Thursday, September 14, 2006

Marilyn French is getting mellow

When I was a freshman in high school, I bought a paperback copy of "The Women's Room" by Marilyn French. I can summon up an image of the beaten-up cover in my mind's eye: the iconic female hand boldly crossing out "Ladies Room" and confidently writing "Women's Room." I read the book over and over again, and I loaned it to my friends, who were similarly rapt. We were too young to have experienced much of the "shit and string beans" of life which Marilyn French wrote about so caustically, but her rage and her feminism and her foul language resonated so strongly for us. We were in a tiny town in rural New England, where sexism was a largely unremarked part of life, and although we certainly hadn't been housewives (this was before any of us even started dating), the book was so vivid to us.

I just finished French's new novel, which many are greeting as "The Women's Room II", although properly its title is "In The Name of Friendship." Like "The Women's Room", it's a portrait of a group of women who have come together. The group friendship sustains the individuals and is more important to them than their marriages. I was saddened to read in the afterword that French could not find an American publisher for this book for years, until after it became a bestseller in the Netherlands in translation. My heroine Marilyn French should be able to get anything published!

Although this is certainly no "Women's Room", it was enjoyable and highly thought-provoking. Sadly, though, a lot of the thoughts it provoked were about how Marilyn French seems to have changed.

Ms. French's dialogue has become somewhat heavy-handed. I got distracted from the flow of the book by some of the clunky sentences. I don't remember "The Women's Room" having any unbelievable dialogue apart from the throwaway line, "Expliquez du texte", which struck me as unbelievable when I was a callow high school freshman. The characters from "The Women's Room" swore; they spoke breezily or evasively but realistically. But in "The Name of Friendship", I would stop and wonder at the dialogue: for example, does any man ever, in an emotional discussion with his wife, use the phrase "the very bulwark of patriarchy", particularly when explaining his estrangement from his son?

I was struck by what, for lack of a better word, I will call "classism" in "The Name of Friendship." The characters are all wealthy. They seem dismissive of the non-wealthy women in their community, looking down on women they hire to clean their homes or assist at their dinner parties. There is a minor character who lives in a trailer park, and she is narrow-minded and rejecting, plus she makes her little girl work while her lazy son watches TV. The Marilyn French of "The Women's Room" would have featured as a sympathetic character the woman who cooks food to sell at the local market.

Maybe the huge success of "The Women's Room", which sold over 21 million copies, changed Marilyn French. She seems to be creating an incredibly onerous standard for women to follow: in order to have a successful life, we need to reach the top of a creative field, but at the same time, we need to build a large, supportive network of female friends and have children. French seems almost Ayn Rand-ish: there are geniuses amongst us, who can have more life! more life!; they can write symphonies and paint important pictures and raise children, but the less gifted amongst us are going to fester away. This is, though, a much happier world for the superwomen amongst us, unlike poor Mira in "The Women's Room", alone in the cold in Maine (a fate I, as a 15 year-old living in an underheated old house in Maine, found particularly frightening).

In "The Women's Room", feminism is alienating. A woman who becomes a committed feminist loses the ability to be married or even to have male lovers successfully (discovering the joys of lesbianism is a recommended alternative). But in "In the Name of Friendship", feminism has redemptive powers. When their wives become firmer and more convinced of their power, they can effect change in their husbands: Tim becomes a loving father, Steven accepts his gay son.

Even the birth process is easier now for French's characters. Poor Mira had a hellish first labor in "The Women's Room", but Jenny, another first-time mother, wakes up with a contraction, is whisked off to the hospital, and one hour later presented with her baby. I snorted at the unrealisticness of this. I think too much time has gone by since Marilyn French herself gave birth, and time has blurred the details. However, to be fair, Jenny's baby is colicky, and French hasn't forgotten how hard it is to care for a newborn.

French's oldest character, a grandmother, talks to the youngest of the women about whether to have a baby:
I'd go to college, I wouldn't marry young ... I'd go to law school, get a job in a city, have love affairs, travel in Europe, maybe Asia, it's always fascinated me. But I would have married eventually. ... I like being married, except if I did it again, we'd share the housework, I wouldn't be a servant again, I'd demand cooperation. ... I wouldn't worry quite so much about cleanliness and disease, things like that."
In French's new, mellower world, a woman can have a fulfilling, super high-achieving life with children if she just doesn't do all the housework.

I did all of the things Maddy counseled to do before procreating, except to restrain from marrying young (although I divorced husband 1.0 and married husband 2.0 at 33). No one could ever accuse me of worrying too much about cleanliness or being a servant. However, I still feel like I lost my identity when I had children. I have dumbed down. I have become a shlubby mommy, handmaiden to the children. Maybe I should re-read "The Women's Room", but I'm a bit afraid to. I think it's going to strike too close to home, and then I'm going to want to run away to Harvard and become a graduate student who holds theme parties in her tiny Cambridge apartment and never, never has to see her children.


Green said...

FWIW, I don't think of you as a mother. I don't think of any of my friends as mothers. I think of them as my friends, who happen to have a kid or two with them who sometimes interrupt us.

I love your book reviews. Many of the books I've gotten from the library in the last few months have been ones that you've spoken about.

Anonymous said...

I love your book review and your blog! I'm happy that I found your blog while searching for any references I could find for "The Women's Room" on the Internet. I'm in the middle of reading it - although I'm in love with this book, and will probably buy it eventually - I'm a hopeless many-books-at-a-time reader.

Thus, I'm also in the middle of "For Her Own Good," by Barbara Ehrenreich (who wrote "Nickel and Dimed") and Deirdre English. It is an excellent history of women, family life, psychology, and the medical profession, that is helping me to finally develop some ideas about who I want to be as a woman in a world which allows for no escape from contradiction for mothers.

Whew, that was a mouthful! Anyway, I'm 30 and newly married, but not yet a mother and I've been struggling to figure out this whole balance of earning money, motherhood, and personhood. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

Incidentally, it might give me the courage to change the name of my blog, since it's not conveying the sentiment I originally meant for it to have.


Anonymous said...

is lesbianism recommended by the women's room -- the lesbian dancer is not particularly happy either, and is not treated all that well by her married lover.