The first time I read Stewart Dudley’s novel The Cutting Room, it frustrated me. The plot seemed to be deliberately slow, with information doled out in tiny bits as though the author was trying not to satisfy the reader too much. I put it down after finishing and felt a bit cranky with it.
But the characters stayed with me, and one of the characters in this book is definitely the city of Ottawa, make no mistake. One of the small joys of reading a book set in one’s hometown – or indeed, in any city one knows well – is the sharp pang of recognition that occurs whenever you read about a place or thing that’s utterly familiar to you. Scenes set in the Chateau Montebello, a glassed-in condo towering over Lansdowne Park, and the Barrhaven suburbs will help draw in Ottawa readers, while offering a fuller portrait of our town that’s not the usual Parliament-Hill-and-the-Market rundown.
All this to say that I read The Cutting Room again, about a month later, and enjoyed it much more the second time through. It’s essentially a two-hander, with supporting characters popping in and out for brief appearances, but mostly it is a five-day conversation between a man and a woman who are trying to figure the other person out, to determine if he or she is friend, foe, or something in between. That slow pace is actually realistic – no one meets another person and immediately spills their entire life story and all their motivations for whatever it is they are currently up to. The plot builds like a friendship tenuously being constructed among the distractions of a major event.
Geoff Whittaker is in his fifties, currently unemployed, having spent his career bouncing back and forth between the public and private sectors, never staying long at any one job. He’s a professional communicator, which should be our first clue that he’s not going to give us the full story of what’s happening in this book unless forced to.
Margaret Torrance is about the same age as Whittaker, a once-prominent movie star whose career has run up against the male-dominated Hollywood machine. In response, she’s made a deeply personal documentary film about the treatment of women in the industry and is debuting it at a fictional Ottawa film festival (held at our very own, very real Bytowne Cinema).
Maggie and Geoff are thrown together when he’s assigned to be her driver for the four-day festival, and although sparks fly between them immediately, they’re not necessarily the good kind. Yet they are drawn to each other for reasons neither of them can fully comprehend. As she attempts to promote her film and hold herself together in the process, he finds himself calling upon his media-relations skills to help her out.
As things start to go sideways – throw in a pissed-off Hollywood producer, a bitter festival director, a dirt-seeking journalist, and the RCMP – the two of them try to figure out whether they can trust one another – and what might happen once the red carpet is rolled up and put away.
I realized something on my second read of this novel: I went back to it because the characters feel real to me, and they story they are telling is authentic and compelling. What happened to Maggie on the set of her last blockbuster film? Why is Whittaker such a morose fellow all the time? Will the film get distribution, or languish in obscurity? And for goodness’ sake, are these two crazy kids going to make out, or what?
I’m not going to tell you. But you definitely want to find out.
The Cutting Room is Stewart Dudley’s first published novel. It is available from the author’s website in print or ebook format.