Women’s Dreams, Decisions, and Defaults

How do choices decide a lifetime?  Two books, sitting for months on my shelf, turned out to be similar in addressing the answer.

The Confession by Jessie Burton

In The Confession, Jessie Burton, the author of The Miniaturist, uses a well-used relationship theme in the lives of two women – one older and famous, the other young and impressionable.  Burton’s story has some of the same elements as Curtis Sittenfeld’s The Thirteenth Tale (one of my favorite books) but lacks the page-turning thrills I craved.

The plot alternates from present day Rose, searching for her mother in 2017 to her mother Elise’s story as a young woman 35 years earlier.  Elise abandoned Rose when she was a baby, to be raised by her father, who claims not to know why she left or where she went. The secret drives the story, as Rose disguises herself to work as an assistant to her mother’s former lover, a famous novelist who has not written in thirty-five years, hoping to discover more.  Both Rose and Elise have no self-confidence as young women, and both seem to be searching for something or someone to take charge of their lives.

Rose finds Joe, a wannabe restaurant owner, and muddles through years of a bland relationship.  Elise finds love with Constance until Connie betrays her with another woman; in revenge Elsie has an affair with a married man and becomes pregnant with Rose. Both have complicated lives, accentuated with decisions which change their futures.

Burton’s agenda for asserting women’s rights becomes lost in the circumstances, but the search for closure kept me reading.  Sadly, Rose only finds her mother peripherally – not very satisfying, but the open ending leaves possibilities.

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner

Although I’m not a fan of Weiner’s books, this one is signed and had been sitting on my shelf since I missed her author luncheon last year, and it turned out to be a good complement to The Confession.

Mrs. Everything alternates between two sisters, Jo and Bethie (Weiner’s little women), as they grow up in the 1950s era of family values, find their way through the turbulent sixties, until finally landing as adults in suburban Connecticut and a feminist collective in Atlanta.  Elizabeth Egan for the New York Times notes:

Weiner tells the story of the women’s rights movement and the sexual awakening of a woman coming of age at a time when being attracted to women would keep her at the fringes of the world she was raised to join. She opts for the safe route, making unimaginable sacrifices along the way, especially on behalf of her sister, who finds the freedom to live the life they both wanted.

Weiner often cringes when her books are called chick lit or beach reads, and  Mrs. Everything seems heavy on the issues for such a label,

but my next book really is a beach read – says so in the title.  I’ve started reading, and so far, it seems to be a romantic comedy starring Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Weiner in their famous literary feud. The two main characters are writers, accidentally living in houses across from each other and each has a summer to write a book.  To encourage a new muse in their writing, they agree to write in the other’s genre.  The Franzen character, known in the book as serious Gus, will write a happily-ever-after romance, and the Weiner character, with the name January Andrews agrees to write serious stuff.

Should be fun…

 

Jessie Burton’s The Restless Girls

Once upon a time twelve princesses wore out their shoes dancing the night away.  Jessie Burton cleverly adapts this famous Grimm’s tale to a modern story in The Restless Girls.  Keeping many of the same elements – a hidden door to a magic land, the girls locked away together every night, and an irate king demanding to know their secret – Burton’s twist gives each princess a special proclivity for a modern skill not so girly.

One is expert in botany, another in math, the eldest wanting to follow their mother’s love of adventure and speed.  Each of the twelve has her own gift, nurtured and encouraged by their now dead mother, who died in a strange race car accident, but now locked away in a room by the fear of the their grieving father, the king.  The princesses, however, retain their self-possession and manage to overcome.

Finding the secret door behind the portrait of their mother, the princesses bravely follow a dark path to a land of talking animals, diamonds on trees, and music.  Each night, just as in the Grimm tale, they dance all night wearing out their shoes.  Each morning the king demands to know how they escaped, and offers his kingdom to anyone who can solve the mystery.

Of course, a handsome prince solves the dilemma in the old fairy tale, but Burton’s modern version has the girls solving their own problems, with the eldest as the leader and role model for all the others.

I discovered the book while researching the author, whose story The Miniaturist famously brought in a lucrative contract and a subsequent movie deal for the first time author. Since then she has written The Muse, and her latest book I’ve ordered from the UK – The Confession.

Alfred Hickling’s review of The Confession prompted me to find The Restless Girls. In assessing her new book, he refers to Burton’s book for middle schoolers and her improved writing style:

“What one notices here, however, is a more free-flowing aspect to her prose, which is plainer and less obstructed by overworked passages than her earlier work. Perhaps this new sense of liberation has been prompted by having produced her first book for children, The Restless Girls; a retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairytale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” with a racy new slant… Kept under lock and key by an overprotective father, they are ultimately redeemed by the restorative power of storytelling.”

Give yourself a treat and read this wonderful book.