‘The Greatest Feminist Novel of the Decade’

mimiWhen I first started Mimi by Lucy Ellman, I was expecting something completely different. We’re in Manhatten on Christmas Eve, and noted plastic surgeon, Harrison Hanafan slips and falls on the icy sidewalk. ‘Ya can’t sit there all day, buddy, looking up people’s skirts,’ says the ‘wacko broad’ who picks him up off the floor and then miraculously summons a taxi to take him home. This is the unusual start of a very unusual love affair. It says so much on the back cover. But I was expecting… oh I don’t know, some sort of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a charming screwball comedy with a slightly glamourous setting. And whilst it is a charming book, and it most certainly is screwball, the enormity of my misapprehensions about the novel meant I had to put it down for a couple of weeks until I’d had an expectation adjustment. The blurb suggests it’s for fans of Kurt Vonnegut, Ali Smith and Caitlin Moran. But these didn’t work for me at all. My pitch is that this is a cross between Frasier and François Rabelais: on the one hand, sophisticated wit and opera, on the other, wild exaggeration, farcical event, political messages, crazy word play and a lot of lists.

So you’ll have gathered that this is not your conventional act of storytelling, and maybe even that it’s a novel where the sentence is the source of pleasure, rather than the narrative arc. But to give you as much plot summary as you need, Harry Hanafan returns to his apartment to rest his sprained ankle and to care for a stray cat he’s picked up and named Bubbles while listening to classical music, chatting to his sculptor sister, Bee, on the phone (she’s currently in the UK as an artist in residence) and making some very entertaining lists. He’s just split up with a narcissistic horror named Gertrude, and he lists reasons why. But he’s prone to post break-up melancholy and he lists all the things that trigger it, including shrimp-eating contests, puppetry and the existence of Walmart.

Although Harry’s life looks good on the surface, it lacks meaning. But along comes Mimi, a 49-year-old force of nature (and indeed powered occasionally by pre-menopausal hot flushes), who is a poster girl for the matriarchy. To call Mimi a feminist is like calling Mozart a piano player. In no time at all she and Harry are in love, and she has converted him to a brand new ideology (he was a pushover) based on a rediscovery of all that was great about prehistory:

Everything was going swell, you know, matriarchy worked! Then men took over metalworking and used it to make more and more powerful weapons. And then they domesticated the horse….It’s not the horse’s fault but from then on it was just rape, rape, rape, war, war, war, capitalism, arrogance, slavery and wrecking the land. Everything became about men and their death wish.’

So now you may gather that subtlety is not the novel’s strong point. Or at least, not the point. No, this is a rampant celebration of women and, beneath a very witty prose surface, an utterly furious rant against some of the worst excesses of male behaviour. If you like your feminist novels to win you over gently, this is going to set your teeth on edge. But, and this is a big but, it is very, very amusing, and I have never known any other author milk so much comedy from the caps key and the exclamation mark. Nothing is quite real in this novel, there’s a cartoon buoyancy to the prose that even in the sad parts of the story can’t resist its innate jauntiness, and it’s real Marmite stuff. Readers are either going to love the voice or hate it, or possibly find it’s not enough to offset the bizarre events destined to make their political point with the delicacy of a sledgehammer. But as Lucy Ellman might say, the exaggeration WOULD BE THE POINT. And it is funny. And it is extremely well-written.

It’s been called the best feminist novel of the decade or the new millennium or something (the original quote proved impossible to track down, though much reference is made to it in the reviews already out there), which is of course a very dangerous thing to say about any book. And this made me think about other feminist novels I’ve read, and ponder the fact that it is not always the most reader-friendly of genres. Monique Wittig’s Les Guérilleres is the current title holder of Most Eccentric Novel Ever, about lesbian warriors torturing men and was notably thin on jokes; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is superb but depressed me for weeks afterwards, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is no cheerier, nor is The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Quite a few are a bit of a slog (poor Doris Lessing, her Golden Notebooks do spring to mind, rather). So Mimi represents something of a new direction in being a) full of comedy and b) not about women being unbearably oppressed and badly treated. The way it makes political points, however, is to put fish in a barrel and shoot them. Nothing to say this isn’t valid, but readers can be a contrary bunch who enjoy a good old wrestle with the issue first. Oh and before I forget, I must mention the most bonkers appendix, EVER, which takes up more than 50 pages and which I had no intention of reading. I mean, I like my experimental fiction, but when the story is over, it’s over.

So all in all, Mimi is one of those intriguing novels that is part genius and ingenious and part crazy and certifiable. At the level of the sentence, I enjoyed and admired it, and chortled a lot. When I took a few steps back and thought about the whole, I had my doubts. It will not appeal to everyone. But if you are interested in feminist matters, or like zany fiction, or are just curious about trying something a bit different, then it’s worth a go.

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28 thoughts on “‘The Greatest Feminist Novel of the Decade’

  1. I was looking at this while I was in Stratford this afternoon. It’s been pushed hard in Waterstones which always has the opposite effect on me. However, from what you say about it I think it would be a very good choice for one of my reading groups which contains some highly vocal feminists. As you say, they would either love it or hate it but they would definitely find something to say about it. Interestingly, the other group, although it’s made up of equally thoughtful readers, would, I suspect, loathe it and find it very hard to talk about.

    • Ooh this would be a fun book to throw into the middle of the right reading group. And you’re quite right – it would very much depend on the group. Letting vocal feminists at it might provoke a very intriguing discussion!

  2. The minute I saw that ref to Caitlin Morgan I knew this would not be a book for me. I read precisely ten pages of that book of hers and couldn’t bear to read any more.

    • Ah but my point in the post is that it did NOT fit the analogy to my mind. I can’t tell whether you’d like this or not, but don’t give up on it for the sake of the Caitlin Moran mention.

  3. I want to read it. NOW! Subtle is good but sometimes the hammer on the head does its job well. I’m always in the mood to try something different.
    I feel that blurb + cover are doing this book a huge disservice.

    • Ooh I would love to know what you make of this one! My proof copy comes with a picture of Delacroix’s Liberty on the front, which is highly appropriate given that Mimi is compared to her in the novel, but it’s quite an in-your-face image of a large, half-naked woman and might perhaps also be offputting to some. Though it probably is more appropriate.

    • I would have said the same thing myself! And when it first began I did find them mildly alarming. But I quite quickly got used to the style and when I did, I found it very funny. Trust me, agree with her politics or not, she is a good writer.

  4. You have me intrigued! A zany feminist novel? Unheard of! Do you think the zaniness undercuts the feminism or is the political message so in-your-face that it doesn’t matter?

    • Hmm, intriguing question. I think that it is a very particular way of approaching a political question and one that does have precedents (Rabelais springs to mind). The feminism is quite unmissable, but I think some readers will find it less persuasive simply because the context is not resolutely realistic. I think this book, perhaps more than any other I’ve read in a long while, will be decided by individual taste.

      • I think ‘zany’ and ‘feminist’ would also apply to Helen deWitt’s Lightning Rods, but now, of course, I must read Mimi to see if that’s even half-true. Turns out that I have added nearly all of Lucy Ellmann’s works to my TBR list (except this one: thanks!) so now I must mend the gap left by not having read even one of them yet. Sounds great!

  5. Your comment on Doris Lessing cracked me up. I have tried twice to read The Golden Notebook. Maybe the 3rd try will be the charm? I have read a few of the other books you listed. I have also read Fear of Flying by Ericka Jong, which was fun and funny too. I don’t know now, however, how it would hold up. I read it 20 years ago and at the time, it seemed revolutionary.

    • Poor Doris. I’ve read three-quarters of it – I’m almost there, aren’t I? ;) Erica Jong is so on my list of authors I really, really must get around to one of these fine days. Even more so now, when I think she would make a particularly interesting comparison to Ellman’s novel. Thank you for reminding me of her!

      • I’d certainly second Rutheilla’s comments and also recommend “Fear of Flying”, though I too read it along time ago so my memory might be “rose tinted”.

      • Jong was important to us. When her Fear of Flying came out, we still trying to recover what we’d been taught in the 1950′s. But she seems trite now and not worth your attention.
        And I love Lessing’s Golden Notebook.

      • I can see I must get to Jong – I’m intrigued to know how she will strike me. And there are many of Lessing’s novels I’ve thoroughly appreciated since my attempt at The Golden Notebooks (I was in my early 20s at the time). Like Ruthiella, I must read it again one of these days. I think political books are the ones we change most towards over time.

  6. I’m not sure I would have picked this one up based only on the description–well maybe the first impression you had would have enticed me, too, but it sounds like it’s even more than what’s given on the blurb–very much larger than life feel to it. I have, sadly really, not read much feminist literature and should really set myself the task of coming up with a list of must reads–it sounds like this would make a fun and unusual inclusion! Thanks for the nudge.

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