THE WHIRLPOOL, Jane Urquhart’s first novel, revolves around Fleda McDougal, an introspective and unworldly young woman enamored with the poetry of Robert Browning. Fleda begins the story dimly aware that her life is made up of “small, benign toys.” By the end, she has rejected the role of happy housewife which her husband, David, a practical man dedicated to writing a revisionist and pro-Canadian history of the War of 1812, has planned for her. Her entirely new and surprising vision is brought on by her meeting Patrick, a nervous young poet visiting his uncle’s farm while recuperating from a collapse brought on by the trials of familial responsibility.
At first, Fleda and Patrick seem profoundly connected, sharing a romantic predilection for seeing the external world as a reflection of their personal, internal worlds. Thus, their conversations seem always to operate at two levels, the mundane and the symbolic. Fleda begins to hope Patrick can provide the poetic resonance lacking in her marriage; but when she suggests they get closer, Patrick rejects her, never speaking with her again. Fleda realizes she has served merely as a figment in Patrick’s internal landscape; when she asserts her own desires, imposing on Patrick her separate existence, Patrick, no longer able to project his idealizations upon her, shuts her out.
Fleda has lived all along with her husband’s rejection of her abundant inner life. Now, with Patrick’s rejection of her corporeal reality, she decides to leave both men and to establish herself as a person in her own right.
Woven into this story are a number of nicely etched characters--a widow undertaker and her genius two-year-old son, the Old River Man who retrieves the bodies of the drowned, and Robert Browning himself, during his last days--making for a suggestive and satisfying novel.