Kate Walbert, “A Short History of Women”

I wish I had liked A Short History of Women more than I did. It’s very ambitious and maybe I’m in too frivolous a mood to do it justice right now — after all, I’ve been on a junk-reading kick, and Kate Walbert is tracing feminism through four generations of women, the eldest of whom starved herself to death in 1914. It’s a wonderful premise. Walbert ranges across England and the U.S., setting scenes in the nineteenth century through to 2007. A wrenching chapter at the end has a grown woman — exactly my age, as it happens — reading her mother’s blog and leaving coded comments, hoping to extract some maternal comfort at a safe remove. That push/pull between mothers and daughters is very well portrayed.

But the characters are so difficult, so prickly! They are so mean to their menfolk! (Who, BTW, all end up dead or invisible.) Pretty mean to each other, come to that — there was some contemporary sister byplay that came uncomfortably close to the bone. Not to mention a “rap session” circa 1973 that made my toes curl with discomfort and revisited teenage misery. And here’s the basic problem: I didn’t really like any of them well enough to thoroughly empathize and pay attention. I’m not sure why the first Dorothy did starve herself: she just said it was the only thing she could do. Huh? Leaving two children complete orphans?  Isn’t that a little bit… high strung?

Finally, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to make of the contemporary women, both of whom are struggling to conscientiously raise daughters. They suffer from anxiety and loneliness and general ennui.  Is Walbert suggesting this is the general feminine fate?

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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