All Good Intentions
By Trudi Johnson
$19.95 350 pages
Novelist Trudi Johnson follows her debut, “From a Good Home”, with a sequel immediately picking up on events.
“All Good Intentions” brings back the same cast of characters, set within the milieu of affluent St. John’s. At its somewhat insular core are the Sinclairs. At the opening of “Good Home,” patriarch Charles had just died. As a wealthy and influential businessman, his will provoked much gossip: amongst the bequests, he left money to a woman his family hadn’t heard of, Hannah Parsons West. He also directed that the family house, a signature mansion on Forest Road, was to go to his older daughter, Emily — though he had long promised this to his younger daughter, Jeanne. That was resolved, through machinations I won’t spoil here, but the reason for this subterfuge formed the spine of that novel.
For Jeanne, though she was Charles’ child, was not the offspring of his wife, Virginia. Instead she was the result of a liaison between Charles, then a married man in his early 30s, and a teenaged housemaid from Falcon Cove — Hannah. The fact that Virginia chose to blindside Jeanne with this information on Jeanne’s wedding day defines the caustic dynamics between the two women.
It may have even set a sour tone for the subsequent marriage, which ended in divorce after 20 years. Jeanne and her husband, Kurt Steffensen, a successful publisher, had a lovely home on Exeter Avenue, travelled and entertained, not to mention raised two children, Joe, an architect, and Lauren, a lawyer. But there was always friction between them, a distance or reserve. Certainly, after their separation Kurt remarried quickly and happily, to an artist, Jaclyn Peters.
The children, too, have difficulties with their mother. She’s prickly and judgmental with them. Lauren has learned to take her as she comes, but Joe still gets irritated.
Virginia’s disclosure has haunted Jeanne throughout her adult life. “Good Home” followed her as she wrestled with the knowledge that her biological mother was alive, found the personal stamina to meet Hannah in person, and address the familial and social fallout from both.
So, to “Intentions.”
Set in 1996 (with occasional illuminating flashbacks), it opens with Jeanne arriving in Falcon Cove, to visit with Hannah and her daughter, Carrie, a minister, and explore what connection they have or could forge, as well as align their own memories of their divergent paths:
“Hannah smiled, and turned her knitting to begin another row. ‘I can see all the goings-on in the harbour from that (kitchen) window. Carrie says ‘I shouldn’t spy on people, but I’m just seeing what’s happening, ‘tis all.’
“Jeanne laughed. She thought if she lived in this house, this would be her favourite room as well. Hannah’s voice, she realized for the first time, sounded so much like her own. She wondered what else they had in common.”
Then a newcomer enters the scene: Kevin Gillis, who is, he says, a property developer from Halifax. He’s in St. John’s to investigate structures appropriate for re-design as high-end B&Bs, as well as land outside the capital on the market for other projects. He meets with Kurt, seeking a general overview of all things economic, then with Jeanne, specifically about the (now empty) house on Forest Road. His questions and business plans seem legitimate, and yet he also conveys a strong specific interest in Charles Sinclair.
Then there’s Emily’s eagerness that Jeanne sell the family home. It’s called the Sinclair House, but it was actually built by Charles’ father-in-law, Clarence Boland, who gave it to Charles and Virginia as a wedding gift. Does it still hold secrets? Are these linked to some renovations done decades ago? When Jeanne tells her sister that she’s delving into old documents concerning the house’s origins and upkeep, Emily objects: “No one needs to pry into the past, no one needs to know.” “Know what?” responds a “puzzled” Jeanne.
This is the mystery at the core of “Intentions,” populated by a fair number of interlinked characters with their own trajectories and drama. (Johnson helpfully provides an opening note detailing the separate families and their different friendships.) As well, the author is willing to risk a sometimes-unlikeable protagonist. Disdain seems Jeanne’s default mood and she can be quite sharp, even with her children. But she’s also honest and, despite some betrayals, not really a grudge-holder. And she doesn’t heed snobbery nor let it dictate her direction.
“Intentions” is character-driven and dialogue-heavy. It can be read on its own, but if you enjoyed either “Good Home” or “Intentions” you’ll like both. And this book ends on a note that promises a trilogy.
Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.