Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Short History of Women

"Mum starved herself for suffrage, Grandmother claiming it was just like Mum to take a cause too far. Mum said she had no choice."

The mother-daughter intergenerational conflict is the subject of Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women, surely the shortest, most brilliant women’s novel of the summer: 237 pages of understated prose comprising the lives of five generations of women. This non-linear novel jumps back and forth in time: it begins in England in 1914, with 13-year-old Evelyn Townsend Trevor’s reactions to her suffragette mother's slow suicide through a hunger strike. After her mother’s death in a hospital, Evelyn retreats into the infinite but controllable world of mathematics, immigrates to New York to pursue her studies at Barnard, and becomes an eminent mathematician. This emotionally numb woman retains humor but completely rejects her mother, while at the same time living out some of her values. Because of her mother's generation, she enjoys intellectual opportunities women in history lacked. Yet her sexuality seemes limited: Evelyn lives with a man she does not have sex with; she does not like to be touched.

Backtrack in time to Evelyn's mother, Dorothy Trevor Townsend, the wittiest, most rebellious character in the novel. A sophisticated woman and brilliant student who is not allowed to graduate from Cambridge due to her sex, she becomes involved in protests at a young age. At Cambridge she has an affair with an anarchist, William, who later becomes a famous politician, and, still later, again her lover. She marries someone else, is widowed, and raises her children alone (and guiltily abandons them, as far as they are concerned, by her political activities), establishing the paradigm for future generations.

Enter Dorothy Townsend Barrett, whom we first meet in Delaware in 2003, protesting the war in Iraq by taking photographs of a military camp (No Trespassing, Government Property, Photography Forbidden).

“Christ, Mother,” Caroline said after the first arrest, the fine. “Get a life.”

“Your great-grandmother starved to death on principle; she literally ate nothing.”

“I know, I know. I’ve seen the postage stamp,” Caroline said.

“I think it changed things then,” Dorothy said. “To do something. She made up her mind, she took a stand.”

Later in the book, Walbert describes a younger, less political Dorothy attending a consciousness-raising group meeting in the 1970s (Walbert’s sketch is both dizzyingly wry and sympathetic): the leader, Big Sister, talks in a kind of parody of the 70s self-help slang and fiddles with her braids, a ball is tossed back and forth to decide who gets to speak, and the hostess, though she confesses to three abortions and wanting progress for women, repeatedly snaps at the black maid, until finally the woman with the Ph.D. protests and the maid sits down with the rest of them.

But it is not until old age that Dorothy, after preparing a talk about Florence Nightingale for passengers on a cruise to Patagonia, begins to see what her life lacks. She lived for her husband and children and never found a vocation like Nightingale. She divorces her husband, lives alone, and, eventually, starts a blog.

When her conservative millionaire daughter, Caroline, discovers the blog, she calls her homemaker sister, Liz, who isn’t interested. Caroline thinks they should write some comments, because her mother is pathetic, writing into a void.

She has done her best not to keep constant tabs on DT, but it is like a hot spot, an itch to scratch, and she finds during certain slow moments at work and in the late evenings that she cannot resist the pull to check in on “A Proclamation,” to read again her mother’s declaration of passing through the point of rate and the posts that follow. Who were these people? What else did they have in their lives?

But in the course of worrying about her mother’s blog, Caroline comes to understand her mother. Her own daughter has just gone to Yale; Caroline is suffering empty-nest syndrome, as she tries not to call it. And she questions whether her high-powered work in finance has been worthwhile.

Walbert’s spare writing makes this novel a treat. There is something reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s work in the shape.

I adored this! It's one of the best contemporary novels of the year. Give it to your women friends: start A Short History of Women chain letter...or something


Ellen said...

Beautiful review. Thorough yet concise, conveying the experience of the book as well as its general story, the relatonship of the characters and theme. You make someone want to buy or find it.

I'll send on the URL to WWTTA.


Mad Housewife said...

It's very enjoyable and well-written. Walbert even made me believe in the suffragette who died on a hunger strike. Many details from the character's childhood and adulthood come together to show how the character came to this mad decision.

The only thing that didn't ring quite true to me was the women's consciousness raising group. It was supposed to be very suburban, but there usually weren't moderators, and certainly if they were they were never named Big Sister.

But I really admired most of this..