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…

 

My Notorious Life

Unknown-1In contrast to the saving graces of the characters in Call the Midwife, the BBC Masterpiece series based on Jennifer Worth’s memoir of her experiences in postwar London, Kate Manning’s heroine in My Notorious Life earns a fortune by helping women give birth and sometimes helping them stop it.  Manning’s midwife is based on the real life of Ann Trow Lohman, known as Madame Restell, who practiced as a “female physician” in New York City in the late eighteen hundreds.

Like Restell, Axie had no medical training and had little formal education.  Manning weaves a story around her poor background and her longing to reunite with her brother and sister after their mother’s death forces them on the orphan train.  Axie eventually lands in the home of an older midwife who teaches her the trade.  Eventually, she marries Charlie, another orphan train victim, and they start a business peddling powders and concoctions to cure women’s ailments.  Soon the business expands to midwifery and abortion.

Although the fictionalized life of the real woman is embellished with romance, adventure, and a great deal of angst, the story stays true to the misery of Victorian times.  When I found the Smithsonian article on Madame Restell, I was amazed at how close Manning came to appropriating her life in fiction.  Manning offers a different ending for her character, and you should read the Smithsonian article after you read the book – no spoiler here, for Restell’s real life was just as compelling as the fictionalized one created for her by Manning.

In an interview, Manning noted her purpose for writing was to produce

“a rip-roaring tale from the 19th century. I wanted to write a good old-fashioned story with plot and character and depth, and I don’t want it to get hijacked by a current political debate that really doesn’t seem to go anywhere, you know.”

She succeeded in 434 pages of vivid Dickensian characters with a commentary on America’s never-ending battle over women’s rights.  If you missed it when it first was published in 2013, you might consider reading it now.

 

The Queen’s Accomplice

9780804178723_p0_v1_s192x300  Women with power may be a threat to some but Susan Elia MacNeal uses this timely theme in her latest Maggie Hope murder mystery – The Queen’s Accomplice.  With the same British flavor as her other five books in the series, MacNeal features the young British secret service agent with a flair for logic in the search for a Jack the Ripper clone who has been killing women agents.  Since first meeting Maggie Hope in MacNeal’s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, I’ve enjoyed her feisty attitude and mathematical acumen.  Her forays into romance with fellow agents help too.

The Queen in this book is not the newly popular Victoria nor the young Elizabeth of the new Netflix series “The Crown,” but Elizabeth’s mother, who stood by her husband, King George, during the war.  Although she only has a minor role in the plot, MacNeal confirms the Queen’s influence and wartime support.   As a modern woman of the nineteen forties, Maggie Hope has many of the same issues as women today, and has the support of other women, including the Queen.

MacNeal cleverly connects Maggie’s service in the war to ongoing problems women face in their personal lives and in the workplace.  Although the book is a mystery with a killer to be found, the story offers confirmation of women’s rights in making their own decisions, and in being valuable for their contributions to society.

9780399593802   The book ends with a new adventure about to start, as Maggie waves goodbye to the Queen and boards a plane to Paris.  The Paris Spy will be published this summer – I can’t wait.

Related Reviews:

The Summer Before the War

9780812993103_p0_v3_s192x300The cover of Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War evokes a breezy romantic tale, but if you’ve read her last novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, you’ll know to expect more.  The key figure in the tale is Beatrice, aptly named for her Shakespearean qualities of intellect and strength, with her ability to manage her own life despite the hurdles thrown at women who dare to aspire to be financially independent.  Do I hear the ghost of Jane Austen whispering between the lines?

Beatrice, the daughter of an acclaimed professor, speaks several languages and has a formidable education, thanks to her father’s upbringing.  When he dies, she is forced to live with his family until she escapes to the position of Latin master at an East Sussex  country school in Rye outside of London.  Simonson sets the scene in the first part of the book with bucolic descriptions and a hint of a romance with the local medical student, Hugh, whose wealthy aunt is sponsoring Beatrice as the first woman Latin master in the school.  Beatrice secretly aspires to writing a novel to create an independent income; her inheritance can only be released when she marries but she is determined to make a life on her own.  The plot seems sublimely formulaic, as it did in the beginning of Pettigrew, until the war threatens normalcy and the refugees from Belgium appear – a switch reminiscent of Downton Abbey from the first season to the realities of World War I.

The shift to the war and its effects is abrupt, but the principal characters carry the story through the bloody front lines as well as the stark changes in the little town of Rye.  Lives are changed by the war.  Hugh enlists to use his medical training at the front, and rejects his ambition for a rich medical practice.   Simonson creates a nod to poet soldiers in her depiction of the Rupert Brooke like character of Daniel, Hugh’s best friend and cousin, and Snout, the bright student from the wrong side of the tracks, holds the promise of success, yet his life is not romanticized into a happy ending.

Simonson carefully addresses unpopular topics through her minor characters: Celeste, the beautiful Belgian refugee, whose father has more regard for preserving the culture than caring for his daughter; the mayor’s wife, who almost reverts to stereotypical prejudice and sadly leads others to her way of thinking; Agatha, the free thinking aunt of Hugh and Daniel, who quietly rebels against narrow mindedness, yet manages to preserve her place as the wife of Mr. Kent, the esteemed foreign officer.

Although the war overcomes the story in most of the book, the varied minor plot lines offer relief in romance, adventure, even some mystery.  And, in the end, The Summer Before the War is really about the people in this small town – representative of many who survived through the war to understand what is really important in their lives, and mourn missed opportunities for those who did not survive.

If you enjoyed Simonson’s first book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and her Austen-like style of writing, you will find The Summer Before the War to be a satisfying read.

Review: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Lolly Willowes

9780940322165_p0_v1_s192x300A surprisingly modern treatise on women’s rights written in 1926, Lolly Willowes came to my attention through Helen Macdonald’s interview in the New York Time “By the Book.”  Macdonald is the author of H Is for Hawk – a book I have on my to read list.

Helen Macdonald summed up Lolly Willowes in her interview:

“What’s the last great book you read?

I’ve read a few this year, but the one I’ll be pressing into people’s hands forever is ‘Lolly Willowes,’ the 1926 novel by Sylvia Townsend Warner. It tells the story of a woman who rejects the life that society has fixed for her in favor of freedom and the most unexpected of alliances. It completely blindsided me: Starting as a straightforward, albeit beautifully written family saga, it tips suddenly into extraordinary, lucid wildness.”

As a spinster at 29, Laura (known as Aunt Lolly) has a prescribed life with very little to do.  When she breaks away in her mid forties to “take rooms” in a small town in the country, Lolly finds freedom until her nephew decides to come to live with her.  Finally, she finds the courage to drive him out – in an unconventional way – and reestablish herself as an independent woman.

Without proselytizing the rights of women, Warner quietly affirms her views on the condition of women in the early nineteen hundreds.  Edith Crawley, the second sister from Downton Abbey who asserts her right to manage a publication and raise an out of wedlock daughter, would be proud.  At times, the scenes reminded me of a Downton Abbey episode:

When she awoke , the day was already begun…the maid who brought her morning tea and laid the folded towel across the hot water…after lunch there was a spell of embroidery…dinner was half-past seven {with} a sensible rule that only sensible topics should be discussed.

Although I rarely read introduction to books, Alison Lurie’s introduction is worth noting.  Lurie’s comparison of Sylvia Townsend Warner to Virginia Woolf drew me in:

“If a woman is to be more than a convenient household appliance, if she is to have a life of her own, and especially if she wants to be a writer, she must have freedom and privacy and ‘a room of one’s own.’  {Woolf} spoke, we know now, for thousands of woman then and in years to come.  But Sylvia Townsend Warner had spoken for them first.”

This slim volume has three parts, and the language reminded me of a Jane Austen novel.  Phrases were like antiques, pleasing but dated. I found myself mesmerized by the diction and enthralled with the theme – a nice reminder of how hard a person needs to work to ignore society’s expectations and maintain a sense of self.