Reflections: A Short History of Women

Writing honestly about Kate Walbert's recent novel, A Short History of Women, presents a challenge. Because the novel deals with such a politically charged issue, comments about the novel may be interpreted as comment on theme rather than on the story. The novel, whether intentionally or no, confronts the reader with a defensive posture which suggests that if you do not like it, you are actively contributing to the thematized impotence of women.

And yet, defensive  impotence itself is precisely what is at issue in the story. Walbert has crafted a world in which not a single woman finds a happy life; personal and social expectations, in numerous forms, have conspired to keep five generations of women from becoming fully functional people. The representation of such a world is neither accurate nor empowering as a representative history of women. However, the story lays no claims to being representative; novels, after all, deal in particulars. This is not the history of women so much as the history of a family of women.

Each generation of Townsend women confronts its era's own peculiar responses to gender difference. In each case, the women react (or over react) with self-defeating gusto. The first in a long line of disgruntled women starves herself to make a public statement about women's right to vote. Another makes herself miserable by buying in to the second-wave cant that a woman who dedicates herself to raising children has been used by her husband and by society. Looking for meaning, she throws off all responsibility for family, alienating her children and causing the death of her husband. This woman's daughter, by contrast, finds herself miserable and alone after having followed the path of fulfillment laid out by her generation's wisdom of female empowerment through career advancement.

By creating a genealogy of painful attempts at female self-actualization, Walbert passes over a conventional and easy interpretation of women's history (women are oppressed by men) and instead seems to ask whether the women in the story create their own misery by giving in to unhappiness as the lot of woman, a perception passed down to them through the pointless suicide of their much discussed suffragette ancestor. Hovering over the entire narration is this stark question: is the family pride in its self-sacrificing women's rights activist the cause of its members lack of much sought fulfillment?

For all that the novel raises an interesting question about to what degree the explicitation of women's concerns has hampered rather than furthered the happiness of individual women, it lacks the technical suavity necessary for a truly pleasurable read. The prose has a precious quality, as though Walbert is making a half-hearted attempt at bringing together form and content by writing in Woolf's stream of consciousness mode. Furthermore, the content doesn't justify the non-linear form, and the characters fail to incite sympathy.

No comments: