Canadian mother and American father are on a journey from New York City to a lake in eastern Ontario during the last hot days of August. What unfolds is
Hardcover, 361 pages
Published August 11th 2015 by McClelland & Stewart (first published April 14th 2015)
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The Awakening by Kate ChopinTraveling With Pomegranates by Sue Monk KiddA Good Man by Guy VanderhaegheThe Outlander by Gil AdamsonOn Beauty by Zadie Smith
My 52 Book Challenge 2016
32nd out of 71 books — 2 voters
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The dog dies...a cautionary list.
110th out of 211 books — 177 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Nov 16, 2015 Elyse rated it it was amazing
Shelves: netgalley
Presenting a primary question....."What is the worse thing you have ever done?", as an early opening at the near start of this novel ...( a background setting that never vanishes from the readers mind), is brilliant.

While I never quite forgot that question - which was asked more than once - I soon noticed ..."oh, there sure are a lot of things the characters are not forgetting in 'their'
Jim, who is only 10 years old, remembers the day he and his family discover a bullet
hole in the back
Diane S ☔
Sep 10, 2016 Diane S ☔ rated it it was ok
2.5 review to follow.
Aug 10, 2015 Jill rated it really liked it
Elizabeth Hay has long delighted and transported me with her work: the lost souls working together in a small Yellowknife radio station (Late Nights on Air), the two tempestuous sisters in the fairytale-like A Student of Weather, the interweaving of human relationships in Alone in the Classroom.

This is a writer who has never been afraid of cross-fertilizing her style, creating that perfect hybrid of an intimate mastery of words with a splendor of vision and always focusing on the power of place
Highly recommended! I was fortunate to have received an advance copy of this book from the publisher. I think it is Elizabeth Hay's best novel yet. What a wonderful summer read! I especially loved the style of her writing, which, to me, was so gentle. Nothing particularly earth shattering happens in this book, but it doesn't really matter. You get a real sense of family and relationships that evolve over the years, set against the backdrop of the Quebec referendum on sovereignty in the 1990's. ...more
Sep 01, 2015 Laima marked it as scheduled
I was just reading an article in our hometown newspaper about the author, Elizabeth Hay, and wanted to pick up her latest novel. Well, now I don't have to. Lucky me just won a free copy here on Goodreads!! Can't wait to read it!
Nov 21, 2015 Krista rated it liked it
Shelves: can-con, 2015
His Whole Life is an odd bit of Canadiana. As the story opens, Jim is ten-years-old and sitting in the back seat of his parents' old Chevette as they make their annual trek from NYC – where they live because of his American father George – to eastern Ontario – where his Canadian mother's family owns a secluded lakeside cabin. Attempting to slip in his most pressing question as just one more long drive conversation starter, Jim asks his parents, “What's the worst thing you've ever done?”, and thi ...more
Sep 10, 2016 Irene rated it it was ok
Despite hurt, anger, betrayal, even self-imposed absence, family bonds survive and are often most evident at times of pain. This is the thesis of this mediocre novel. My primary complaint was the author’s choice to play tour guide to the reader, pointing out every motivation, thought, feeling and perception of each character. I suspect this is an easier and safer way to construct a novel. The reader is never in danger of an incorrect assumption or developing an opinion different than the author ...more
Sep 14, 2015 Krista rated it really liked it
This was a slow, wise book. There wasn't an action packed plot line, but I still enjoyed the story of the main characters. Quite enjoyable.
Lori Bamber
Oct 03, 2015 Lori Bamber rated it it was amazing
I have a new favourite novel of all time. If you were raised, as I was, during the Trudeau years - if you cried with joy, pride and vulnerability when the buses arrived in Quebec just before the referendum - if you have children you've watched with wonder and terrifying love - well, this book will feel like home. Like a beautifully crafted, searingly detailed home.

There are probably 100 sentences in this book that made me stop and marvel at Elizabeth Hay's ability as a reader.

I can't wait to r
Jennifer Hicks
Aug 23, 2015 Jennifer Hicks rated it liked it
Shelves: 2015
This is a beautifully written book with some really interesting themes. It's a ten year old boy's take on the dissolution of his family against the background of the potential dissolution of his country (Canada during the mid-1990s when Quebec was on the verge of leaving Canada). Set in New York City and an eastern Ontario cottage, Elizabeth Hay is a master at describing time and place. I think this novel needed a little more editing as sections seemed drag and in some places dialogue was ...more
Oct 26, 2015 Jenn rated it it was ok
Shelves: first-reads
Found the book slow and hard to get into. The characters were bland except for Lulu. I especially struggled to relate or empathize with the two main characters. The Canadian history was interesting and informative, well researched.
Kathy Stinson
Oct 13, 2015 Kathy Stinson rated it it was amazing
Reading parts of His Whole Life was like holding onto summer for a little while longer, but oh the quiet agony and devastating cruelties in the lives of this book's characters! Loved it.
Jennifer D.
Mar 29, 2016 Jennifer D. rated it really liked it
4 -stars, really.

oh how i adore elizabeth hay! i found this to be a wonderful novel - sensitive, wise and poetic. i enjoyed how hay juxtaposed the potential fracturing of canada, through the quebec referendum of 1995, with the fracturing of family. it could come across as too ham-fisted, this contrast, but i feel hay did well with it. for me, even though the real life referendum outcome was known, the currents of anxiety hay created - would quebec separate? is nan's marriage over? can lulu and
Lolly K Dandeneau
Nov 18, 2015 Lolly K Dandeneau rated it really liked it
A slow moving character driven novel during the times Quebec was trying to leave Canada. A story about a mother's messy love (is there any other kind) and the struggle to understand your child, and your marriage while denying your own needs. Jim is a unique 10 year old who sees the world with deeper meaning than the average child. When he asks his parents on a road trip to Canada "What is the worst thing you've ever done?" both parents know just how loaded such a question is. Here we go back ...more
Barbara Sibbald

Truly a wonderful, touching novel. The relationship between Jim and Nan is gorgeously, tellingly depicted, bringing to my heart and mind my relationship with my won and those small telling moments which revealed so much as he has grown up and our relationship has evolved.

I was fascinated by foundational question: What is the worst thing you have ever done? It's such a painful question, and so pivotal to those times in our lives when we change, when doors close. Then I read:

“’He talked about how
Aug 12, 2016 Ruthie rated it liked it
Shelves: can-lit, 2016
Others have written great outlines and reviews. This is not my favorite book by Hay despite it taking place in two locales very familiar to me. The author seems to be trying too hard to create analogies and her attempts to let the backstory unfold slowly kept the characters at a distance. It felt like a book written specifically for book club discussions.

***Spoiler Alert!!***

While the relationship between a boy and his dog is a reliable coming-of-age mechanism, having three dogs die in the timef
Nancy Croth
Sep 15, 2015 Nancy Croth rated it really liked it
Shelves: adult-fiction
This is a gorgeous book!!!! If you have ever spent any time in Canada's cottage country, you will experience the visceral sensation of being transported to the essence of nature in it's many changes of attire. That is the backdrop to this lovely story of the relationship between a mother, her son, her husband and her best friend, tied up in knots with all of the mucky-mucky that relationships tend to produce. I didn't want it to end!!!!
Jan 04, 2016 Gail rated it it was amazing
A great read, enjoyed every page!
Roger Brunyate
Aug 24, 2016 Roger Brunyate rated it liked it
Shelves: place-portraits

[Note: I was sent a copy of the book by the author's US publishers, wanting to know how it might appeal to readers outside Canada. My review is written essentially from that perspective.]

The author explains in a prefatory note that the novel is set against the background of the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence, which came within a hair's breadth of succeeding, with the less nearly successful 1980 referendum as its background shadow. The image of a country almost splitting itself
Chuck Erion
Feb 15, 2016 Chuck Erion rated it it was amazing
Shelves: canlit
In The Margins book column for The Waterloo Region Record for Saturday, Dec 5, 2015
By Chuck Erion, former co-owner of Words Worth Books in Waterloo.
[spoiler alert]

Elizabeth Hay’s books are slow page turners for me, the opposite of a fast read. I pace them out, finding at least a few sentences on each page that I want to savor and revel in. I read “His Whole Life” (McClelland & Stewart, 361 pages, $32) in short passages in order to draw out the pleasure. And I had the pleasure of reconnecting
Jan 10, 2016 Debra rated it really liked it
Received from netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

"What's the Worse thing you have ever done?"

This novel begins when ten year old Jim and his Canadian mother, Nan, and American father, George, are on a road trip from New York City to visit his Mother's family at a lake in eastern Ontario during the late summer in the 1990's. Jim asks his parents the above question, "What is the worst thing you have ever done?" Each in turn answer him, but he does not want to share his own answer. He is si
Mar 11, 2016 Elvan rated it it was amazing
Shelves: net-galley
Elizabeth Hay has grown as an author since her Giller Prize award winning novel Late Nights on Air. I recall being entertained by the goings on in a radio station in Yellowknife but little else. I won’t soon forget the characters or the themes she gives us in His Whole Life.

The novel follows the lives of Canadian born Nancy, her American husband George and their son Jim. It is a coming of age story of sorts as Jim is 10 in the opening scenes and is an observer of the adults in his life. The auth
Sep 25, 2015 Julia rated it it was amazing
Shelves: canadian-author
Last night I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting Elizabeth Hay at an author's event. "Liz" is a prize winning author and this book should certainly win an award. It is a wise and intelligent story of relationships between mother and son, husband and wife, and best friends.

The story begins with Jim, a 10 year old boy who is on a road trip to Canada to the family's cottage in Ontario. His mother Nan is a Canadian and is father George is American and they live in NYC.

Jim is a sensitive and wis
Jun 22, 2016 Joanne rated it really liked it
Young Jim is the centre of this novel of family, with its secrets, humiliations, hurts and unhappiness. His father George is a chronically unhappy person who is always expecting the worst from his life and every person in it. Jealous, petty, passive-aggressive, he stifles his wife Nancy and goes out of his way to dismiss every element that makes her happy (her best friend Lulu, her pride in being Canadian, her beloved summer cabin up north). Nancy has issues of her own: an older son Blake who is ...more
Mar 16, 2016 Melissa rated it really liked it
This is a wonderful little coming of age story about the slow Canadian life vs. fast New York. Jim, a friendless 10 year old, spends the August months at his uncles Canadian cottage until a tragedy strikes leaving the cottage to his mother. Jim and his mother, Nancy, move to the cottage to take care of the old dog his uncle left behind.

Nancy escapes her loveless marriage , while Jim contemplates forgiveness and mistakes. "what's the worst thing you've ever done?", he asks. While at the cottage N
Mar 13, 2016 Mandy rated it it was amazing
In this compelling family saga set against the backdrop of the second Quebec referendum (a subject I suggest will be unfamiliar to many UK readers!) we shift perspectives between 10 year old Jim and his mother as they each cope with a marriage in decline. Split between New York and a lakeside property in rural Canada, it’s a moving and nuanced reflection on motherhood, family, marriage, friendship and loyalty. Set in the mid-1990s when Quebec was on the verge of leaving Canada, the political ...more
Nov 09, 2015 Marisa rated it really liked it
His Whole Life is at once a coming of age story and a story of the disintegration of a marriage - and so much more than that.

Elizabeth Hay weaves this almost poetic tale of a young boy and his mother alongside a backdrop of the second Quebec referendum. The analogy may be a bit obvious- dualities, separation, two solitudes - but Hay makes it all work.

I especially enjoyed the beautiful descriptions of nature at the Ontario 'Lake House". And the dialogue between the main characters is so poignant
GinaRose Cristello
Aug 12, 2015 GinaRose Cristello rated it it was amazing
Elizabeth Hay has this way of constructing a phrase, and fans of her work will not be disappointed by this newest novel. She creates this balance, an illustration of lives lived and currently in progress. It is beautifully done and you will especially love the perspectives of Jim, who sees the world in a unique and special way. Other reviews say that the story is about regret, but I don't see that. I see reflection, and why people make the choices they have made and how they move forward from ...more
Nov 14, 2015 (Peter) rated it really liked it
Love the author's writing. That's what attracted me first. But this is also a rich story of family estrangement and redemption. And this same story of estrangement and redemption is played out in the tension of Quebec's desire for independence, an estrangement from the family of Canada.which forms the historical context for the story. The story takes place in the lake country of Ontario and equally in NYC. The different worlds of the hinterlands of Ontario and NYC also build on the theme of ...more
Oct 24, 2015 Marti rated it it was amazing
Reading this novel to me was like opening a box of chocolates every day and getting to savour another piece.

("Hay’s novels are a bit gentle and slow moving, but a lot does happen and it is all so true — true to human nature and families and life. His Whole Life is about a boy growing up, but in it readers will find themes, musings and quotes that resonate and strike home with their accuracy and insight.

I sometimes had the impression that Eliz
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From Elizabeth Hay's web site:
"Elizabeth Hay was born in Owen Sound, Ontario, the daughter of a high school principal and a painter, and one of four children. When she was fifteen, a year in England opened up her world and set her on the path to becoming a writer. She attended the University of Toronto, then moved out west, and in 1974 went north to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. For th
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“But some feelings take a long time, they sort of grow behind your back. You turn around thirty years later and there they are.” 0 likes
“When you take things personally, she knew, the world becomes very small. It is you and nothing is smaller. When you manage not to do that, the world opens wide.” 0 likes
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