Holy Good Lord.
My feelings about this book are complicated at best. If you’d asked me any time over the past several weeks (and yes, I actually stretched out the reading of this novel for w-e-e-k-s, even though its only 237 pages) what I thought, I’d have told you I hated it. With oomph. And some cuss words.
A Short History of Women stretches from 1880 to 2007 and follows the female lineage in one family, as they navigate womanhood and its complexities. And, let’s be honest, there are plenty of complexities to being a woman. The book was broken into sections specific to a woman (and a time) in the lineage: The Suffragette, The Professor, The Junior Leaguer, The 80s Power Exec, and The Yale Freshman.
Ultimately, I suppose the trouble started because the sections written from the perspective of The Suffragette and The Professor (The Suffragette’s daughter) felt so performative. I just kept thinking, “You aren’t Virginia Woolf, lady,” Which may or may not be a fair critique. (I love Virginia Woolf, for what it’s worth. And admitting that I felt this way about the first half of the book makes me feel not-real-smart. And yet.) I couldn’t find any thing to grab onto in those chapters. They felt empty and pointless. Maybe that was the point? Woman’s life as a void? A search for meaning and purpose? Maybe.
I finally started vibing with the book when we got to the next generation (The Junior Leaguer). The exploration of her journey toward self-realization happens when she’s older–in her 70s maybe. She was a housewife of the 60s & 70s (which, to square with my world view/experience, put her right between my grandmother & my mother). I fell in love with the plight & fight of First Wave feminists in college–and this character was all of the plight and none of the fight. Like she was bewildered by her own existence: “I am a hollow bone.” It was poignant and sad. And hers was a fight against futility that seemed familiar–like maybe I was raised to be that person and escaped at the last minute.
But the best part about her was the fight she found in herself toward the end of her life. The chaos she created in her own little world, simply to feel alive. I’m a sucker for women coming to realizations later in life. The idea that it’s never too late to discover who you really are. And she talks about rage a lot (which is something I uncovered in myself only after I became a mother–an odd paradox, but a truth. And I love being a mother, so the rage was particularly both unwelcome and potent).
And, toward the end, the exploration of the mother-daughter dynamic, the push and pull of closeness and separation, the painful and intriguing knowledge that all human beings remain in some way unknowable and mysterious, no matter the love in which you hold them… I fell completely in love. With the characters. With their shortcomings. With how much they wanted. And how much they might have. Or not.
Everything seemed possible toward the end. An unfurling of possibility and self-determination. A breaking open.
I still hated the first part of the book. But the slog was almost worth it for the way the end made me feel. That push and pull toward the characters–the complexity of being drawn toward the things I want/value in my own life and wanting to banish or deny the feelings/experiences I don’t want/wish I didn’t have.
It most assuredly has made me think about being a woman, what I want to carry forth and leave behind, and what I hope to pass to my own daughter. Maybe that’s enough.