Book Review: His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay

Reading Time: 3 minutes

It’s not every day that you read a book that feels like an instant classic. A book like that has to be special – it has to move you. The latest book in the Lorenzo Reading Series, His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay, is one of those rare instant classics.

It tells the story of a young boy named Jim, and of how he struggles with being constantly pulled in two different directions. With a father from New York, a mother from Ontario, and their marriage on the rocks, Jim is forced to make some serious choices. Which of his parents does he love more? Who will he live with if they split up? Where will they live? In New York City, where he grew up, or by the lake in Ontario that he loves so much?

The story takes place in the 1990s, when Quebec was on the verge of separating from Canada. In having this as the setting, Hay effectively educates readers about what life in Canada was like during the referendum. This could be useful information for non-Canadian readers, as well as Canadian readers who may just want to learn more about that period of recent Canadian history.

(photo courtesy of
(photo courtesy of

That, right there, is what makes it an instant classic. The best classics are books that educate the reader and do so through a gripping storyline, with an extraordinarily vivid cast of characters.

His Whole Life does this impeccably well. The reader is being educated about the first referendum, but there is not a dull moment in the story. It is dripping with the tension of those days of uncertainty, and the reader is on the edge of their seat when the results are announced despite already knowing what they will be. Hay does an outstanding job of grabbing the reader, and really makes them feel like they are part of the story.

As well as Hay presents this piece of Canadian history, her characters are where she really shines. They feel incredibly real, likely because the situations they find themselves in are ones we have all experienced, in some way or another.  

When Jim’s mother, Nancy, describes the pain of being ditched by her best friend as a child, it resonates with the reader. It is an incredibly real, relatable feeling that nearly everyone has faced, and it lingers. Maybe not as pain, but as a bitterness that never fully fades. His mother’s best friend, Lulu, is on the outs with her older brother, and has never had an easy life with her family. Jim’s father suffered the pain of watching his first wife die of cancer, and the betrayal of having his second wife cheat on him. These aren’t fantastical, impossible experiences. They are real and they are why readers will grow so deeply attached to these characters and to their stories.

But Jim is the character that readers will resonate with the most because, above all else, His Whole Life is a coming-of-age story. Jim starts out as a troubled ten-year-old boy being bullied at school, and readers watch him grow throughout the book as he experiences the loss of family members for the first time, makes tough choices, and learns what it means to be human. He goes through things that we all go through as we figure out who we are, and what kind of person we want to be.

Hay does a perfect job of blending historical Canadian context with a riveting story of what it is like to grow up, and the challenges that we all face in the process. Instead of sneering at childhood struggles, like so many people do, she takes it seriously and validates the pain we all felt at some point as children and it is precisely that validation that the reader can appreciate.

I strongly recommend giving this book a try, because it is a story that will touch every single person who reads it. Equal to Canadian classics like Anne of Green Gables, this is not a book you want to miss out on.


Author Elizabeth Hay will be speaking about His Whole Life on October 20, in the Ganong Hall Lecture Theatre at 7:00pm. All are welcome, and student attendance is encouraged.