Exposing the Soft Underbelly of the Legal System: A Review of Darlene Madott’s Winners and Losers

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I approached Winners and Losers, Darlene Madott’s latest literary offering, with high expectations. Her last book, Dying Times, was a tight braid of narrative that wove together high stakes legal affairs with tense family relations – especially sibling rivalry—while dissecting sensitive issues of life and death, mortality, dignity, and honour. That’s a tough act to follow. But she rises to the occasion again here in a different form: the short story collection.

Winners and Losers: Tales of Life, Law, Love and Loss is ”a collection of linked short stories that turns a dazzling searchlight on the inner working of the legal profession” (jacket notes). Having recently concluded her lengthy active involvement in the practice of law, Madott is eminently positioned to reflect on this landscape.

The stories function independently of each other; but they are clearly connected, primarily by the narrative voice – that of a seasoned practitioner who is unafraid to expose the soft underbelly of the legal system, even at the expense of her own reputation and pride.

Write what you know! It’s a cardinal rule that many writers live by. Utilizing keen insights from years of legal practice, Madott is clearly at ease conveying the tone of courtroom exchanges, the barbed banter between legal adversaries, and the steady coaxing of clients in oak panelled boardrooms toward a more nuanced position or statement of facts. The payoff is an engaging set of stories that span a wide range of curious and sometimes seemingly incredible situations.

Along the way the narrator, Francesca Malotti, offers glimpses into various rites of passage in the legal world, from the naïve anxious jockeying of articling students trying to make a good impression, through the grind of rising through the ranks in the profession, from clerk, to junior, and finally to partner and seasoned veteran. In her practice, Francesca often adopts a take-no-prisoners approach: she has a natural aversion to the “old boys network” that permeates the profession, and refuses to be cowed. At the same time, she has a soft spot for those who are down on their luck and need a hand.

Writing what you truly know can generate poignant prose; it can also entail distinct risks. Careful readers will want to resist collapsing the space between author and narrator, between writer and narrative voice, as easy as that slip may be. The one notable exception here would be the “Epilogue: Surrender,” which is offered as an open window into the author’s personal struggle with letting go. Written in the first person, the writer draws direct parallels between the emotionally wrenching experience of walking away from her legal practice – “surrendering” her licence, and the difficulty of surrendering a final draft of a manuscript to a publisher. As she concludes her long professional career as a lawyer and fully embraces another as a writer, confidence in the indelible power of words provides the needed conduit for this transition.

At the centre, these stories examine the value of things: legal expertise, Caribbean vacations, friendship, service, even endless love and devotion. Several stories unfold as interrogations of trust, in all its multiple meanings. Along the way delicious ironies are uncovered and enjoyed: “[She had the] best sleep of her life in her former husband’s bed!”

It’s not surprising that many of these stories deliver messages of deep human compassion and nuggets of wisdom about the human heart: its capacity to absorb pain and hurt, but also its capacity to feel real joy and endure through extraordinary hardship and adversity.

“Sins of the Father” is a delicate, touching tale that considers the weight and hidden joys of teaching life’s important lessons to our children. “Newton’s Third Law” relates the story of a Ukrainian couple’s messy divorce; the exploration of collective cultural character traits (God-complex) is both amusing and timely.

“Pasta and Priests” is a fine example of this depth. The easy-going nature of the narrative belies its complex narrative structure. Intriguing parallels are drawn between music’s capacity to lift us, with, of all things, confession, where we unburden to rise. The central agent of this magical transformation is a Catholic priest; in his humanity he listens deeply, discerns with wisdom what is truly needed, and exercises his clerical duties in ways that foster real renewal and vitality.

“Replevin” cleverly uses a legal term to explore the emotional terrain of love and vindictiveness. It begins with a brief definition of the legal term, for the uninitiated: an action leading to the recovery of goods by a person who was wrongfully deprived of them. Simple enough. And yet, the tale that follows is anything but simple. At first pass, the story exposes some of the peculiarities of provincial jurisdictional issues. But the real meat of it is untangling the twisted relationship between the central characters – George, the demolition mogul, and his Russian ex-prostitute wife, Ivanka. The characters seem entirely plausible, whether in spite of or because of their pettiness and stubbornness. It’s a fine example of the complexity of Madott’s writing now.

The narrator points out that one of the problems inherent in replevin as a legal remedy is that the returned goods often do not come back in the same condition. In short, “the damage done is never repaired, the losses never fully recovered.” The deeper lessons here are about human nature; the legal principles alluded to are merely a convenient tool for exposing weightier and more profound concerns. The essence of these finely crafted stories is not found in the legal accounting of assets and liabilities but rather in the human toll, the emotional ledger, after the legal affairs have been settled.

In some ways, Madott’s literary production can be seen as the logical extension of the immigrant struggles that her forbears lived through and the stories that arose from those struggles. As a dutiful and highly educated descendent of Italian immigrants, she was urged to apply herself and make her mark. Through sheer determination and diligence, she took up a profession, honed her skills, achieved her goals, and made her parents proud. Now she has the benefit of all that experience and perspective, in the law and in life, to fuel her writing as she ruminates and writes the next chapters of her own saga.

Jim Zucchero earned a PhD in English at Western University and has published creative non-fiction and numerous essays on Italian-Canadian writers. He walks the dog, plays music, and cooks Italian food for fun.

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