16th Sep 2011
Outside the Ordinary World by Dori Ostermiller
Dori Ostermiller’s first novel, Outside the Ordinary World, jumps between the years of 1974 and 2004, two particularly tumultuous times in the life of Sylvia.
Reference is made only passingly – sometimes frustratingly so – to the reckless, drug-addled youth in between. Instead, the focus remains on the two periods that profoundly shook and shaped her: the first as a child in the seventies watching her mother slide into an adulterous affair, and the second as a married mother of two slipping into infidelity herself.
In 1974, Sylvia, hovering on adolescence, realises that her mother, Elaine, is having a long-term affair. Elaine drags Sylvia and her sister into her deception, essentially creating a shadowy second family with her lover.
Sylvia finds herself exchanging letters and going on holiday with this alternate father-figure, while her actual father, increasingly angry and unstable, is left behind. Elaine burdens Sylvia with a choice, between the life that could be and the one that is.
Adult Sylvia is in a monotonous marriage and a creative slump, exhaustedly trying to raise two daughters. She meets a handsome stranger – a somewhat pompous and inexplicably wealthy Jew-turned-Buddhist gardener – and embarks on the same adulterous path as her mother, looking for escape, validation and really, really good sex.
The bulk of the novel dwells on Sylvia’s dwelling, mainly on the reasons behind her cheating ways. She questions the inevitability of becoming one’s mother, the cyclical nature of history and family, and her powerlessness to control her descent into faithlessness.
Contradictorily, her conversations with her lover revolve around the life-affirming, day-seizing power that comes with engaging in extramarital activity.
Adult Sylvia is an unconvinced and unconvincing character; I found myself neither rooting for or against her. I didn’t support her actions or pity her for the consequences. If I judged her, it was only because of her flatness.
Sylvia is apparently a talented painter, but this is glazed over, popping up occasionally to drive relationship plotlines forward. Her relationships with the two men who dominate her inner-dialogue – her husband and her lover – are lacking spark.
Maybe this is used to highlight her mundane, sexless marriage, but her affair seems equally lacklustre; the sex is allegedly dynamite, but the depictions are oddly passionless. Smouldering foreplay amounts to ponderous email exchanges on the meaning of life.
The Sylvia of 1974 is a much more compelling character. Ostermiller creates an interesting portrait of a girl teetering on the edge of adolescence, a child beginning to play with the manipulative power of sex and lies.
Aside from young Sylvia, children make up the other most engaging characters; Sylvia’s complexly angst-filled older sister, and later, her eldest daughter. Even Sylvia’s four-year-old girl pops with more life and emotional reality than the adults around her.
The child characters, and their relationships with each other and their parents, give warmth and depth to a story that could otherwise have been a meandering and predictable reflection on infidelity.
Recommended for: Anyone worried about becoming her mother.
Other recommended reading: Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women.