Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis, we meet 32-year-old Daniel Addison, a jaded speech writer for the Liberal Opposition Leader. When our protagonist unexpectedly walks in on girlfriend Rachel and the Liberal Leader in "deep consultation," Daniel decides that he has had enough of political life. He opts to terminate his employment on the Hill and continue his PhD in English at the University of Ottawa. However, the Leader and his office are not willing to let the speech writer go that easily, and so Daniel offers to run a Liberal candidate in a riding where there is no chance of winning, the Tory stronghold of Prescott-Cumberland, held by the popular Tory finance minister.
By chance, Daniel meets Angus McLintock, a U of O engineering professor, grammar Nazi and highly principled Scot. When the reader encounters Angus, he is furious at being assigned another semester of teaching E to E, or English to first-year Engineering students, a task he loathes. Daniel makes a deal with Angus: he'll teach E fer E, if Angus runs as a Liberal candidate. Then the Tory finance minister is embroiled in an unsavoury scandal, and Daniel's worst case scenario materializes. He finds himself a staffer with an honest MP.
The Best Laid Plans piqued my curiosity because publishers had turned it down. But Fallis persevered, releasing chapters of his book as podcasts and then self-publishing. Then his book won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour and was selected as a finalist in the Canada Reads 2011 series. So what exactly was wrong with the book? Why weren't publishers interested?
In terms of a novel, there was a pacing problem. From the outset, the reader knows the novel's premise, that Angus is going to beat the conservative incumbent, but this happens only at the book's halfway point. As for characters, I was expecting Rachel, his cheating girlfriend, to return and complicate the story. Her replacement, Lindsay, was an insipid character who didn't add much to the narrative, while her grandmother Muriel, who ran unsuccessfully five times as a Liberal, was underutilized as a source of vital political knowledge. At times, Daniel was far too wise for his 32 years; in fact, he sounded like a consummate PR specialist, also Terry Fallis's day job. As for narration, there were strange changes in point of view from Daniel to Angus in the form of end of chapter soliloquies/journal entries in which Angus addresses his dead wife, summarizing recent events and disclosing future plans. Some of these could have easily been edited out, as the reader is well aware of how the stereotypical Scot is going to react.
Nevertheless, readers barely have the chance to notice these shortcomings; they are too busy following political developments and Daniel's maneuvering to avert conflict and scandal, which are always just around the corner. The behind-the-scenes political story was fascinating, believable and humorous. Mr. Fallis is indeed a born storyteller, and his experience working with politicians, in addition to his engineering background and obsession with good grammar, make this book an enjoyable read. I'm guessing that the podcasts might make your commute to work a lot more fun.
I also see why publishers may have been leery to take this book on. A little heavy on telling instead of showing, the Best Laid Plans probably would have been subject to substantial revision, which would have interfered with the book's number one quality--humour. But lady luck has smiled on Terry Fallis. The Best Laid Plans is now into its fifth printing.
Other reviews of Canada Reads finalists:
The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou
Unless by Carol Shields
Essex County by Jeff Lemire