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Natural Order

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“It’s beautiful,” I said, even though it wasn’t my style. It was cut glass and silver. Something a movie star might wear. Is this what my boy thought of me? I wondered as he fastened it around my neck. He called me Elizabeth Taylor and I laughed and laughed. I wore that necklace throughout the rest of the day. In spite of its garishness, I was surprised by how I felt: glamourous, special. I was out of my element amidst my kitchen cupboards and self-hemmed curtains. I almost believed in a version of myself that had long since faded away.
--From Natural Order by Brian Francis

Joyce Sparks has lived the whole of her 86 years in the small community of Balsden, Ontario. “There isn’t anything on earth you can’t find in your own backyard,” her mother used to say, and Joyce has structured her life accordingly. Today, she occupies a bed in what she knows will be her final home, a shared room at Chestnut Park Nursing Home where she contemplates the bland streetscape through her window and tries not to be too gruff with the nurses.

This is not at all how Joyce expected her life to turn out. As a girl, she’d allowed herself to imagine a future of adventure in the arms of her friend Freddy Pender, whose chin bore a Kirk Douglas cleft and who danced the cha-cha divinely. Though troubled by the whispered assertions of her sister and friends that he was “fruity,” Joyce adored Freddy for all that was un-Balsden in his flamboyant ways.  When Freddy led the homecoming parade down the main street , his expertly twirled baton and outrageous white suit gleaming in the sun, Joyce fell head over heels in unrequited love.

Years later, after Freddy had left Balsden for an acting career in New York, Joyce married Charlie, a kind and reserved man who could hardly be less like Freddy. They married with little fanfare and she bore one son, John. Though she did love Charlie, Joyce often caught herself thinking about Freddy, buying Hollywood gossip magazines in hopes of catching a glimpse of his face. Meanwhile, she was growing increasingly alarmed about John’s preference for dolls and kitchen sets. She concealed the mounting signs that John was not a “normal” boy, even buying him a coveted doll if he promised to keep it a secret from Charlie.

News of Freddy finally arrived, and it was horrifying: he had killed himself, throwing himself into the sea from a cruise ship. “A mother always knows when something isn’t right with her son,” was Mrs. Pender’s steely utterance when Joyce paid her respects, cryptically alleging that Freddy’s homosexuality had led to his destruction. That night, Joyce threatened to take away John’s doll if he did not join the softball team. Convinced she had to protect John from himself, she set her small family on a narrow path bounded by secrecy and shame, which ultimately led to unimaginable loss.

Today, as her life ebbs away at Chestnut Park, Joyce ponders the terrible choices she made as a mother and wife and doubts that she can be forgiven, or that she deserves to be. Then a young nursing home volunteer named Timothy appears, so much like her long lost John. Might there be some grace ahead in Joyce’s life after all?

Voiced by an unforgettable and heartbreakingly flawed narrator, Natural Order is a masterpiece of empathy, a wry and tender depiction of the end-of-life remembrances and reconciliations that one might undertake when there is nothing more to lose, and no time to waste.

384 pages, Hardcover

First published August 23, 2011

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About the author

Brian Francis

4 books107 followers
Brian Francis's non-fiction book, Missed Connections: A Memoir in Letters Never Sent, was a finalist for the 2022 Trillium Book Award. The Toronto Star called it “thoughtful, funny, poignant, insightful and honest.”

His previous novel, Break in Case of Emergency, was a finalist for the 2019 Governor General’s Literary Awards. Apple Books called it a “knockout” and The Globe and Mail said it “beautifully explores issues around mental health and suicide.”

His second novel, Natural Order, was selected by the Toronto Star, Kobo and Georgia Straight as a Best Book of 2011.

His first novel, Fruit, was a 2009 Canada Reads finalist and is an Amazon and 49th Shelf “100 Canadian Books to Read in a Lifetime” title.

He writes a monthly writing advice column, Ask the Agony Editor, for Quill & Quire magazine and is a regular contributor to CBC Radio's The Next Chapter.

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5 stars
204 (28%)
4 stars
299 (42%)
3 stars
154 (21%)
2 stars
41 (5%)
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7 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 120 reviews
January 7, 2012
This is an excellent read. Natural Order by Brian Francis by Canadian author Brian Francis chronicles a mother's acceptance of her late, gay, son through a series of flash backs through their lives brought back to her when a volunteer, Timothy, starts to visit her in her nursing home.

The writing style draws you into the story and the time frames easily. There are some bits of humour that really hit home for me as they perfectly describe people in my own life. I fully understand Joyce's reluctance to acknowledge her son's homosexuality in a small town in the 1980s. It is even more difficult for her to acknowledge that her son, John, died of AIDS and because of her controlling nature had been unwilling to share his adult life with her.

My own mother still struggles to use the word husband in reference to my partner when speaking with her friends at church in Woodstock, but both of my parents were willing participants in our adult lives. Based on the story my mother would only be a few years younger than the character in the novel.

Canadian society, even in the largest urban centres was not open to the 'gay lifestyle' at that time. It is a very changed world today. Unlike Joyce my parents were at least open to accepting and acknowledging myself and my husband within the family. I look forward to meeting the author in February at a local book club meeting and being able to further discuss the novel with him. The names of the fictionalized towns interest me as I think I may know which real towns they are modelled on and would like to confirm my suspicions.

I would easily recommend this to anyone, and I look forward to investigating other titles from Mr. Francis.
Profile Image for Christine.
940 reviews33 followers
November 21, 2011
Joyce Sparks lives at Chestnut Park Nursing home. She is finding it more and more to difficult to get around each day and she knows this will be the last place she lives. When Timothy, the new male volunteer, shows up in her room trying to engage her in social activities, or at the very least, in a conversation she puts up her usual “grumpy old lady” barrier. She can’t maintain it though because, darn it all, he bears such a striking resemblance to her first love, Freddy Pender.

Everyone in the small town of Balsden, Ontario knew that there was something a little off about Freddy. Something that was not quite acceptable in the 1950’s. But Freddy left town to become famous and Joyce stayed behind, married Charlie and had a son. A son who wanted nothing more than to play in the pretend kitchen in kindergarten and receive a doll for Christmas. Something that was not quite acceptable in the 1960’s. Something she had to keep secret from her husband.

As Joyce shares her story we follow her through her life, her denial and then slow acceptance of her son’s (and Freddy’s) sexuality, small town life rife with gossip, the “gay disease”, and growing old. Could she have been a better mother, a better wife, a better sister or a better friend?

I liked Joyce! I liked her story very much, too. Kudos to Mr. Francis for writing a story so filled with life, love, misunderstanding and heartache. Yet, told in a poignant way … interspersed with humor. People trying to do their best and not always succeeding.
Profile Image for George Ilsley.
Author 12 books228 followers
May 12, 2023
Loved this book. Totally gripping and amazing, with a quiet smooth style of writing that does not draw attention to itself.

Quiet and realistic, completely believable: I could not put this book down. What can I say? Loved this book.
Profile Image for Marina.
127 reviews6 followers
November 10, 2013
A great read, though I did not particularly like the main character, Joyce Sparks. Her voice left me cringing on more than one occasion, she had too many issues that left me feeling very unsympathetic, and in fact, she angered me. I suppose that sort of visceral reaction should in fact warrant another star for this book; however, there were a few things that were left unanswered for me and I put this book down feeling as though it wasn't really "finished". The writing is wonderful, and quite powerful in many instances, but it didn't illicit the tenderness in me that I hoped I would gain for the central character in this novel.

Joyce is a mother to a gay child, and the central story here is that she is unable to come to grips with this fact. A small town woman, married to Charlie out of convenience more than love, she stays put in the town in which she grew up, always wondering what happened to the true love of her life, Freddy Pender. Freddy, as it happens, is "different" - and of course talk is that he is gay - and he leaves town soon after highschool to pursue his career in entertainment. Joyce never accepts that Freddy is a gay man, just as she never accepts that her son is gay. Her form of coping is denial, secrecy, burial of the truth at all costs - her idea of "protecting him" - and in the end it severely effects her relationships with everyone, including her husband Charlie.

Joyce is very much alone at the end of her life and in a sad, angry state. I would like to say that she redeems herself, and I think the author tries to ensure that she does, but I could never mustre a lot of sympathy for her. I related to her as a mother more than anything, and in my mind I could not forgive her for not accepting her son - in the end that love and acceptance would have protected him far better than denial ever would have. As a mother I could not forgive Joyce for her lack of acceptance, even if she did love her son.

Worthy of reading and thinking about in an age where we still have a long way to go in terms of acceptance and understanding of that which is "different" from our own worldview.
Profile Image for Neil Mudde.
336 reviews14 followers
February 9, 2012
Absolutely fantastic story, even though the old age factor got to me at times, no doubt due to the fact I just turned 72, and have worked in a long term care home for over 20 years, and today I volunteer in one.
The story is about the Mothers, specifically the Mother of John, the length she went through to make believe things were not as they really were, John was a gay man,her husband Charlie who truly loved his son, was lied to by her constantly, especially in the end when John is dying of aids, she lies, about his condition, Charlie would have brought him home to take care of him, Mother was too ashamed to acknowledge what John was, I really do not want to give the whole story away, but as a gay man, I can so relate as to how families dealt with gay members in their family who had contacted aids, to would think of all sorts of diseases, usually cancer, since this did not have the stigma aids had/has
This is a "must read" book for anyone, I think this book ought to be on any bookclub it will create much discussion pro and cons.
Brian Francis is a wonderful Canadian Author, the Canadian rural areas are described as they truly are, Toronto seems to be the "mecca" and everyone is trying to get out of their little towns.
There is a comment as there are many but this one deals with women members of the United Church of Canada, who would know how to make a salmon loaf, and many other truly Canadian dishes to be presented for funerals and other ocassions.
Profile Image for Linda.
597 reviews
April 6, 2018
Joyce Sparks is grieving and regretful. She is the homophobic mother of a gay man who died of Aids. This whole book brought me to tears so many times and I couldn't put it down. The writing is fantastic and absolutely "spot on".

A heartbreaking book .. and I loved it. It made me think about all the parents who were just coming to terms with their children's homosexuality, maybe not handling it well, then suddenly losing them to AIDS. So much sadness and regret. And yet the novel had a strong heart-warming component as well. I highly recommend this book!
Profile Image for Clare.
341 reviews46 followers
April 24, 2012
Exceptional. My heart broke over and over and over again. Without bashing us over the head this book asks us to think about our own prejudices that come to light in the smallest of our actions. Character depictions are exquisite, especially Charlie, the father,about whom we know little for the most part (because of the narrator perspective), but who turns out, in the end, to be the best person in the book.
Profile Image for Adam Dunn.
533 reviews22 followers
May 28, 2012
I saw Brian Francis read from this book at a literary festival and knew I must have it. It's a fantastic, moving, funny book. I read slowly near the end as I knew the book was going to break my heart.

The author spoke about the idea of shame around deaths from AIDS in the early 80's and wondered what those parents felt now, and this is the foundation for the book.

A real character piece, Joyce Sparks comes vividly to life on every page. I have heard others saying they liked her sometimes and wanted to smack her other times but I was very engrossed and was quite happy to sit back and watch the story unfold.

A great novel about acceptance and self and the things we hold on to. Highly recommended.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Terry M.
61 reviews
November 3, 2016
A heartbreaking book .. and I loved it. It made me think about all the parents who were just coming to terms with their children's homosexuality, maybe not handling it well, then suddenly losing them to AIDS. So much sadness and regret. And yet the novel had a strong heart-warming component as well. I highly recommend this book!
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Eric.
8 reviews
July 21, 2013
I can't recall the last time a book made me sob. This one did, in a very cathartic way. The main character is deeply flawed and yet redeemed in the end. The story is a common one, for many in the LGBT community. It's about life not turning out how you expected, and love, and loss.
Profile Image for Lucinda.
216 reviews4 followers
February 10, 2017
Brian Francis' novel is a careful and compassionate examination of what happens when love and intolerance are combined. Regret, fear, frustration, self-deception, pain... It is almost too difficult to understand the struggles of this mother (in the 1950s to the 1980s) whose son is gay. I say almost because there is still a lot of bigotry and fear against/ toward gay and lesbian people (not to mention queer or transgender) today. I think it has been said that it is still one of the biggest insults that middle-schoolers throw at one another.
I really appreciated Francis' portrayal of the life of this small-town woman through her own voice. Small-town life has its own frustrations I would think, and they probably compound a lot of what happens in the novel. He also really penetrates the banality and boredom of the old age homes (is that what they are called?). I doubt that this is the experience of every elderly person, but probably the experience of a lot of them. A Place where there is no future, only the routinized present and a whole lot of past to dwell upon. Makes me wonder what kinds of things I will be thinking back on should I reach that point in my life.
Profile Image for Farzana Doctor.
Author 8 books287 followers
July 14, 2013
Natural Order is a beautiful novel about an experience we rarely read in novels--the story of a grieving, regretful and homophobic mother of a gay man. Francis writes Joyce with amazing clarity, taking us with her as she ages and grapples with her life and her mistakes. The book is layered with her memories and the way they bump into the story of a first love and his disappearance. I read this book over the weekend, neglecting all else until I could finish it.
Profile Image for Joanne.
1,093 reviews23 followers
November 27, 2013
Oh my goodness, I loved this book so much. It just reached me so deeply. Right to the very end, I didn't like the main character, Joyce. She was too intransigent, too rigid, too demanding, just too much of everything negative. My opinion never changed, but the story was so rich, the tragedy so compelling, that I couldn't stop reading. If there were six stars to give, I would.
Profile Image for Gayle Mccormick.
79 reviews1 follower
May 21, 2016
really liked it, probably a 3 1/2 star.

Three life long Canadian friends, my mother's age, looking back on their lives.

"I'm a woman of the United Church of Canada. I can make a slamon loaf standing on my head in thrity seconds".

Profile Image for Liz Leroux.
61 reviews
September 25, 2012
This book is a treasure, sad at times but able to touch the reader with deep emotion. I really enjoyed the insightful character development and the descriptive writing style. Highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Brenna.
334 reviews115 followers
July 7, 2011
Summary: Natural Order begins with Joyce in a nursing home. She's elderly and reflecting back on her life, and in particular the life of her only son who died in his 30s. The book is a collection of memories which stand out to her, and how they impacted her as she grew up.

This book makes you think, and it definitely makes you feel. It's about relationships and how we view other people, as well as how we treat them. It's about how we learn to deal with life and its difficulties.

The story was heartbreaking to read. The constant fear of rejection and feelings of isolation on both the parts of Joyce and John ring so true to real life. Francis raises questions regarding the parent-child relationship and how expectations can be so harmful to it.

That being said, I didn't particularly like this book. My main complaint about this book is how disjointed the story feels as the author moves between time periods from Joyce's present to her past. I would love to see more indication as to what time period the sections of the book are referring to. As well, I felt that the author spent too many pages trying to drive his point home about how the reader should feel towards Joyce. I almost felt like the writing was trying to force a reaction out of me, which was tiresome as a reader.

I was kindly provided with an ARC in a Goodreads giveaway for this book.
Profile Image for Jenny Gayfer.
14 reviews1 follower
April 5, 2012
Natural Order was a solid read. It pulled on all my emotions and captured my attention. It very much brought to mind the two years that my Mom was in extended care. It was bang on in the portrayal of daily life. The book gave me a vast picture of a persons entire life and reminded me that we are not impervious to age - it is coming to us all, and it is here already for some of those I love. It's a reminder that the person on the inside does not change, even though on the outside life ages them. They are still plagued by self dooubts and regrets. They are still trying to get it right. It's a reminder that elderly people are quality human beings, that so often get swept under the mat by society. There is so much life and wisdom waiting to be unfolded in each human being. Just ask...

And as a parent, this book reminded me to always question my intentions. Is this in the best interest of my child or myself? It is a reminder too know what you want for your child at the outset, and to be sure that every act and gesture is a step in that directon. The character, Joy says "...having a baby would fix everything." the fix comes from within, not from without. The most responsible thing we can do for our children, our families, and society, is to nurture our souls, and attend to our inner happiness. Only then can we serve those we love.
Profile Image for Jason.
15 reviews1 follower
March 3, 2017
I was assigned this book to read in a public health class on aging at the university I attend. However, after the first chapter I was hooked and had to finish it until the end. It brought up many raw emotions in me, having lost my mother a couple of years ago. As a gay man, I am fortunate to have had parents who wholeheartedly supported and embraced me as I came to terms with my identity. It broke my heart over and over and over again reading this book, to see how harmful Joyce was to her son by not being able to accept him. The author does a fantastic job of showing how a person, especially a person of Joyce's age and upbringing, could grapple with their child's sexuality. I too have HIV, and it hit me in the gut once I realized this was a part of this book as well. Reading this book felt like I was reading an alternate version of my life, had my parents been less than open to my sexuality and diagnosis.

I feel like this book is a must-read for anyone who has ever had a contentious relationship with their parent. The author makes human a character (Joyce) who one would otherwise be tempted to dislike. Joyce's struggle felt real, it felt honest, it felt sad and tragic. I feel like the author gave Joyce a sense of redemption in the end (not going to spoil it), though it was subtle and almost missed. I ended the book having forgiven her for being simply human.
Profile Image for Alexandra .
66 reviews20 followers
June 25, 2012
A librarian personally (and very enthusiastically) recommended this book to me, as she had just finished reading it herself. After reading the book, I can see why she over-rode the holds to give it to me!

Natural Order centres on the life of Joyce Sparks, a woman who had come of age in small-town Ontario during the 1950s and is living out the end in a retirement home. The book explores her complex relationships with the loves in her life: her high school crush and her son, respectively-- as well as coming to terms with their sexuality. The choices she makes haunts her for decades, until she meets a volunteer in the retirement home...

From the first page, 'Natural Order' is a book that you can easily get into. I liked how Francis also gave depth to the secondary relationships between Joyce and other characters in the book (i.e. her husband, sister, friends). The narrative keeps shifting through segments of Joyce's life, which can be a bit confusing at first. Yet, this is fairly true to how we remember things, in snippets here and there-- not always sequentially or positively.
Profile Image for Vikki VanSickle.
Author 12 books200 followers
January 4, 2013
This was a lovely, stirring read about an old woman reflecting on her life, particularly her relationship with her son, who was gay and died young of AIDS, two things she is still coming to terms with. Brian Francis does an excellent job getting into the head of Joyce, who is a complex character who struggles between what she feels is right and the mores of the time (1950s-60s). He creates a sympathetic portrayal of how a woman of this era may possibly struggle with her son's sexual identity.

I admire Francis' ability to effortlessly shift between moments in Joyce's life, employing flashback in a seamless and revelatory manner that never once felt contrived or confusing. I also enjoyed the relationships Joyce has with her overbearing sister Helen and spinster friend Fern. In very few words Francis is able to convey a great deal about complicated female friendships.

The scope of the novel, female narrator and Francis' clean writing style reminded me of The Age of Hope, by David Bergen, currently a Canada Reads selection. Brian Francis' wonderful novel Fruit was also a Canada Reads finalist.
Profile Image for Shonna Froebel.
3,727 reviews61 followers
November 18, 2012
This is a touching novel that explores a woman's feelings around motherhood, acceptance and regret. Joyce is in her eighties and living in a seniors' care facility. The appearance of a young man as a volunteer causes her to dig into her memories and think about the past. She thinks about the young man she had a crush on as a teenager and the sad end to his life she was told. She thinks about her own son, who died years ago, and her relationship with him. She thinks of the various times in their relationship that she had the opportunity to treat him differently than she did, and she struggles with the guilt she has over her relationship with him.
Through these memories and talking to the young volunteer, she finally admits the truth of her son's life and death, a truth she has denied even to herself for years.
This book reaches inward as Joyce sees how she failed her son even as she loved him and tried to do what she thought was best. Touching, honest and heartrending, this novel fills a void in Canadian literature.
243 reviews4 followers
February 15, 2012
I just simply loved this book! It explored the relationship between a mother and her son; the pain that both parties felt as it became clear that the son was homosexual and how each of them dealt with this reality. The mother tries so hard to shield her son and husband from the truth yet in doing this harms the husband/son relationship. The son, in turn, feels that he cannot come out of the closet to his parents and in turn, robs himself of his relationship with his parents. So, in essence, everyone is trying so hard to protect everyone else from everything and in doing so never gets to the real issues. It is bittersweet and turbulent and unsettling and tumultuous and sensitive and gentle all at once.
Profile Image for Corey.
Author 11 books153 followers
March 13, 2012
Natural Order is not a game-changer, but it is a subtle portrait of a woman who could not help herself but try to do what she thought was right even when the outcome was hurtful. Joyce is not a selfish person in most respects, but her selfish refusal to see what her son actually is leads to family dysfunction and eventual unhappiness. Francis may stumble occasionally with some plot contrivances, but his overall sense of the character is riveting, and his refusal to go maudlin is to be congratulated.

Read the rest of the review here.
Profile Image for Ankur.
268 reviews3 followers
March 11, 2016
Amazing book, couldn't put this one down. Very heartbreaking, though surprisingly there were also some very funny moments in here. Only complaint was the story keeps shifting timelines, and there's nothing to clearly delineate a shift in time. You are just reading along and the story is suddenly 30 years in the past, or 50 years in the future. But that is a minor quibble in an otherwise amazing story.

Profile Image for Jacquelyn Cyr.
26 reviews2 followers
April 6, 2013
I absolutely loved this book. It gets everything right. I could not believe this was written by a young-looking man - it so beautifully captures the voice of an elderly woman who lost her son. This was a beautiful, sad read with enough humour to avoid it becoming too heavy despite its heartbreaking storyline. I will most definitely be seeking out Francis's other work.
Profile Image for Sheila.
201 reviews
October 7, 2017
"When you don't talk about things, you're left forever making up conversations in your head."

"How much of our lives are lived too late?"
Profile Image for EditorialEyes.
140 reviews22 followers
October 21, 2011
For this review and others, visit the EditorialEyes Blog.
4 out 5

Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning of the review: Natural Order by Brian Francis is really sad. Its sadness is worth sinking into, however; it’s a nuanced and multilayered exploration of loss, of aging, of the sins we commit against those we love the most, and of human failings in all their multifarious abundance.

Told from the perspective of octogenarian Joyce Sparks, the story unfolds almost exclusively in the small, single-industry town of Balsden, Ontario. Joyce is in a nursing home, commentating tartly on her fellow ‘inmates,’ the staff, and her surroundings. Her voice is one of the most authentic I’ve read in a long time—she’s a snappish, sharp old woman, more brittle than frail. Both her son and her husband are dead, and she doesn’t seem to have any friends. The only person who visits her is a young gay man who volunteers at the home and calls forth some of Joyce’s reminiscences. She could be my own grandmother when she refers to “the Filipina nurse” or the woman across the table who dribbles food down her front at each meal. She’s weak physically, bright mentally, but crippled by the guilt she’s been dragging around with her for most of her adult life.

Joyce tells us her story across several different timelines, and Brian Francis shifts us effortlessly between her soda-jerk era teenaged years, her motherhood, and the years between the deaths of her son and her husband, and her time in the nursing home. She touches on her infatuation with Freddy, her obviously gay schoolmate whose flamboyance and “differences” are whispered about and hushed up. Joyce sees him as an escape artist, someone not afraid to be un-Balsden. His suicide after leaving town and falling in with a “bad crowd” in Hollywood is greeted as almost inevitable by the people back home. Joyce’s own naiveté about Freddy—he couldn’t have been that way, things might have been different if only he had chosen her—follows her throughout her life and her dealings with her own son. Joyce is left in Balsden, married to a man she chooses out of loneliness, visiting Freddy’s mother out of a bizarre sense of responsibility, and becoming increasingly frightened yet stubbornly unseeing of her small son’s “tendencies.” Along the way, we also meet her bossy older sister Helen and her best friend for life Fern, her across-the-street neighbour Mr. Sparrow, and her stalwart, silently suffering husband Charlie. Each character is authentic and three-dimensional. Each has his or her own fears and beliefs and heartaches.

These aren’t flashbacks but remembrances. Joyce is piecing together her own fractured life, living through her guilt and torn between what-ifs and inevitabilities. What if she had escaped Balsden? What if she hadn’t been influenced by Freddy’s suicide? Would she have been less hard on her son? Would she have allowed him to grow up to be who he wanted to be, without the terrifying desire to “protect” him? We don’t know, and neither does Joyce, because she can’t see it happening any other way. This is her story and this is how it was. She couldn’t have reacted differently in any of these situations, because how else could she have reacted?

She’s a reliable narrator to a fault: Francis has crafted her flaws flawlessly. This is a woman who drags the past around with her like a deadened limb. She can barely move for the guilt she feels, for the remorse toward her son, her husband, what could have been. Joyce cleaves to the idea that she is alone because she deserves to be, because she drove everyone else away.

And this is a gutsy move: in many ways Joyce is supremely unlikeable. Even as you’re reading through her understanding that what she did caused all of the destruction in her life, you want to grab her by her shoulders and shake her. Her unenlightened views on homosexuality, her meddlesome nature (no matter how well intentioned), and her ability to drive away and segregate her son, whom she adores and alienates by equal measures, are enough to make you scream. She is so 1950s small town. Her dry date squares, her inability to tell her kindly older neighbor that she can never eat all of the fresh vegetables he gives her, her stubborn refusal to see that homosexuality isn’t an abnormality…these traits are utterly true to life and utterly frustrating. She can have no redemption. Her loneliness is of her own making.

Where the novel falls down a bit is in this mire of guilt. It can become, if not tiresome, then certainly tiring. Every page is Joyce telling us what a terrible mother and wife she’s been. Metaphors and language are at times a bit heavy-handed as well. The parallels between Freddy and his mother and Joyce and her son are a bit too pat, a bit too coincidental. If their stories were told and no names were given, you wouldn’t know which of the two women were being described, and this takes away from the rest of the well-crafted realism.

Where the novel succeeds, beyond its exploration of the difficulties of being gay for most of the twentieth century, and especially in a small town, is in its portrayal of the very elderly. Freddy’s mother in her nineties, and then a few decades later Joyce in her 80s, and everything they have to deal with, are portrayed in a heartbreaking and alarming way. The rest of Joyce’s life has whooshed by, but she’s stuck in an interminable morass of days in the last home she’ll ever know, where the staff care only because they are paid to, the food is terrible, and the activities are banal. As the baby boomers age, and write about aging parents and growing older themselves, we’re going to see more and more of this type of fiction. Joan Barfoot’s Exit Lines and Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants explore similar themes.

Brian Francis’ Joyce is the most successful of any of these narrators. She is such a believable, perfectly rendered character, and her world of the nursing home is at once tragic and mundane. Joyce’s is a sad, no-nonsense life, one that will break your heart but that is absolutely worth visiting.
Profile Image for Louise.
1,548 reviews80 followers
September 11, 2011
Joyce Sparks lived with her husband, Charles, and son, John, in Balsden, Ontario, Canada, a small town of 40,000 people. Now 86 years old, Joyce resides at the Chestnut Park nursing home and shares a room with 82 year old Ruth Schueller. Ruth can’t communicate with Joyce because she is mute. Marianne, Joyce’s niece takes care of all her finances. Marianne is Helen’s daughter, who was Joyce’s sister.

Joyce met her husband, Charlie, at the dance pavilion one summer night. He was shy and she was lonely. They married 6 months later but a few months into the marriage Joyce began to wonder what they had in common. Joyce was still fixated on her pre-marriage friend Freddy Pender who everyone said was “fruity”. However, Joyce and Charlie stayed together and had their son, John.

John was an odd boy from the beginning and when in kindergarten his teacher, Miss Robinson, approached Joyce. She pointed out that she was “concerned” because John liked to play with dolls, the kitchen set, and lined up with the girls to be chased by the boys when playing tag. Joyce does not dare tell Charlie any of this. Did Joyce ever suspect that her own son might be a homosexual? You bet she did but chose instead to keep the Curly Q Sue doll she bought him hidden from Charlie, her family and friends, only allowing John to play with her when Charlie was at work.

Joyce tried all of John’s life to demand privacy and secrecy. Even from her own husband she hid his homosexuality. But in her own mind, she only focused on him being gay and never really expanded her mind about John in other ways. Admitting to anyone, even herself that John died of AIDS was an impossibility. She allowed a 4-letter word to carry so much weight.

I loved this book and read it in one sitting. All the characters were well-developed and everyone seemed “real”, to be human. From her sister, Helen, to her friend, Fern and Mr. Sparrow, and to Freddy and Walter, they all had their own voice and a real uniqueness about them.

Having said all that, I was really disappointed with the ending of the book. First, I didn’t expect the story to end where it did and secondly, it ended very abruptly. I felt a bit ripped off at the end, but I suppose you could always imagine in your mind your own ending. A great book overall and I would highly recommend it to anyone, as I really did love it.

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46 reviews8 followers
July 3, 2011
I won an arc of this book in a goodreads.com first reads giveaway.

3.5 stars

I really loved this story. It was sad and honest and even had a few parts that made me laugh.

Natural Order is about a mother and her son, their secrets, and the “natural order” of life. Although the secret isn’t said outright from the start, the reader understands what it is early on in the story. It’s the way it is handled and the different actions of the various characters that make this story. The story was very believable and the characters were all very likeable in my opinion.

Joyce’s story is told from various points in her life, from when she was a teenager to her last years, covering a span of seventy years. The story alternates between these timelines in no particular order, just as memories that fit together to tell the story. This bothered me only slightly, because I sometimes found myself confused as to how old Joyce was at the beginning of each new “section”, although once I figured that out everything else was easy to understand.

Another thing that bothered me was the amount of coincidences, or more like the same things repeating themselves in different situations, throughout the story. I can’t say what these coincidences/repetitions were without giving anything away, but I often found myself thinking, really, what is the chance of that? It’s mainly for this reason that I gave no more than 3.5 stars, and also because at points the story seemed to be dragging on longer than necessary.

Aside from this I really did enjoy this story. It was very believable and I came to care very much for all of the characters. It’s a sad and poignant story, and there are valuable life lessons to be learned from it.
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