A ‘portrait of the artist as a young woman’

A Real Somebody
by Deryn Collier

Seattle: Lake Union Publishing, 2023
$15.70 / 9781662512643

Reviewed by Bill Paul


The city of Montreal in the late 1940s is the backdrop for Nelson writer Deryn Collier’s novel, A Real Somebody. Remembered as a city divided by its English- and French-speaking neighbourhoods, Montreal is also a place known for its lively night life.

In the novel Collier introduces an independent-minded, twenty-two-year-old named June, a wearer of family hand-me-downs and the youngest of three sisters from an English-speaking Catholic family that survived the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the living room of their crowded apartment on Abbott Street, June’s parents proudly display framed pictures of their children’s debutante balls and photographs of the two older sisters’ weddings.

A graduate of secretarial school and now working as a stenographer, June is expected by her family to wait for a suitor who one day will ask for her hand in marriage. After all, that’s what her older two sisters, Missie and Daisy, did and it’s the conventional route to take for women of her age. Yet June cannot help herself. Her romance is with the English language. In other words, when she looks out onto a snowy winter day in Montreal, she sees “snowflakes lingering in the angles of light from the streetlamps and… a poem blooms at the edges of my mind.” In short, June is a dreamer who dreams that one day she will work as a copywriter at McAuley Advertising.

The novel is loosely based on the life of Collier’s great-aunt, June Grant. The story is made up of scenes describing the hardships of family life and the atmosphere of June’s workplace. June and her mother, Blanche, and her father, who has recently suffered a stroke, reside together on Abbott Street. The three of them get by mostly on June’s salary, managing to make it through each day despite the stress of finding enough money to pay the heating bill and coping with the rationing of tea, coffee, and sugar. 

At work on the eleventh floor of the Sun Life building in downtown Montreal, June takes dictation, types fast without making errors, and tries to stay out of the way of her disapproving boss, Miss Pomeroy. The hierarchy of the workplace and the jealousies and friendships between staff are all skillfully sketched out by the author.

June is a loyal employee but in her heart she knows that her desire to write poetry about “invisible people and their grand lives” outweighs any interest to get married. Nevertheless she’s conflicted about her wish to become a copywriter and makes regular visits to Monsignor McDonagh, sharing a prayer—“Heavenly Father, let me be satisfied with my lot in life”—and asking forgiveness for her unrealistic hopes and plans. Under constant pressure to consider marriage and motherhood, the family’s breadwinner June is burdened by doubt and dread. Her parents are scraping by despite selling their car and Blanche’s engagement ring. Will June put her family’s stability at risk if she leaves her job as a steno girl?

At McAuley Advertising, a recently hired illustrator, Mr. Arthur Lewin, is one of the few characters in the book, besides her father and her co-worker Abbie, who recognize June’s talents as a writer. Lewin is married and he and his wife have a baby boy at home. When Lewin’s not working he likes to paint landscapes and portraits. He appreciates June and realizes that she’s a kindred spirit. For the past few months June has been carrying around an office copy of Scientific Advertising and she’s impressed Lewin with her ability to come up with witty ad copy describing the latest in women’s dress fashions: “These trousers, paired with a pretty, sweet-collared blouse, are just the right blend of practical and feminine.”

Author Deryn Collier (photo Julia Gillmor)

Collier does a good job of moving easily among many characters, and over the course of the novel we’re introduced to the lives of two other women characters: Daisy and Abbie. June’s oldest sister Daisy is married to a successful copywriter. She has two children but is unhappy. Her unhappiness stems from a traumatic incident from her family’s past. At the time she was around seventeen, living with her parents and sisters Missie and June in a comfortable house in Westmount. Her father’s favourite, she’s known as as the “princess.” The family’s attention is focused on Daisy. And why not? Like many other young women in the city, Daisy is preparing to attend the prestigious Saint Andrew’s Ball at the Windsor Hotel.

But wait. It’s November, the winter of 1937, and the fur business owned by her father is failing. The debutante ball event is growing closer and Daisy is planning to wear a silk velvet dress that she partially designed. The only way to save the family business, however, is to sell off Daisy’s dress. 

The incident causes great turmoil within the family, leaving Daisy angry and humiliated. She eventually leaves home, works as a model, and marries but never recovers from the incident. The lingering resentment is affecting her marriage with husband, Geoff. Daisy’s life is all tangled up. What is it that she truly wants? 

Another character who’s dissatisfied and rebels before her planned marriage is June’s co-worker, Abbie. Her wealthy family has made arrangements for Abbie to be married off to a Canadian diplomat in a year or so. In the meantime Abbie has wrangled some money out of her father to rent a studio on Saint Jacques Street near the French part of town where “the servants and railway workers live.” Her plan is to set up shop as a photographer. All three women, Abbie, Daisy and June, grow up facing opposition from their family and expectations from others. Grievances from the past overwhelm Daisy and in the end her situation is left unresolved. June adapts and moves through the city curious, absorbing each experience.

It’s June’s story that we’re drawn to. Her wry humour and steadfast determination to find her own way are hard to resist. With June as our guide, we look out upon the bustle of Dorchester Boulevard, visit the stained-glassed entrance to Saint Cunigunde church, and wait to be seated at the Le Salon du Jazz nightclub. 

What Collier (Open Secret) has done is to give us a portrait of the artist as a young woman discovering herself. Not so fortunate is Arthur Lewin’s wife. When June is invited to Lewin’s apartment we meet his wife and we’re told that her face is lined with fatigue and perhaps sadness. Mrs. Lewin, like her husband, is also a painter but she’s a mother and it’s hard to follow up on an interest like writing or painting when you have a young child at home to look after.


East Vancouverite Bill Paul enjoys photography and reading fiction and nonfiction. [Editors note: Bill Paul has reviewed books by Jann Everard, Jack Lowe-Carbell, Martin West, Dietrich Kalteis, Suzannah Showler, Curtis LeBlanc, Patrick deWitt, Barbara Fradkin, Dietrich Kalteis, Stan Rogal, Keath Fraser, and John Farrow, and contributed a photo-essay, Trevor Martin’s Vancouver, to BCR.]


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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