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JOAN SULLIVAN:"Melt" protagonists sashay, snap and sparkle

"Melt" is a novel by Heidi Wicks. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
"Melt" is a novel by Heidi Wicks. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Melt
By Heidi Wicks
Breakwater Books
240 pages $22.95

“Cait and Jess have wanted to be grown-ups since they were eight years old.” And now the two, yin-and yang Best Friends Forever, are, indeed, adults.They have real jobs — Cait as a popular CBC radio host and Jess as a teacher at Vanier elementary school. Cait has married Jake, and they have a daughter, Maisie. Jess in turn has sons Sam and Liam with husband Dan.

As kids they often pretended to be their mothers, and now look where they are. But such touchstones of human existence bring sorrow as well as joy.

“Melt,” Heidi Wicks adroit debut novel, opens in 2016 with a reception after the funeral for Jess’s mom, as Jess is reeling with grief, and Cait keenly feels the loss too – she “spent half her childhood at Jess’s house.”

The timeline then consistently loops back to 1997, as they graduate from high school, sculpting a significant arc from adolescence to thirtysomething. And because they’ve been entwined for so long, situations often invite compacted timelines. At the reception, for example, a vigilant and protective Cait guides Jess through the swinging kitchen door to the fridge where she administers a healing dose of Prosecco.

The gesture recalls their game of “hotel,” where Cait was waitress Rita and Jess Nancy, the kitchen chef. “The Nancy-Rita dynamic was not unlike real life. Rita was constantly late for shifts, and Nancy was always tutting her tongue at Rita.”

But Cait can step up for her friend, creating a small wine-fueled oasis of calm, leaping to clean up an Orange Crush mishap (even as “Rita would be off with her boyfriend, on the back of some motorcycle”), and simply accepting Jess’s need to sob and swear.

“Melt,” Heidi Wicks adroit debut novel, opens in 2016 with a reception after the funeral for Jess’s mom, as Jess is reeling with grief, and Cait keenly feels the loss too – she “spent half her childhood at Jess’s house.”

Also linking the two timelines is the resurgent presence of Matt Bohmer, Jess’s high school ex, the love of her life who broke up with her and moved to Ontario. Now he’s resurfaced, paying his respects at the funeral home. Jess is adamant that she’s long over him, but Cait isn’t buying it.

Meanwhile, things are not great between Cait and Jake. “He doesn’t listen to a word she says. He’s indifferent.”

They’d tried a trip, to the Telica volcano in Nicaragua, in an attempt to revive their marriage, but it didn’t take.

And both Jess and Cait are consumed by the blithe chaotic impossibility of being a mother. One afternoon, for example, during a family excursion to The Rooms, Jess hears her husband yelp “There’s a raisin up his nose!” Jess rushes to find her husband holding a writhing Liam:

“CBC kids-show mascots, their giant heads teetering against gravity, try to ignore the commotion and continue their attempts to entertain their short-attention-spanned, easily distracted audience demographic.”

Jess instructs Dan to grip Liam’s arms while she clasps his legs between hers, and reaches in her purse for a pair of tweezers. Liam is “red, he’s grunting, he’s crying. But Jess has the long, lean, mighty runner’s thighs of a gazelle and he’s braced there.” Jess “leans close to his little face and looks right in his eyes. ‘Liam? Liam. Listen to me, okay? I want you to listen to me.’ He stops crying and the big wet pools in his sad beautiful eyes break her heart and for just one split second, her bottom lip spasms and she swallows back her own tears … He nods his head and sniffles and her heart, oh her heart, she loves him so much it hurts her whole chest and she feels the love pin-prickle all over her skin.”

As this scene indicates, Wicks is deft at layering emotions and gestures — heart-rending, perilous, comic — an everyday crisis overlaid with a palimpsest of the superhero.

Striking imagery is a constant (“Cait sits on the floor in the bedroom doorway of her new house. In front of her is a cubist mountain range of Ikea boxes that reminds her of Picasso’s Girl with Mandolin painting, laid on its side”), and details like fashion (eight-ball jackets, Lululemon, palazzo pants) spot-on. The setting is a contemporary St. John’s of Adelaide Oyster House, Blue on Water, and the cinema kiosks at the Avalon Mall.

The two protagonists snap and sparkle with a wonderful authenticity. They start stupid fights with their husbands. They bicker and gossip and communicate in the special shorthand of long friendship. They hurt themselves, but rush to defend each other.

They sashay with wit and realism. You’d swear you’d just passed them walking the Signal Hill trail.

Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.

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