Reviewed by Ruth Latta
What a Wonderful World This Could Be
by Lee Zacharias
ISBN: 978-1-948692-50-2, paper, RRP $19.95 360 pp, June 2021
Prize-winning author Lee Zacharias’s fourth novel, What a Wonderful World This Could Be, is the story of a woman’s pursuit of art and love during the volatile 1960s and ‘70s. The novel opens in 1982, with Alex, a thirty-five year old photography professor, wondering if she spends “too much time in the darkroom trying to record the radiance.” While swimming, she thinks of her favourite student, Ross, and about the dinner she will cook that evening for her colleague, mentor and friend, Steve Kendrick.
On leaving the parking lot, she turns on the car radio and hears that Ted Neal, a former civil rights and anti-war activist who disappeared in 1971, has been shot while turning himself in to the FBI. He is in critical condition in a Washington, D.C. hospital. Alex is so upset she backs into a new Mercedes. She now knows she’s not a widow; she was and is married to Ted, whom she hasn’t seen or heard from for eleven years.
Then the time shifts from 1982 back to Alex’s childhood and youth. Her mother often leaves her alone and lets her go her own way, provided she doesn’t embarrass her. In her early teens, Alex enjoys going to the Towne Art Cinema where she and her friends pick up college boys. She calls them “bozos” and refers to herself and the girls as “bohos” (bohemians).
Her mother, an artist and professor, and her father, a novelist, never married, and he is not part of Alex’s life until his third novel becomes a best-seller and her mother sues him. He then comes east from Los Angeles to see what “the bastard” looks like, and he and Alex get to know each other.
Alex likes engaging in witty banter with her handsome, famous father. When she takes him to the Art Cinema he exclaims that they’re not going to a movie, but to a film – with subtitles. Zacharias creates clear, amusing dialogue which reveals the speakers’ personalities. Alex’s dad, while clever and funny, is also vulgar and profane, with an attitude incompatible with good parenting.
When Alex is fifteen, with her father in a restaurant, she notices a twenty-something, scholarly-looking man looking at them. He comes over to congratulate her father on his best-seller, and is happy to join them. He’s Steve Kendrick, a photography professor. The conversation is entertaining but risque. When Kendrick says Alex would make a good model, her father says, “She can pose naked if she wants but I won’t have her posing nude.” This jest, about pretentious words, also shows his attitude toward Alex. At the evening’s end, Alex’s father is too drunk to drive, so Kendrick acts as chauffeur.
When Kendrick calls her, nervously asking her about posing, Alex agrees, and wears a flowered swim suit and shirt for the shoot. Soon she abandons her best friend, the crowd at the pool, and the boys at the art theatre to spend time at Kendrick’s place. He starts her on her
photography career by teaching her to print photos and ends up being the most dependable figure in her life.
In seeking love over the years, Alex forms attachments that are unsuitable because of differences in age and in ways of life. Always yearning for a family, she is drawn to children, initially to photograph them and eventually out of empathy. She is fond of Ted’s friends’ kids, and eventually volunteers as a Big Sister to a disadvantaged girl. She even likes the children of a rival whom she meets at a funeral. The time is never opportune, however, for Alex to have a child of her own.
Throughout the novel, Alex is daring and non-conformist. She and the other major characters are carefully portrayed, and our interest in them keeps us reading. So does the subject matter, which includes parental neglect; sex with a minor, and a professor/student affair. The outcomes are surprising.
Zacharias skilfully achieves a balance between Alex’s personal journey and the historical events of the 1960s and ‘70s by presenting events from Alex’s unsophisticated perspective. Alex loves Ted Neal, but it is her photography that gives her an identity and a sense of agency. As she tells her students many years later: “You are the subject of your photographs. You act upon the object.”
Caught up in a communal, political life, Alex priorizes her marriage and her photography, to the disdain and hostility of the other young radicals in the circle, who slough off old values and social mores. Although she matures in this milieu, Alex is always sceptical of it, especially when others react in a callous, doctrinaire way to human situations. In the end, she reflects that it takes courage “to go on living in a world you discover you haven’t been granted the power to change.”
In the advance review copy, two story threads are left dangling: the story of Kendrick’s brief marriage, and Alex’s return to school, which lifts her from dead-end jobs to an academic career. Also, in a couple of places the time shifts are confusing. On the whole, though, What a Wonderful World it Could Be is an impressive, vividly written, gripping work.
About the reviewer: Ruth Latta, author of four Canadian historical novels, is interested in the way other authors balance and integrate historical information with the personal stories of the main characters. For more on her books, visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com