Helen McLean's prose is lucid and evocative. She is at her best in conveying the appeal of a place where she feels spiritually at home, whether that is a spartan cottage on Lake Ontario or a villa in the vineyards of Piemonte. This multi-talented artist is an inspiration to all women and proves that it is never too late to achieve self-fulfilment.    

Canadian Book Review Annual.


Significant Things

Significant Things was shortlisted for the 2004 Commonwealth Best Book Prize, Canada and Caribbean Division.

A man of innate taste and discrimination, Edward has become an art dealer and collector of fine antiques and paintings. During his first six idyllic years he was the centre and focus of his mother’s existence.  Betrayals and unhappiness in subsequent years have led him to form almost fetishistic attachments to beautiful objects, subsitutes for the human relationships that have invariably failed him.

Now in his late forties, on a holiday in Sicily, Edward falls deeply in love with a young English-Italian artist, but he has not yet learned that there is a difference between loving and possessing.

Significant Things, by Helen McLean.

Dundurn, Toronto, 2003
236 pp,

Available from Amazon, Indigo Books and the Publisher.


In her novel Significant Things . . .Helen McLean has given us a romance, complete with wonderful settings, gorgeous objects and unrequited love. The story focuses on Edward Cooper’s life, and in the end. . . we have learned why he confuses love and ownership.

In the 1970’s, Edward is a wealthy art dealer in Toronto, but his early days were spend in penury with his feckless mother Dolly … “From the day he was born Edward and his mother had never been separated from one another for so much as an hour. Woman and child existed in a continuum so seamless that neither could have easily distinguished the place where one left off and the other began… .” When Dolly’s attention is turned to Harvey Rak nothing is ever the same for Edward. It’s painfully obvious throughout that Edward is searching for the total closeness, even smothering love, that he had with his mother. Unable to form human relationships, he finds solace in objects… and when he  finally falls in love with a young Sicilian artist named Paulo, he has no idea how to handle himself or his feelings. . .. . .

Mclean’s knowledge of art lifts the novel out of the generic romance. Dozens of references to artists, musicians, writers and exquisite food make the novel . . . a treat to read.  McLean’s descriptions of art works and especially how one can be moved by a particular piece are splendid. When Edward has his first aesthetic moment McLean captures the sensation perfectly. . .
Candace Fertile  TheGlobe and Mail Sat. May 31, 2003

The protagonist of Helen McLean’s Significant Things  begins life in near-Dickensian circumstances, in a single room on Brunswick Avenue in Depression-era Toronto. Although Edward and his pretty, unmarried English mother have only each other and a meagre allowance from her estranged family, little Edward is happy. His gentle world is shattered when his mother marries a rich, reptilian piano manufacturer who takes them to live in England. Ejected from his mother’s bed, sent off to boarding school and evacuated to Canada during the war, Edward is traumatized and betrayed. He finds solace, then inspiration, in beautiful objects. Perhaps his aesthetic sense has something to do with his father – his mother claims Edward is the result of a shipboard romance with the Prince of Wales.

Edward becomes an art dealer and a collector, and here McLean, herself an artist as well as a critic and a writer, brings palpable authority to the page. Sometimes these passages slow the pace, but they render Edward’s passion for art and objects utterly convincing. Order and beauty sustain him into his late forties, but considering the privations of his early years, it is unsurprising that he is something of a hollow man. On a trip to Sicily he encounters a talented young artist who appears to have stepped out of a Piero della Francesca painting, and all Edward’s careful emotional control gives way. If this sounds a little like Anita Brookner territory, it is, though the book’s narrative drive is generally stronger and Edward has more spine than most Brookner protagonists. McLean’s characterization of Edward and his hapless mother, Dolly, is solid and deft. This is a finely wrought, mature first novel with some significant things to say about beauty and life.
Maureen Garvie
  Quill and Quire April 2003

Author Interview  

We all know people who invest themselves . . . too heavily in things. . .  Edward, the sucessful but emotionally damaged art dealer protatgonist of Helen McLean’s Significant Things  loves beautiful objects.  Like the fetishist who craves the company of high-heeled shoes over a real live woman, Edward has trouble transferring his passion from things to humans.  McLean, a painter as well as a writer, is also immersed in the physical and literary beauty of art, but she leaves obsession to Edward. Collecting art on only a very small scale, she opts for  restorative sessions with favourite pieces at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Significant Things was born on a . . . further afield pilgirimage. Just as her main character does, McLean visited the Villa Del Casale near Piazza Armerina in Sicily. After looking at the Roman mosaics, she and her husband relaxed at a patio restaurant where they were served by a young Italian man with bright reddish hair, a feature owing perhaps to the Norman conquest of the region in the 11th century. A connection formed in her mind between this scene and a  painting by Piero della Francesca that features a golden-haired youth. A detail of the Piero painting graces the cover of her book.  “Paintings allow themselves to be owned”, McLean says.  “Unfortunately human beings are a little trickier and they get away from you.

A published art critic and essayist . . . McLean’s paintings have been shown and collected extensively across the country. . . .With her varied artistic career she considers herself to be the luckiest person in the world. . . .She says painters and other artists tend to lack a layer of skin, allowing a bit too much of the world to penetrate them.  “Someone  said your average neurotic just explodes out of the top of his head. . .  the difference between that and being a  writer or an artist is that you can gather the stuff that’s exploding and put it in a book or a painting.”
Ian Doig,The Calgary Herald, 2003

More Reviews

In Helen McLean’s Significant Things . . . Edward’s life is shaped by loss, most notably of his mother, Dolly, a beautiful but weak woman. . . Edward was doted upon by Dolly until she married a piano manufacturer from England. Edward learns to compensate for this emotional abandonment by forming deep attachments to beautiful objects instead of people. While such substitutions help Edward become a successful art dealer, they prevent him from finding comparable success in his human relationships. . . . As a child, Edward was told that he was the illegitimate child of the Prince of Wales. Although he consciously rejects this tale, Edward subconsciously embraces the possibility of being fathered by royalty . . .  He considers himself having “been born with a talent, his God-given aesthetic sensibility” . . . and  feels obligated to use his discriminating eye ethically, a burden that is apparent in his attitude towards his young Italian lover, Paulo. On the one hand, Edward sincerely believes Paulo is a great talent whose art will enrich the world. On the other. . . he hopes to be showered with Paulo’s eternal gratitude. . . .
Christine Kim, Canadian Literature Quarterly

With understanding and compassion, Toronto artist and author HelenMcLean profiles the life of Edward, a homosexual British art dealer. . .  McLean’s tightly written novel brings Edward’s character vibrantly to life with his commitment to being “a connoisseur of fine things,” including rare fountain pens, unique pocket knives and  perfume bottles.. . . Edward moves permanently to Toronto, where he eventually  launches his career as an art dealer. While searching for new talent in Europe, he is instantly smitten by the much younger Paulo. The one-sided infatuation . . .and Edward’s frustration and dejection are portrayed delicately, empathetically, and philosophically as an older and wiser Edward later meditates about his life in the midst of his beloved collections. McLean’s familiarity with art, her skill in depicting human flaws and foibles, her talent for creating realistic dialogue, her ability to tell a story, and her vivid prose all make Significant Things a rewarding reading experience.
Canadian Book Review Annual 2003

“To have and to hold from this day forth…..”

These words would be in context for Edward Cooper, 47 year old protagonist of Helen McLean’s new novel, who regards his lover, a young English-Italian painter named Paulo, as he views the collected paintings and antiques in his Toronto home.

. . .For all his discriminating taste Edward fails to appreciate the difference between possession and love. That’s the theme Mclean explores in this sensetively written novel. McLean has hit on a theme likely to resonate with most of us, even if we weren’t coddled from birth by an over-protective slightly loopy mother. .. . .

McLean weaves spins a sypathetic and thought-provoking story about what happens when Edward mixedes up love and possessions, and how he got them muddled up in the first place…
Andrew Vowles , Hamilton Spectator, April 3 2003