Read Your Way Through Montreal

Read Your Way Around the World is a series exploring the globe through books.

Montreal is an island unto itself. An architect’s paradise. A foodie’s dream, where a pastry will make you weep. It’s a city of extremes. The grandiose maximalism of Cirque du Soleil and Arcade Fire. The gritty punk scene and the thriving diner (casse-croûte) culture. Hot bacchanalian summers that never sleep, and cold brooding winters that draw you underground and inward. Perhaps that’s why it’s also a city of great style.

It’s where I grew up and when we had to move I never thought I would get over leaving. In many ways, I haven’t. It’s still, after all these years, the city of my heart. Playful, sexy, strangely celebratory and, above all, beautiful. Strolling through the city’s iconic neighborhoods — the Plateau, Mile End or Old Montreal to name a few — you see it everywhere you look: the impulse toward aesthetic pleasures, visual harmony. That desire to make everything, be it a bagel or a bookstore, a celebration of itself.

But there is, of course, a dark side to every great city. The literature of Montreal is both dreamy and uncompromising in its depths. It aspires to beauty, but it never forgets its shadows. There, the Wildean axiom “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” is viscerally felt — and it’s a sentiment that pulses through the cultural blood of the city.

What should I read before I pack my bags?

Many classics of Montreal literature evoke place through a multitude of colorful local characters. “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” by Mordecai Richler, is a quintessential comic Montreal novel of the late 1950s (also try his last novel, “Barney’s Version”). “The Favorite Game,” by Leonard Cohen, is his autofictional exploration of growing up as a young Jewish boy (try also his collection of poems “The Spice-Box of Earth”). Short story master Mavis Gallant’s “Varieties of Exile” was originally titled “Montreal Stories in Canada for good reason. Consider also Gabrielle Roy’s “The Tin Flute” and Michel Tremblay’s “The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant,” both empathetic portrayals of working class life among French speakers. “How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired,” by Dany Laferrière, is another ground breaking exploration of Montreal life from the perspective of a Haitian immigrant.

For a little mystery, try Louise Penny’s popular “Three Pines” detective series. Though set in a fictional town in Quebec, her novels often feature Montreal (“Glass Housesin particular.)Kathy Reichs unearths the bones of the city in her thriller “Déjà Dead.” And Montreal’s rich queer culture is captured in the coming-of-age novels “The Geography of Pluto,” by Christopher DiRaddo, and “Bottle Rocket Hearts,” by Zoe Whittall.

Perhaps nothing will get you more excited to travel to Montreal than the dazzling work of Heather O’Neill. In novels like “Lullabies for Little Criminals” and “The Lonely Hearts Hotel,” O’Neill captures both the darkness and the dreaminess of the city in shimmering colors. O’Neill’s latest, “When We Lost Our Heads,”is a dizzying confection, offering a 19th-century glimpse of Montreal’s Golden Square Mile neighborhood with a sharp eye.

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