October 29, 2008

Recent Reading: Three Novels by Lady Novelists (None of Them Silly)

I mentioned one of these novels, briefly, before: Rachel Cusk's Arlington Park, describing it as "a very angry book, bitter even," and asking whether its manifest bitterness arise from "the realization that social and material privilege make anger seem petulant (such spoiled children, her women seem!)." My retrospective reflections on it have not led to answers about how far it is in fact angry and how far it is a satire on unearned anger. It's certainly an uncomfortable book and one wholly lacking in sentimentality about either marriage or motherhood:
She was in her car, cruising through the rain along the High Street while the turbid seas of Arlington Park parted before her. It was nine-fifteen. Her husband had left the house punctually at eight, and her daughter Jessica was at school by nine; she had a feeling of rapid ascent, as though the members of her household were sandbags she was heaving one by one out of the basket of a hot-air balloon.
It is also an intensely written book, to borrow an expression I recently read used to describe the language of Bleak House--and in fact, Arlington Park at times displays a verbal quality that approximates the Dickensian, in the elaborate opening set piece describing the rain that falls all night across the tony suburb, for example:
The clouds came from the west: clouds like dark cathedrals, clouds like machines, clouds like black blossoms flower in the arid starlit sky. They came over the English countryside, sunk in its muddled sleep. They came over the low, populous hills where scatterings of lights throbbed in the darkness. At midnight they reached the city, valiantly glittering in its shallow provincial basin. Unseen, they grew like a second city overhead, thickening, expanding, throwing up their savage monuments, their towers, their monstrous, unpeopled palaces of cloud.
Perhaps fortunately, though (as this kind of thing is really hard to do persuasively, if you aren't actually Dickens and a genuis), the style is much sparer for most of the novel, though still frequently striking in its images. I was struck by the praise for Cusk's "fearlessness" and "honesty" in the reviews, and I think one thing that drew me to the novel was interest in just what she was being so brave about. I guess I don't really see it. Is the myth of either maternal or marital bliss still potent enough that it takes courage to imagine women inhabiting their domestic roles angrily or selfishly? I suppose it's a kind of anti-chick-lit novel, in which materialism is neither benign nor entertaining and neither Mr. Right nor the right address brings a fairy tale ending--and it acknowledges moments of exhiliration, enough, perhaps, to leaven the whole.

Penelope Lively's Perfect Happiness is written much more delicately--it seems less of a performance. Moon Tiger has been on my top-10 list for many years, but I think this may be the first of Lively's other novels that I've read. It actually surprised me by seeming indistinguishable in tone, scope, and what I might call "depth" from the better novels by Joanna Trollope (Marrying the Mistress, for instance): it focuses on a momentous time in a particular small cluster of intersecting lives and neatly, with precision but without flourish, works through the nuances and complications. I expected something more, somehow, and yet I thought it was both sensitive and intelligent.

I really wanted to like Jennifer Chiaverini's The Quilter's Apprentice. (Why, you ask? Well, I'm an amateur quilter myself, and also it's almost winter, so I will need comfort and distraction--something to read that's cozy but not romantic sounds perfect, and there's a whole series of these, plus actual quilting books.) I almost succeeded in liking it, too, but I had to work against the bad writing (Chiaverini explains too much, for one thing, as if she thinks her readers can't infer anything at all or need to be walked from one piece of furniture to another every time her characters move across the room). There's nothing wrong with the structure in theory, including the division of the narrative into present-day action and reminiscences, but the back story felt incredibly laboured to me. The explanations of quilting seemed forced, though maybe to someone who knew absolutely nothing about the processes or patterns it would be interesting to learn about all this. Would it have been more effective, maybe, to include a 'Quilting Primer' as an appendix rather than incorporating quilting lessons so literally and in so much detail into the body of the novel? The characters, too, seem well-enough conceived and organized, but the characterization seemed so forced. Oh, and while I'm complaining, the language is surprisingly unimaginative: eyes shine, resentments smolder, stomachs tighten, memories are recalled with pangs. Maybe Chiaverini hits her stride further along in the series--and in fact I like the general idea here enough to try another one or two, and without quite the cringing feeling I sometimes get from other kinds of chick-lit (which this undoubtedly is, though of a more domesticated variety than Sophie Kinsella or her ilk). The focus on women's friendships (quilting bees, of course, lend themselves--or could--to nice metaphorical development with respect to women's support networks as well as other kinds of social cooperation) and women's arts (also a theme here, also laboriously developed) just seems less ... icky ... than the other stuff often does. (Quick update: I pulled 'How to Make an American Quilt' from my shelf on my way out this morning--I have only vague recollections of reading it before, but the critical praise it received makes it sound more like the 'great American quilting novel' than this one.)

So: a rather miscellaneous group of books, but they've all been sitting in a "TBB" pile for a while (To Be Blogged, of course) so I thought I'd write them up. The artificial exercise of working with them as a group has made me think a bit about the arbitrariness of categories such as "women's writing," or "women writers," ones we often have recourse to in the academy (for instance, I regularly teach a graduate seminar on "Victorian Women Writers"). I usually draw attention to the problem of that arbitrariness, not least because many of the women writers I teach explicitly wished for their sex not to be a factor in the consideration of their artistic accomplishments. And why should we assume that writers have anything in common because they are of the same sex? At the same time, with the 19th-century writers, I propose there is some justification for grouping them together because, after all, as women they did have some things in common, including the social, legal, and political conditions of their lives and work, and their inevitably vexed relationship with literary traditions (sweeping statements, I know, but useful, and certainly true in their broad outlines). I don't know if I could make any such claim about this little cluster of more contemporary writers, or if my sense that doing so would be misleading (and pointless to boot) reflects back in any way on how I approach the 19th-century material. Something to think about, maybe. Or maybe this is just too random a selection of reading to mean much anyway.


lucy tartan said...

I'm a (laughably) amateur quilter too; a little bit of knowledge about quiltmaking can be of actual practical use in conducting classes on Alias Grace. I have found that nonquilters do not understand the difference between quilting and piecing.

Rohan Maitzen said...

My pieced blocks would never pass muster with the guild members in The Quilter's Apprentice: my corners rarely match up precisely, and my points are rarely pointy. But I've still made some things I like, and I really enjoy fabrics!

lucy tartan said...

Yes, I'm in it for the playing with fabrics part. I've only ever made quilts with squared patches.