Novels don’t often receive subject headings when they are cataloged, but two of my favorite books received this gem: “eccentrics and eccentricities–fiction.” And it couldn’t be more appropriate.
The books in question are Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast and Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast Pillow Book, by Bill Richardson, a Vancouverite who writes light fiction, non-fiction and children’s books while working as a radio host for the CBC.
(fun fact of the day: Bill Richardson used to be a children’s librarian – he has a library degree from UBC.)
The books (which stand alone, but are probably best read in order) chronicle the adventures and misadventures of fraternal twin brothers Hector and Virgil, who run a book-focused bed and breakfast on a small island in the Strait of Georgia, between Vancouver and Vancouver Island. The island is never identified by name: it is a mythical addition to the Gulf Islands, a group of islands that, to some observers, might as well come out of a storybook. The islands have a reputation for good wine and food (especially cheese), beautiful scenery, eccentric architecture, and low-key inhabitants. Guests come to the BBBB&B from a variety of Canadian towns and cities with the goal of either solitary or social reading of books ranging from Proust to P.D. James. They are encouraged to write their stories in the inn’s guestbook, and these are sprinkled throughout the narrative. The second book, modeled on the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, is more scrapbook-like than the first, and includes recipes.
Hector and Virgil are the product of a dalliance between their mother, a frustrated socialite with a passion for auto mechanics, and a traveling book salesman, and the description of their parentage and childhood is one of the most enjoyable parts of the first book. Although both parents are dead at the beginning of the narrative, the twins are haunted by them, through their father’s boxes of books, delivered annually on their birthdays, which turn them into devoted bibliophiles with extended (sometimes bordering on pretentious) vocabularies, and and by their mother’s ghost, which occasionally appears “in person” but more often makes herself known through the voice of the twins’ parrot, Mrs. Rochester.
A number of secondary characters also pop in and out, sometimes to provide comic relief, sometimes to spur reflection on the part of the twins or the reader. Hector’s girlfriend, Altona Winkler, writes romance novels and tabloid-esque articles in the local paper (both are excerpted); their friends Rae and June run a local cafe called The Well of Loneliness and the second book sees the introduction of their handyman, Caedmon Harkness, who lives in a thatched VW bus with his pet parrot, who is mute. Virgil has a photographic memory for poetry, both serious and comic, and both the twins and their guests (who occasionally take the narrative reins) make numerous recommendations for books of poetry, non-fiction, novels and cookbooks.
While it is a pleasure for the reader to discover new poems through Virgil’s recitations, not everybody will have a taste for one of the books’ dominant running gags, the doggerel moral poetry written by the island’s late resident poet, Solomon Solomon. It will either make you giggle and think, or it will annoy you, and the same could be said of these books’ quirky vocabulary and wordplay and their reflective and slow-moving tone, which sometimes verges on self-indulgent navel gazing. But don’t let me put you off – I wouldn’t be writing about these books if I didn’t enjoy them very much. The first one is definitely best enjoyed in audiobook form, read by the author: the narrative was designed for radio, as Bill Richardson first introduced the characters on CBC radio in the early 90s, and I suspect that the audiobook would be perfect for commuters, as it is divided into short snippets of narrative.
These books will probably be familiar to my Canadian readers (I’m still, frankly, getting used to the idea of having readers! Hello readers!) Richardson won The Stephen Leacock Award for Humour for the first book. But, as I have discussed with friends in Madison, books that are well-known in Canada are not always well known elsewhere, and vice versa, so I hope that I have convinced some new readers to meet Hector and Virgil at the Bachelor Brothers’ Bed and Breakfast!