Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"A Short History of Women" by Kate Walbert

Summary: Covering five generations of women, A Short History of Women presents the thoughts of the descendants of Dorothy Trevor Townsend (a woman who starved herself for suffrage), and Dorothy herself, as they navigate their positions in the world as women.

Musings: I chose this book out a favorable NYTimes review, but I think I need to move away from contemporary "good" literature. Although Walbert writes well, the dreary and incessant brooding self-reflection (Walbert and Let the Great World Spin's author McCann must have taken the same writing class) just felt old. Women are typically granted this behavior even more frequently than men, and as Walbert's novel is narrated almost entirely by women (a husband's point of view is somewhat inexplicably included mid-way through), I almost felt defensive: not all women are unhappy!

I'm in no way an endless bucket of cheer, but I also don't constantly muse on my uselessness and loneliness. Although the first Dorothy died for a feminist cause (well, maybe--the reasons for her starvation never seem quite clear), it seemed to me that feminism was blamed for much of the unhappiness of the future generations. Caroline, a super-successful business woman living the cliched New York City uber-parent life, exists in a fog. Caroline's mother carries on useless transgressions against the government in an attempt to make up for missing the radical '70s movement.

The book focuses primarily on the first three generations of women, and in a book proposed as A Short History of Women, I began to think no younger voices would be heard. The 4th generation gets a few quick chapters toward the end, but the 5th generation, a new college student, gets one page mimicking a Facebook profile. Really? I don't know if this is a statement about technology's influence, or a dig at the current generation's supposed vapidity, or what. Maybe Walbert just wanted to show off how hip she was. I would think modern young women should have some say in all this dreariness.

Walbert also employs the absolutely obnoxious technique of giving everyone the same name (a nudge at the patriarchal history of passing down names? an alliance with Marquez?). I don't care what the point is; it's annoying. I had to refer back to the lineage chart at the beginning of the novel (if you need to include one, your book is not clear) every time I began a new chapter (at least she announced the date and speaker for each chapter). I want to enjoy the book, not keep notes.

The chapters I enjoyed most concerned the oldest generations and their life experiences. The historical content related to suffrage and women's positions was especially interesting. I could have taken a novel just of that.

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