Lara Feigel’s memoir Free Woman was one of my favourite books of 2018. In it she interrogates conventions of marriage and motherhood while rereading the works of Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook (1962), in particular, dramatizes women’s struggles to combine their disparate roles into a harmonious identity. Drawing inspiration from Lessing as well as from another early feminist novel, The Group by Mary McCarthy (more on this below), Feigel’s debut novel crafts a kaleidoscopic portrait of five women’s lives in 2018.
Stella, Kay, Helena, Polly and Priss met at a picnic while studying at Oxbridge and decided to rent a house together. Now 40-ish, they live in London and remain close, though their lives have branched in slightly different directions. Kay is an English teacher but has always wanted to be a novelist like her American husband, Harald. Priss is a stay-at-home mother excited to be opening a café. Polly, a gynaecological consultant at St Thomas’s Hospital, is having an affair with a married colleague. Helena, a single documentary presenter, decides she wants to have a baby and pursues insemination via a gay friend.
Narrating her friends’ lives as well as her own is Stella, an editor at a Faber-like publishing house whose director (also Helena’s uncle) is under investigation for sexual misconduct. Stella, a stand-in for the author, has split from her husband and has a new baby via IVF as well as an older child; this hint of autofiction lends the book an intimacy it might have lacked with an omniscient perspective. Although you have to suspend disbelief in a few places – could Stella really know so many details of her friends’ lives? – it feels apt that she can only understand these other women in relation to herself. Her voice can be catty, but is always candid, and Feigel is astute on the performative aspects of femininity.
Fast-forward a Sally Rooney novel by about 20 years and you’ll have an idea of what to expect here. It is a sexually frank and socially engaged narrative that arose from the context of the #MeToo movement and fully acknowledges the privilege and limitations of its setting. The characters express guilt over lamenting middle-class problems while there is such suffering in the wider world – we glimpse this in Polly’s work with African girls who have undergone genital mutilation. The diversity is limited to Black boyfriends, Helena’s bisexuality, and the fact that one group member decides not to have children (that 1 in 5 is statistically accurate).
The advantage of the apparent heterogeneity in the friend group, though, is that it highlights depths of personality and subtleties of experience. Stella even sees herself as an amateur anthropologist:
So here we are then. Five exact contemporaries who once shared a cluttered, thin-walled student house off the Cowley Road, all privileged, white, middle-class, all vestigial hangers-on, left over from an era when we received free educations at our elite university and then emerged into a world where we could still just about find jobs and buy flats, provided with opportunities for selfishness and leisure by our cleaners and our childminders. Nothing very eventful happens to us, but that gives more room for the ethnographer in me to get to work.
Feigel previously wrote two group biographies of cultural figures of the Second World War era, and she applies that precise skill set – capturing the atmosphere of a time period; noting similarities but also clear distinctions between people – to great effect here. You’ll recognize aspects of yourself in all of the characters, and be reminded of how grateful you are for (or how much you wish you had) friends whom you know will always be there for you. It’s an absorbing and relevant novel that ranks among my few favourites of the year so far.
The Group was published by JM Originals (John Murray) on July 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
See Susan’s review also.
The Group by Mary McCarthy (1963)
As soon as I heard about Lara Feigel’s forthcoming novel, I unearthed the Mary McCarthy paperback I’d plucked from Bookbarn’s shelves in 2017. I decided to read Feigel’s first, lest it feel less than fresh; perhaps inevitably, McCarthy’s felt dated in comparison. I had trouble engaging with it as a whole, but still enjoyed contrasting the two books.
McCarthy focuses on eight girls from the Vassar class of ’33. Kay, the first to marry, has an upper-crust New York City wedding one week after graduation. But after Harald loses his theatre job, his cocktail habit and their luxury apartment soon deplete Kay’s Macy’s salary. Meanwhile, Dottie loses her virginity to Harald’s former neighbour in a surprisingly explicit scene. Contraception is complicated, but not without comic potential – as when Dottie confuses a pessary and a peccary. Career, romance, and motherhood are all fraught matters.
Feigel borrows the names of four of her five group members, plus those of some secondary characters, from McCarthy, with Stella a new character perhaps inspired in part by McCarthy’s Libby, who wants to work with books but, after delivering an earnest report on a 500-page pot-boiler, hears that “we really have no work that you’re uniquely qualified to do. You’re one of thousands of English majors who come pouring out of the colleges every June, stage-struck to go into publishing.” (That sure sounds familiar!)
Narrowing the circle and introducing a first-person narrator were wise choices that made Feigel’s version more accessible. Both, though, are characterized by forthright commentary and a shrewd understanding of human motivations. I’ll try again with McCarthy’s The Group someday, but for now I’m planning to pick up her Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.
Note: Mary McCarthy is one of the authors profiled in Michelle Dean’s Sharp.
Much as I’d like to review books in advance of their release dates, that doesn’t seem to be how things are going this year. I hope readers will find it useful to learn about recent releases they might have missed.
This month I’m featuring a fictionalized immigration story from the Dominican Republic and a collection of autobiographical comics by a New Zealander.
Dominicana by Angie Cruz
(Published by John Murray on the 23rd)
It’s easy to assume that all the immigration (or Holocaust, or WWI; whatever) stories have been told. This is proof that that is not true; it felt completely fresh to me. Ana Canción is 11 when Juan Ruiz first proposes to her in 1961 – the same year dictator Rafael Trujillo is assassinated, throwing their native Dominican Republic into chaos. The Ruiz brothers are admired for their entrepreneurial spirit; they jet back and forth to New York City to earn money they plan to invest in a restaurant back home. To Ana’s parents, pairing their daughter with a man with such good prospects makes financial sense, so though Ana doesn’t love him and knows nothing about sex, she finds herself married to Juan at age 15. With fake papers that claim she’s 19, she arrives in New York on the first day of 1965 to start a new life.
It is not the idyll she expected. Ana often feels confused and isolated in their tiny apartment, and the political unrest in NYC (e.g. the assassination of Malcolm X) and in DR mirrors the turbulence of her marriage. Juan is violent and unfaithful, and although Ana dreams of leaving him she soon learns that she is pregnant and has to think of her duty to her family, who expect to join her in America. The content of the novel could have felt like heavy going, but Ana is such a plucky and confiding narrator that you’re drawn into her world and cheer for her as she comes up with ways to earn money of her own (such as selling pastelitos to homesick factory workers and at the World’s Fair) and figures out what she wants from life.
This allowed me to imagine what it would be like to have an arranged marriage and arrive in a country not knowing a word of the language. Cruz based the story on her mother’s experience, even though her mother thought her life was too common and boring to interest anyone. The literary style – short chapters with no speech marks – could be offputting for some but worked for me, and I loved the tongue-in-cheek references to I Love Lucy. Had I only managed to read this in December, it would have been on my Best of 2019 list – it was first published in September by Flatiron Books, USA.
Let Me Be Frank by Sarah Laing
(Published by Lightning Books on the 16th)
Laing is a novelist and comics artist from New Zealand known for her previous graphic memoir, Mansfield and Me, about her obsession with acclaimed NZ writer Katherine Mansfield. This collection brings together the autobiographical comics that originally appeared on Laing’s blog of the same title in 2010‒19. She started posting the comics when she was writer-in-residence at the Frank Sargeson Centre in Auckland. (I know the name Sargeson because he helped Janet Frame when she was early in her career.)
So what is the book about? All of life, really: growing up with type 1 diabetes, having boyfriends, being part of a family, the constant niggle of body issues, struggling as a writer, and trying to be a good mother. Other specific topics include her teenage obsession with music (especially Morrissey) and her run-ins with various animals (a surprising number of dead possums!). She ruminates about the times when she hasn’t done enough to help people who were in trouble. She also admits her confusion about fashion: she is always looking for, but never finding, ‘her look’. And is she modeling a proper female identity for her children? “I feel like I’m betraying feminism, buying my daughter a fairy princess dress,” she frets.
But even as she expresses these worries, she wonders how genuine she can be since they form the basis of her art. Is she just “publically performing my neuroses”? The work/life divide is especially tricksy when your life inspires your work.
I took half a month to read these comics on screen, usually just a few pages a day. It’s a tough book to assess as a whole because there is such a difference between the full-color segments and the sketch-like black-and-white ones. There is also a ‘warts-and-all’ approach here, with typos and cross-outs kept in. (Two that made me laugh were “aesophegus” [for oesophagus] and “Diana Anthill”!) Overall, though, I think this is a relatable and fun book that would suit fans of Alison Bechdel and Roz Chast but should also draw in readers new to the graphic novel format.
My thanks to Eye/Lightning Books for sending me an e-book to review.
What recent releases can you recommend?
It’s cats and butterflies in the spotlight this time, adding in a gazelle as a metaphor for Freddie Mercury’s somebody to love.
Travelling Cat: A Journey round Britain with Pugwash by Frederick Harrison (1988)
If Tom Cox had been born 20 years earlier, this is the sort of book he might have written. In 1987, saddened more by his cat Podey being run over than by the end of his marriage, Harrison set out from South London in his Ford Transit van for a seven-month drive around the country. He decided to take Pugwash, one of his local (presumably ownerless) cats, along as a companion.
They encountered Morris dancers, gypsies, hippies at Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice, sisters having a double wedding, and magic mushroom collectors. They went to a county fair and beaches in Suffolk and East Yorkshire, and briefly to Hay-on-Wye. And on the way back they collected Podey, whom he’d had stuffed. Harrison muses on the English “vice” of nostalgia for a past that probably never existed; Pugwash does what cats do, and very well.
It’s all a bit silly and dated and lightweight, but enjoyable nonetheless. Plus there are tons of black-and-white photos of “Pugs” and other feline friends. This was a secondhand purchase from The Bookshop, Wigtown.
“Cats hate to make prats of themselves. But then, don’t we all?”
(last lines) “Warm, fed, contented, unemployable, and entirely at peace with the world. Yes indeed. Cats certainly know something we don’t.”
Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym (1950)
(An example of a book that just happens to have an animal in the title.) I’d only read one other Pym novel, Quartet in Autumn, a late and fairly melancholy story of four lonely older people. With her first novel I’m in more typical territory, I take it. The middle-aged Bede sisters are pillars of the church in their English village. Harriet takes each new curate under her wing, making of them a sort of collection, and fends off frequent marriage proposals from the likes of a celebrity librarian and an Italian count.
Belinda, on the other hand, only has eyes for one man: Archdeacon Hochleve, whom she’s known and loved for 30 years. They share a fondness for quoting poetry, the more obscure the better (like the title phrase, taken from “Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove: / Something to love, oh, something to love!” by Thomas Haynes Bayly). The only problem is that the archdeacon is happily married. So single-minded is Belinda that she barely notices her own marriage proposal when it comes: a scene that reminded me of Mr. Collins’s proposal to Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice. Indeed, Pym is widely recognized as an heir to Jane Austen, what with her arch studies of relationships in a closed community.
There were a handful of moments that made me laugh, like when the seamstress finds a caterpillar in her cauliflower cheese and has to wipe with a Church Times newspaper when the Bedes run out of toilet paper (such mild sacrilege!). This is enjoyable, if fluffy; it was probably a mistake to have read one of Pym’s more serious books first: I expected too much of this one. If you’re looking for a quick, gentle and escapist read in which nothing awful will happen, though, it would make a good choice. Knowing most of her books are of a piece, I wouldn’t read more than one of the remainder – it’ll most likely be Excellent Women.
An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect by Sharman Apt Russell (2003)
This compact and fairly rollicking book is a natural history of butterflies and of the scientists and collectors who have made them their life’s work. There are some 18,000 species and, unlike, say, beetles, they are generally pretty easy to tell apart because of their bold, colorful markings. Moth and butterfly diversity may well be a synecdoche for overall diversity, making them invaluable indicator species. Although the history of butterfly collecting was fairly familiar to me from Peter Marren’s Rainbow Dust, I still learned or was reminded of a lot, such as the ways you can tell moths and butterflies apart (and it’s not just about whether they fly in the night or the day). And who knew that butterfly rape is a thing?
The final third of the book was strongest for me, including a trip to London’s Natural History Museum; another to Costa Rica’s butterfly ranches, an example of successful ecotourism; and a nicely done case study of the El Segundo Blue butterfly, which was brought back from the brink of extinction by restoration of its southern California dunes habitat. Russell, a New Mexico-based author of novels and nonfiction, also writes about butterflies’ cultural importance: “No matter our religious beliefs, we accept the miracle of metamorphosis. One thing becomes another. … Butterflies wake us up.”
I also recently read the excellent title story from John Murray’s 2003 collection A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies. Married surgeons reflect on their losses, including the narrator’s sister in a childhood accident and his wife Maya’s father to brain cancer. In the late 1800s, the narrator’s grandfather, an amateur naturalist in the same vein as Darwin, travelled to Papua New Guinea to collect butterflies. The legends from his time, and from family trips to Cape May to count monarchs on migration in the 1930s, still resonate in the present day for these characters. The treatment of themes like science, grief and family inheritance, and the interweaving of past and present, reminded me of work by Andrea Barrett and A.S. Byatt.
(I’ve put the book aside for now but will go back to it in September as I focus on short stories.)
Other butterfly-themed books I have reviewed:
- Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly by Sue Halpern (one of last year’s 20 Books of Summer)
- Ruins by Peter Kuper (a graphic novel set in Mexico, this also picks up on monarch migration)
- Magdalena Mountain by Robert Michael Pyle (a novel about butterfly researchers in Colorado)
The dark horse in this year’s Man Booker Prize race is Elmet, a brilliant, twisted fable about the clash of the land-owning and serf classes in contemporary England. I’d love to see this win the Booker, or make the shortlist at the very least. You’d hardly believe it’s a debut novel, or that it’s by a 29-year-old PhD candidate in medieval history. The epigraph from Ted Hughes defines “Elmet” as an ancient Celtic kingdom encompassing what is now West Yorkshire. The word still appears in a few Yorkshire place names today. Metaphorically, Hughes notes, the region was a “‘badlands’, a sanctuary for refugees from the law.” That’s an apt setting for Mozley’s central characters: a family living on the edge of poverty and respectability – off-grid and not quite legal.
Daniel and Cathy Oliver – 14 and 15, respectively – live with their father, John Smythe, in a simple house he built with his own hands in a copse. They mostly eat whatever they can hunt. Daddy is a renowned pugilist not above beating people up when they owe his friends money. Feisty Cathy is bullied by boys at school; when teachers don’t believe her, she has no choice but to hit back. There’s a strong us-against-the-world ethos to the novel, but underneath that defensiveness there’s a sense of unease: Daniel, the narrator, isn’t a fighter like his father and sister. He’s a sensitive soul who’s happiest cooking and playing with his dogs.
Like the reader, Daniel watches in grim fascination as Mr. Price, a powerful local landlord, starts issuing threats. Price warns Daddy that his family is trespassing. If they don’t leave he’ll make life difficult for them. A group of tenants, many of them just out of prison and barely getting by, bands together to take revenge on Price, planning to withhold rent and farm labor until conditions improve. No longer will they accept £20 payments for 10-hour work days. At first it seems their fight for rights might be successful, but Price and his goons retrench. Things come to a head when Price promises to sign their plot of land over to Daniel – if Daddy agrees to call off the strike and fight one last climactic match in the woods.
The final 70 pages of Elmet blew me away: a crescendo of fateful violence that reaches Shakespearean proportions. This knocks all those Hogarth remakes (which generally, with the exception of Hag-Seed, adhere too slavishly to the plots and so fail to channel the spirit) into a cocked hat. Though oddly similar to two other novels on the Booker longlist that unearth disturbing doings in a superficially pastoral England – Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor and Autumn by Ali Smith – Elmet achieves the better balance between lush nature writing and Hardyesque pessimism. Mozley’s countryside is no idyll but a fallen edgeland:
And if the hare was made of myths then so too was the land at which she scratched. Now pocked with clutches of trees, once the whole county had been woodland and the ghosts of the ancient forest could be marked when the wind blew. The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted then found form once more and pushed up through the undergrowth and back into our lives.
The characters usually speak in Yorkshire dialect, but where many authors would render the definite article as “t’,” Mozley simply elides it. For instance, here’s John shaking his head over the injustice of land ownership:
It’s idea a person can write summat on a bit of paper about a piece of land that lives and breathes, and changes and quakes and floods and dries, and that that person can use it as he will, or not at all, and that he can keep others off it, all because of a piece of paper. That’s part which means nowt to me.
The author is not entirely consistent with the transcription of dialect, though, and sometimes her use of spoken language is off: too ornate to be believable in certain characters’ mouths, like Cathy or a man who comes to the door to deliver bad news late on. These are such minor lapses of authorial control that I barely think them worth mentioning, but take it as proof that Mozley will only get better in the years to come. This is a gorgeous, timeless tale of the determination to overcome helplessness by facing down those who might harm the body but cannot destroy the spirit.
Elmet was published in the UK by JM Originals on August 10th. With thanks to Yassine Belkacemi and Katherine Burdon at John Murray Press for the free review copy.