Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Review: A Short History of Women


A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert
1.5 stars

Reason for reading: this month's book club selection

Description: "The novel opens in England in 1914 at the deathbed of Dorothy Townsend, a suffragette who starves herself for the cause. Her choice echoes in the stories of her descendants interwoven throughout: a brilliant daughter who tries to escape the burden of her mother's infamy by immigrating to America just after World War I to begin a career in science; a niece who chooses a conventional path -- marriage, children, suburban domesticity -- only to find herself disillusioned with her husband of fifty years and engaged in heartbreaking and futile antiwar protests; a great-granddaughter who wryly articulates the free-floating anxiety of the times while getting drunk on a children's playdate in post-9/11 Manhattan. In a kaleidoscope of voices and with a richness of imagery, emotion, and wit, Walbert portrays the ways in which successive generations of women have responded to what the Victorians called "The Woman Question."

First line: "Mum starved herself for suffrage."

My thoughts: This just didn't do it for me. I get that it was supposed to be an examination of generations of women's rights. But none of the characters were particularly likeable and most of their stories weren't that interesting. And, really, I'm sick of the "men are oppressing us" story.

And I'm not a fan of the non-linear. This book jumps around in time between the generations and almost all of the characters are named Dorothy, after the starving suffragette, it's really confusing. Also, it just sort of....ends. It's a series of vignettes, basically, and then it just stops.

Suffragette Dorothy is just the first in a line of generally unlikeable characters. While I admire dedication to a cause, leaving your 2 children as orphans and making them watch you die is despicable, in my opinion. And her descendant, another Dorothy, who becomes "disillusioned" with her husband (who, from what we're told, is nothing but decent, if a bit dull) after 50 years? If it were a man leaving his wife to shrivel and die in a nursing home, we'd be outraged. But it's apparently okay for a woman to do it because she basically decides her life has been boring? Her daughter isn't much better, a stereotypically neurotic New York mother arranging contrived playdates for kids who don't like each other. About the only character I could admire was Evelyn, daughter of the starver, who traveled to New York after World War I to attend college and eventually became a professor - how awesome is that?
But she's alone and unhappy, herself.

Are women totally equal with men in every area? No. Is there still work for feminism to do? Yes. But from what I could tell, none of these women were all that "oppressed" - in most cases, it was their own choices (or, in the case of the orphaned Evelyn, her mother's choice) that made them unhappy. Or it was just that life wasn't the 100% fulfilling and didn't turn out exactly as they'd planned. Join the club, ladies.

The verdict: I'm oversimplifying, but the point of this book seemed to be that being a woman has always sucked and that that never changes. Woo hoo.

Update: Nobody in book club liked it, either! The too many Dorothy's, lack of "organization," and general unlikeable-ness of the characters got to everyone. We couldn't figure out why it was a National Book Award finalist. The only positive thing that could be said was that it least it was a fairly short book, so the agony wasn't prolonged!

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