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Book Review: The Son of a Certain Woman by Wayne Johnston

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Book Review: The Son of a Certain Woman by Wayne Johnston


By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

son of a certain woman


Category: Fiction

Author: Wayne Johnston

Format: Hardcover, 444 pages

Publisher: McClelland & Alfred A. Knopf

ISBN: 978-0-345-80789-2

Pub Date: September 17, 2013


Summary from the Publisher:

Here comes Percy Joyce.

From one of Canada’s most acclaimed, beloved storytellers: The Son of a Certain Woman is Wayne Johnston’s funniest, sexiest novel yet, controversial in its issues, wise, generous and then some in its depiction of humanity.

Percy Joyce, born in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in the fifties is an outsider from childhood, set apart by a congenital disfigurement. Taunted and bullied, he is also isolated by his intelligence and wit, and his unique circumstances: an unbaptized boy raised by a single mother in a fiercely Catholic society. Soon on the cusp of teenagehood, Percy is filled with yearning, wild with hormones, and longing for what he can’t have-wanting to be let in…and let out. At the top of his wish list is his disturbingly alluring mother, Penelope, whose sex appeal fairly leaps off the page. Everyone in St. John’s lusts after her-including her sister-in-law, Medina; their paying boarder, the local chemistry teacher, Pops MacDougal; and…Percy.

Percy, Penelope, and Pops live in the Mount, home of the city’s Catholic schools and most of its clerics, none of whom are overly fond of the scandalous Joyces despite the seemingly benign protection of the Archbishop of Newfoundland himself, whose chief goal is to bring “little Percy Joyce” into the bosom of the Church by whatever means necessary. In pursuit of that goal, Brother McHugh, head of Percy’s school, sets out to uncover the truth behind what he senses to be the complicated relationships of the Joyce household. And indeed there are dark secrets to be kept hidden: Pops is in love with Penelope, but Penelope and Medina are also in love-an illegal relationship: if caught, they will be sent to the Mental, and Percy, already an outcast of society, will be left without a family.

The Son of a Certain Woman brilliantly mixes sorrow and laughter as it builds toward an unforgettable ending. Will Pops marry Penelope? Will Penelope and Medina be found out? Will Percy be lured into the Church? It is a reminder of the pain of being an outsider; of the sustaining power of love and the destructive power of hate; and of the human will to triumph.


Book Review by Zara from The Bibliotaphe Closet:


The Son of a Certain Woman by Wayne Johnston, a novel longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize this year, is a subtly shocking story of a child’s journey to young adulthood in the small and isolated town of St. John’s, Newfoundland.

The son of a certain woman is infamously known as Percy Joyce, the boy with a benign version of the fictional syndrome, “False Someone Syndrome (FSS),” which burdens him with dark “port wine stains” on his face and “local gigantism” where parts of his body are oversized, and in his case, his hands and his feet.

But aside from his physical “disfigurement,” he’s surrounded by two very different groups of people who hold strong, conflicting, and polar beliefs.

There are those who live with him in the privacy of 44 Bonaventure Street: his voluptuous mother, Penelope Joyce, best known for her exaggerated beauty, her hedonistic beliefs, and smart, yet sharp tongue; Medina Joyce, his illiterate, yet street-wise, masculine aunt whose fear to ride in moving cars fails to deter her from a passionate love for his mother; and Mr. MacDougal, affectionately known as “Pops,” his family’s house boarder and introverted chemistry teacher at the all-boys Catholic high school across the street, Brother Rice.

And then there are those, who, under a cloak of religiosity, work hard in influencing and eventually controlling the fate of Percy Joyce’s prodigal return to the Catholic faith from: Archbishop Patrick James Scanlon known to many as “Uncle Paddy,” whose theological guardianship of Percy begins from his use of Percy as an example in his Sermon on the Mount analogy, and continues on with consistent letters of correspondence during the holidays, and discreet instruction to Director McHugh for Percy’s special exemption in punishment and care; to McHugh’s strict and fearless tutelage on the Catechism of the Catholic Church in preparation for Percy’s baptism (“The Big Do at the Big B.”); and the unexpected support from Sister Mary Aggie through prayer cards of “Saint Drogo,” the Patron Saint of Unattractive People, though ostracized and sent to a mental institution known as “The Mental”; and the judgement and scorn from not only the whole of the town, but of Sister Celestine and her cruelty, the principal of the all-girls’ school, Holy Heart.

While the narrative is easy to read, the story’s subject matter is intrusively shocking from all sides of the belief spectrum. Readers are coerced into an emotional adventure, raising strong questions of right and wrong without any clarity due to the complexity of not necessarily the issues themselves, but the complex nature of the story’s characters. But, readers will be exposed to the fiery injustices and sorrows in the book as well as its comedic, almost absurd contexts, which sometimes begs the question of the book’s and its characters’ believability. What is for certain is the intensity in which readers may respond since the plight of Percy Joyce is no ordinary one.

But, pity is not on the menu in this novel as expected, nor is righteousness a natural phenomenon. The judgements in the book are harsh as well as misguided and the moral fibre stretched so thin, almost anything goes—and does. What is most frightening about the context of this novel lies in its extremities and the willingness of its characters to encompass these extremities to meet their desires.

“Give me myth or give me death,” is Percy Joyce’s coping mechanism, survival tactic, his motto, his hyperbolic, personal life theology, which in turn becomes the conflict and the source of the novel itself. The book on a whole is myth as survival and the stories the characters tell themselves are told to justify the choices they make, what they are willing to do, as well as sacrifice to uphold their secrets and their obsessions.

The corporeal judgement of the town towards the Joyce household showcases not only their cruelty, close-mindedness, but guilty lust for beauty, sensuality, and sex. Their judgement of Penelope’s sex appeal is indicative of their impassioned need to repress their own and obvious lust for it.

Yet, the insistent angst against the church on behalf of Penelope Joyce, while not entirely wrong in her right to the freedom of religious and lifestyle choice, does wrongfully insist itself on young Percy with the intention to determine her son’s fate, while disregarding that he may actually have one, a choice or an opinion of whether or not he’d like to become a member of the church.

And the culprits of Brotherhood in Director McHugh and Archbishop “Uncle Paddy,” seem well-bent on rather than defending the meek by reprimanding its community in its consistent ridicule and judgement on Percy and Percy’s mother, seem keen on manipulating his situation to ensure a way to use and control Percy in order to defend or advocate their religious beliefs.

While the novel speaks heavily on the issue of moral innocence and righteousness, there doesn’t seem to be any character in the book free enough to claim their own innocence.

And while the novel speaks to serious subjects and its moral implications, the characters themselves and the comedic absurdity of the plot at times reminds us to not take life all that seriously.

Percy, with his port-stained-face, disfigured lip, and gigantic hands and feet, is town scapegoat, gifted storyteller, harbourer of secrets and hierarchical sin, and religiously incarnated saint. It’s a tall order. But, no one knows this more than him, who has been duly inflicted and blessed with “False Someone Syndrome.” It’s myth or death, after all—and Percy is a survivor.


Characters:  4stars

Pacing: 4 stars

Cover Design: 4 stars

Plot: 3.5 stars


Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Random House of Canada  on behalf of Alfred A. Knopf for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an unpaid, honest review.



About the Author:

wayne johnston
Wayne Johnston


Wayne Johnston was born and raised in the St. John’s area of Newfoundland. His #1 nationally bestselling novels include The Dive Ryans, A World Elsewhere, The Custodian of Paradise, The Navigator of New York and The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, which will be made into a film. Johnston is also the author of an award-winning and bestselling memoir, Baltimore’s Mansion. He lives in Toronto.

– From book jacket.



Wayne Johnston’s Official Website

Like Wayne Johnston’s face on Facebook

Follow Wayne Johnston on Twitter


Do you think Penelope Joyce is actively to blame for the community’s judgement of her and her obvious sensuality? Why or why not?

Do you think Percy Joyce’s lust for his mother is indicative of his isolation, ridicule growing up as a young boy with FSS? Or a fear that he has no hope of ever successfully seducing a woman in future?

Is “Pops” a weak-minded man who’s influenced by Director McHugh to do his bidding or is he a man willing to do anything (including dismissing Medina and Penelope’s relationship) in order to experience the love and desire he feels for Penelope even if it means unrequited love?

What do you think happened to Percy’s absent, biological father, Jim Joyce? If you could imagine, where do you think he would be and what would he be doing?


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The White Smoke Has Cleared! We Have a Pope!

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The White Smoke Has Cleared! We Have a Pope!


By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

I was born and raised by two devout Roman Catholic parents from the Philippines and so it was natural for me to witness the decorative altars in our home as I was growing up.

My mother and father, both had personal rosaries from which to pray with, and one each for every car we owned as a talisman to the Catholic faith.

My first memory of my experience in the Catholic church was climbing the marble steps of St. Catherine of Siena Church to reach the main sanctuary, holding my father’s hand as we walked quietly to a middle-row pew.

I was, as always when we went to church on a Sunday, well-dressed, obedient, and watchful—mindful of how to follow my parents’ lead in the sign of the cross, when to kneel, shake hands, and learn the church’s holy prayers: the Our Father, Hail Mary, and the Apostle’s Creed.

Unsure of myself, but willing and ready to learn, I had devoted my skill in remembering the order of the liturgy, in awe at the beauty of the priest’s vestments, the pristine glow of the chalice, and my favourite part of the mass: the prayers spoken before the Eucharist is raised to the sound of chimes signifying not only the Body of Christ, but for me, His death and resurrection.

I loved the solemnity of the weekly service, the ability to know, follow, and participate in the acts of its prayers and communion and to feel absolved after communion and mass.

I come from a devout Catholic family who’s always been interested in spirituality. My father as a young man had considered becoming a priest. And I, in his footsteps, had seriously considered entering a nunnery after my religious studies at Holy Name of Mary and my relationship and peer ministry with the Felician Sisters.

And though I would later leave the Catholic institutional church later on in my life, having converted to evangelical Christianity, it was with great pride that I was able to witness the election of a new Pope this past Wednesday, March 13, 2013.

While my theological views have somewhat altered and my religious practices differ from my religious upbringing, I have and do hold the Roman Catholic church up in respect and tenderness because of that very history and of course, their reverence to our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Religion is not an event, nor a labelling discourse of theological beliefs, but a spiritual outlet in which to express and experience one’s faith in community.

And so, it is with great joy I was able to celebrate with my brothers and sisters in Christ for the naming of the new Pope on Wednesday on behalf of the Catholic community.

While I don’t revere the man himself, as his role as pontiff does not replace nor rise above God’s own and true authority, I do hope and pray for his spiritual wisdom, obedience, and servitude to Christ and Christ’s teachings.

I did not witness the white smoke which traditionally announces the conclave’s conclusion in its decision in naming a new pontiff, but I was made aware of it the moment it happened, believe it or not, on Twitter!

Which led me to turn on the television and search for live coverage of this historical event. The amount of people not only gathered around the Vatican at St. Peter’s Square that day, but also the multitude of people listening in on radio and watching the news all at the same time in anticipation of this news, made the camaraderie and unity of Christian faith even more intense and prevalent.

I watched nuns in prayer, clutching rosaries, their eyes closed in hopeful reverence. I watched men waving their countries’ flags in excitement. I saw young children on the shoulders of their fathers, waiting for their Catholic blessing from the new pope. I listened to the crowd of patrons chanting in unison, “Viva il Papa!” which means, “Long live the Pope!” in Italian.

From news.yahoo.com
From news.yahoo.com


The fervour of the crowd was infectious. The anticipation of this historical change, obvious. And then the drapes on the Vatican balcony stirred.

The announcement of the new Pope was made! And out came this simply dressed man in white with a humility and thoughtfulness that addressed the world:

Pope Jorge Mario Begoglio Francis I

pope francis I
From Wikipedia.org


Pope Francis I’s humility precedes him in his choices to live a simple, unadorned life. As an Archbishop, he was known to take the bus rather than taxi and would walk among the people. He even turned down the opportunity to live in the palatial Archbishop’s residence, but chose to live in a small apartment instead.

This seems right, indicative, and reflective of Jesus’ teaching in the Bible:

“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” – Matthew 19:23-25 (NIV)

His humility and acts of servitude is also evident in his visit to a hospice of patients afflicted with HIV/AIDS in 2001 when he washed and kissed its patients’ feet.

This is reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching and own act of humility and servitude in washing His disciples’ feet even though He himself is God.

The pope, too, has been known to literally take the “back seat” when gathering with cardinals, often opting to sit at the back during conferences.

This, too, is reflective of the attitude in which Jesus advises the invited guests to a gathering of the Pharisees:

“But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you. For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.” – Luke 14:10-11 (NASB)

What is also inspiring about Pope Francis I is his outspoken stand for righteousness rather than legalism in his decision to baptize children born out-of-wedlock and his admonition to those that would deny children this sacrament.

It reminds me of Jesus’ teaching and welcome of little children when He said,

“People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.” – Mark 10:13-16 (NIV)

While he’s been criticized in North America for his conservatism: matters in which he is against birth control, abortion, and same-sex marriage; he stands as one would in representing and following deeply embedded Catholic beliefs and doctrine.

And he is well-versed as he is well-educated. Before becoming an Archbishop, he taught literature, philosophy, theology, psychology and holds a master’s degree in chemistry. He also knows a number of languages: Spanish, Italian, and German.

But, it is his humility that is most striking; his spirit of servitude that is most impressive; and his theology alive in action as well as his sensitivity to the poor.

You’d also be surprised to know that under his pontiff hat, he’s also got quite a wonderful sense of humour! It was reported by The Toronto Star that during the dinner after the Pope’s election, the cardinals made a toast to him in which he responded, “May God forgive you.” (As shared by Cardinal Dolan.)

Christians will easily understand the humour in this as what is implied by it: It is considered a “sin” to practice drunkenness as it removes form of reason and clear thinking as it is a sin to commit acts of idolatry since Christians are called to love God with his or her entire being as commanded in the Holy Bible:

“One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’”   “’The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’” – Mark 12:28-30 (NIV)

—which I believe (and hope and pray) is something Pope Francis I will continually obey in an act of service to God, God’s glory, and His Church.

The Associated Press quotes the Pope Francis I as saying,

“Jesus teaches us another way: Go out. Go out and share your testimony. Go out and interact with your brothers. Go out and share. Go out and ask. Become the Word in body as well as spirit.”

This is the call of every Christian — Catholic, Evangelical, or not. And a hopeful message to share with the world: A hopeful message because it comes from the Catholic’s new spiritual leader—and a hopeful message because it is true.

And in this, as in all things, may God be glorified.


Did you withness the announcement of the new pontiff this past March?

What do you think of Pope Francis I?

What do you hope for the Catholic Church after the election of its new spiritual leader?

What are one of Jesus’ teachings do you find wonderful and something you aim to subscribe to in your own life?

If a Christian, what ways do you actively try to live out your faith?

What is your favourite verse in the Holy Bible?


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