Book: Some Great Thing

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Some Great Thing: A Novel

Author: Colin McAdam
Publisher: Vintage

Jerry McGuinty is a simple, self-made builder who claims he can plaster a wall that will change your life. Simon Struthers is a disaffected businessman who proves the old adage about money and happiness. Together they face the new Ottawa of the seventies: brash, bright, and ready for the taking.

With their different careers and successes, these two strangers seek to carve out their own happiness-Jerry with his new wife, Simon with his endless affairs and intrigues. But love can be suffocated by the drive to succeed, and individuals crushed by greed and progress. Only when both men realize what they have to lose will their lives finally intersect and the story spiral to its astonishing conclusion

Readers may be excused for approaching Colin McAdam’s Some Great Thing, a historical novel set in 1970s Ottawa, with a degree of cynicism. While the popularity of historical novels has never been stronger, the genre has reached the point of exhaustion, with most recent books being little more than moralizing reconsiderations of the past. Thankfully, Some Great Thing reverses the course of this trend by returning to the genre’s roots—not by rewriting history, but by exploring how history came to be made in the first place.

In this case, the history of Ottawa is shaped by the passions of two men: house developer Jerry McGuinty and bureaucrat Simon Struthers. McGuinty is obsessive in his desire for Kathleen, a free-spirited woman he eventually marries. But McGuinty is also obsessed with fantasies of building a city out of the empty land around Ottawa—of building the future. His desire to build perfect neighbourhoods consumes him, and he is unable to see his home life falling into ruin until it’s too late. Similarly, Struthers’s desire to leave a legacy leads to his quest to create some sort of lasting monument in the developing city, but this passion becomes entangled with his yearnings for a young woman, with disastrous results.

The lives of the two men intersect over the course of the novel, and their interactions shape the development of Ottawa itself. Not surprisingly, the city’s history is one of broken dreams and failures, of corruption and the desire for power winning out over visions and ideals. Out of this bleak material, however, a story of redemption and self-discovery slowly emerges. McAdam’s characters apply the basic premise of the historical novel—reconstruction of the past—to themselves, and they explore their own lives not only to make amends for the past, but also to find new ways of living in the present. —Peter Darbyshire

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