Sunday, August 9, 2009

BOOK: Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, 238 pages

Celebrate the Author; 1% Well-Read; 3rd Canadian Book Challenge

An epic-type story of the twentieth century. Three men from the same small town in Ontario grow up to various levels of fame, with intersecting lives. The narrator, Dunstan Ramsey, is a private school history teacher with an interest in saints, contrary to his Presbyterian upbringing. He maintains a close friendship with the boy-wonder, Boy Staunton, master of industry, but they share an event from their childhood that forever affected Dunstan. Paul Dempster ran away to join the circus, and then there is a mysterious death at the end when they all meet up again....

(I feel like I could write this summary and make it sound like a Sidney Sheldon novel, but the book only slightly felt that way. It has much larger literary asperations and feel, but I could completely go that way if I wanted.)

I was a little disappointed with the book, because I had very high hopes and instead it felt like those books I read in the 1980s, like Bloodlines or Lace. It never got as tawdry or elaborate, but it was headed in that direction. It just felt a little dated to me, and not just because of the cover of my edition. There was a John Irving feel, like Garp, in some ways. The connection between the characters, the power and money that was evident, the single event from childhood forever linking the characters. Since this was published in 1970, it may have been the originator of this type of story. It's like watching Casablanca for the first time and knowing all the lines anyway - you know you've read all this before, but it's not cliche because it started it all.

This is the first of the Deptford trilogy but I'm not running out to find them. Maybe in a few weeks or months the story will still be with me and I'll be wanting to find out what happened with Boy and Dunstan and that mysterious death at the end. If so, I'll look up the next book, but I think I'd rather reread an old Sidney Sheldon.

other reviews, from some real fans of Davies:
court at Once Upon a bookshelf;
bybee at Naked Without Books


  1. I understand what you mean about Davies heading for but not reaching the tawdry place. I felt like The Rebel Angels sometimes had that same problem. I enjoyed it, but like you I'm not rushing out to find the sequels.

  2. I can understand what you mean about how it could be dated and cliched, but I'm sorry you didn't really enjoy it.

  3. I love Robertson Davies, but I read the Cornish trilogy, not this one. You might at least consider trying them. Of course, I read them when they were first published in the 1980s, maybe I'd have a different opinion now.

  4. I loved all of Robertson Davies' books when I first read them 20+ years ago. I've just begun a reread to see how they hold up for me, but have started with the Cornish rather than the Deptford trilogy.

    I think I've read somewhere that Irving admired and was influenced by Davies, so you may be on to something there.


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