A Week in Retrospect

It’s been a messy book week, which is inevitable when I have a lot of research on. I’ve read bits and pieces and odd chapters here and there of lots of things – books on dreaming, works by less mainstream French thinkers, overviews of contemporary gender relations in Oliver James’s brilliant books Affluenza and Britain on the Couch, part of a biography by Karen Osborne of Elizabeth von Arnim, which was very good, and lots of sociological studies on what seems to go by the name of ‘intensive mothering’, the bountiful, selfless outpouring of time and attention to children by one, lone carer that stands in uncomfortable opposition to the jungle of capitalism that dominates modern life.  It’s all been very interesting, but I’m still trying to digest the material and its myriad of implications.

Some whole books did get through. I finished the luscious, scrumptious Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and enjoyed every single overripe word of it. It begins with Siddalee Walker falling out spectacularly with her mother after a lifetime’s tense relationship. The cause is a profile interview in The New York Times in which her mother, Vivi Dahling, is described as an alcoholic tap dancing child abuser. Despite the fact that this is ostensibly true – or perhaps because this is in fact true – Vivi is possessed by the kind of rage that spans the continent of America and Sidda is distraught that she could have let slip so much dangerously soiled family linen. However, help is at hand in the form of Vivi’s lifelong girlfriends, the irrepressible Ya-Yas, who work to reestablish harmony by encouraging Vivi to send her daughter an old scrapbook full of memorabilia from their girlhood in humid, flower-bedecked Louisiana. The narrative is full of interpolated stories surrounding these scraps of archival material, drawing out the time when they single-handedly disrupted the Shirley Temple lookalike competition in their home town, or when, aged an impressionable 13, the girls stayed with a rich relative to watch the premiere of Gone With the Wind and were forced to confront the ugly treatment of black slaves in their host’s household, or the time when they were caught skinny-dipping in the town’s water tower and spent the night in jail. The vitality and the delight in naughtiness that inspires and pervades these escapades is such a pleasure to read. This must stand as one of the original girl power stories, showing its magical force stretching back across time. Above all it’s a tribute to the strength and comfort of enduring friendships between women, something that really doesn’t get celebrated enough. For the sisterhood is there for Vivi as the story of her life turns ever darker.

One of the main themes of the novel is the way that motherhood whitewashes a woman’s past. So whilst it may be responsible for much of that mother’s behaviour, children grow up not understanding why they receive the treatment they do. Vivi’s problems lie inevitably with her own upbringing and the tragic events that shaped her life. Vivi’s mother is a bitter woman, fiercely jealous of her daughter’s high spirits and popularity, who ships her off to a reformatory school run by nuns where Vivi almost loses the will to live. Vivi cannot bring herself to believe that her mother hates her, although she can almost feel the force of rage that inhabits every one of her gestures and this sad contradiction helps to damage irrevocably her self-esteem. As it turns out, Buggy is a viciously disappointed woman, and the fact that she is mistress of her own destiny only makes matters worse. Many years ago, jealous of her sister, Buggy stole her boyfriend from her and married him. Alas, Vivi’s father turns out to be a cruel womanizer, betraying his wife many times, treating her with contempt and loathing, and Buggy has sought refuge in the most extreme form of self-denying Catholicism. It’s no wonder that Vivi’s spirited exploits and upfront attractiveness drive her almost insane with envy. The final straw is a diamond ring given to her by her father for her sixteenth birthday. Buggy’s suspicious mind, distorted by years of ill-treatment and self-imposed servitude reads the worst into this gesture and Vivi finds herself dispatched with cruelty to a distant, loveless boarding school. This isn’t the only contributing factor to her incipient alcoholism, but it’s notably on the train headed towards her new school that her brother’s hipflask of whisky is the only comfort she has. In the compulsive heart of the narrative, Vivi’s unfolding story, prompted by Ya-Yarabilia, can never excuse but can certainly mitigate the awful breakdown Vivi suffers when she beats her children senseless and disappears to an asylum for several months. They say that behind every instance of poor mothering lies a woman who was a traumatized child, and Vivi is a fine example of it.

But then, as now, the Ya-Ya sisterhood pull Vivi through and provide the love and support her family never could. Sidda and Vivi are reconciled in a gloriously syrupy happy ending that escapes blatant sentimentality (just) by the strength of the writing. I think Vivi is a fantastic example of the yummy mummy/slummy mummy split, a woman who went on a three day fugue when the responsibility of caring alone for four young children got too much for her, wearing nothing but a cream cashmere coat. Now there’s style for you.

I also read a novel that was a bestseller a few years ago now, Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does it, the ultimate having-it-all story of a woman torn between the testosterone-fuelled world of fund management and the domestic demands of two young children. Needless to say she has a pretty terrible time trying to be perfect at both all-consuming careers, and the resolution to this novel (which I won’t give away) was an intriguing compromise. I have to confess that I did not read this particularly closely, which was a shame in some ways as it was probably the best written of the chick-lit novels I’ve been reading of late. But something about the sheer madness of these women’s lives was starting to make me feel claustrophobic and a bit frenzied myself. When the story opens, our heroine, Kate, is distressing supermarket-bought mince pies with a rolling pin at 1.30 in the morning on the pretext that home baked cakes are de rigueur at her daughter’s school carol concert. Life as she knows it, apparently, will end if she turns up bearing a box from Sainsbury’s in her hands. The extent of this insanity got to me and I really began to wonder whether it was possible that women could feel this way, could be subject to such overwhelming internal pressure to match up to impossible standards. I hoped not, and then again, I wouldn’t personally put a limit on what that harsh inner critic inside a woman’s mind is capable of doing. Instead I began to get very interested in the issue of self-esteem, as it’s lack was the common factor linking all of the heroines in the baby-sick-lit books I’ve been reading. One of the major issues facing women today who become mothers is the sharp drop in self-esteem that comes from giving up paid work (the only criteria for measuring individual value in our rampantly capitalist world), and suffering a drop in perceived attractiveness due to the after effects of giving birth and months of sleep deprivation. No matter how much women pour themselves into mothering, and no matter how much our culture demands good mothering from them, there is no perceived worth attributed to staying home with babies and toddlers. Rather than seeing the nurture and care of children as something that repays them for their efforts, women tend to think they will feel better about themselves if they are earning a bit of money and enjoying the relative ‘freedom’ of the office. That’s a direct result of our image-obsessed, money-driven society. And yet, on the other hand, Adrienne Rich, back in the years when feminism was a force for great good, spoke movingly and accurately of the way that women had never been allowed to turn their egos outwards onto the world, and had been obliged to clip their own wings, constrain their minds and desires, and settle for the limited horizons of domesticity. We can’t go back there, either. The only real solution to this particular dilemma would be for society to recognize the true value of mothering and to pay carers for the years they put into raising their children. Think that’s about to happen? Me neither.

The last book I read was Sarah Stovell’s debut novel Mothernight. The gorgeous cover of this, all lapis lazuli blue against black and gold, was as tempting as the blurb on the back. It’s the story of troubled, brilliant Leila, who lost her mother in a car crash when she was five and who lost her baby half-brother in suspicious circumstances shortly after his birth. What was initially a strained relationship with her stepmother, Katherine, becomes completely untenable as Katherine is convinced that Leila was responsible for his death. However, there is also the neighbour’s daughter, Rosie, to be considered. Rosie is a manipulative and malevolent character, the daughter of an addict and a hooker who has now been adopted by a nice, middle-class family but whose character bears the scars. ‘She had the ancient Christian compulsion to walk in someone else’s shoes and feel their pain,’ Leila tells us, ‘It was only afterwards that she liked to increase it for them.’ Rosie was also there the night the baby died and her role is uncertain. When the narrative opens, the death is many years in the past but the shadow it casts is long. Leila has been sent away to boarding school and not allowed home. But there she meets Olivia and the two girls begin a passionate affair. The consequence of this is that Olivia accompanies Leila home for the long summer holidays after they have left school but before they begin university. It is the first time Leila has come home since she was sent away but tensions still run high with Katherine full of rage and her father strung impossibly across his split loyalties. I can’t tell you any more than this without giving the plot away, but I read RosieB’s fantastic review and agreed wholeheartedly that this was a modern day Greek tragedy. It’s written with clarity and assurance and has a tense thriller-ish edge when it first opens that blurs later on in the light of the complex moral dilemma that Stovell manages to create. She is a writer fascinated by the limit points of moral experience – what do the outer reaches of guilt and innocence look like? What happens to people whose lives have been destroyed through no fault of their own? To what extent do the scars of trauma mitigate the subsequent crimes and mistakes of judgments that we make? I found this a gripping and intense read and will certainly look out for future novels by this author.

Phew! That’s a lot of book reviewing. If I were sensible I would split this up and post it piecemeal across the week, wouldn’t I? Alas, I am not sensible, and having written it all, you might as well have it all. But I’ll consider that option for next week.

18 thoughts on “A Week in Retrospect

  1. I love reading your omnibus reviews, litlove. Knowing that you’re reading all of these books together in connection with your motherhood book, I feel a bit like I’m getting a glimpse into your research/thinking process in seeing you pulling it all together at the end of the week. The blog becomes the book behind the book, as it were, and all the more fascinating for that.

  2. I had a weird dream overnight in which I read a blog account by you about the conference you attended which was about the two women on platform being in frosty relation to each other and offering the kind of scenario which makes the general public and other more ‘pratical’ subject areas fume with scepticism about money not well spent. Imagine my surprise to find this here instead when I woke up! Must see a therapist about these dreams! Interesting posts, this and the dream ones, all!

  3. I’m certainly happy to read about all these intriquing motherhood tales, especially, as Kate says, knowing that you’re reading with an eye to your book.

    I read the Ya-Ya Sisterhood when it was first released, and then re-read it a year or two later. I always enjoy reading books set in the American south, as it’s part of my heritage, so I’m pleased to see that this genre translates well across the pond, as it were. But then, as you say, good novels about the power of strong friendships among women always seem to resonate, no matter where the setting.

    I’ve not read Allison Pearson’s book, but it sounds awfully wearying to me. All that angst about getting everything just so, both in motherhood and on the job makes me tired and frustrated. I dread to think that young women really put themselves through such machinations of guilt, but I’m afraid it isn’t all that exaggerated. And yes, when is society going to recognize the value of caring for children and properly reward those engaged in this process? I’m not necessarily speaking of monetary reward (although that becomes almost a necessity in these times, doesn’t it?) but at least with the respect they deserve.

    I’m jotting Mothernight on my list to search out…it sounds fascinating and frightening all at the same time!

  4. Dear Kate – what a sweetie you are! It’s been very interesting for me reviewing the week’s reading this way and finding myself thinking about the connections I want to make in different ways. Blogging is such a free way of writing that it helps to loosen up my thought. And encouraging comments from good blog friends are probably the most helpful of all! Bookboxed – this did make me laugh, but cancel the therapist! It was not a dream! I did indeed write that post, but then I began to feel uncertain about it and wonder whether it wasn’t too whiney and disloyal and in the end I pulled the plug on it. The relations between the two women speakers still fascinate me, however! Ravenous – I always enjoy your comments, knowing that the motherhood angle interests you too. The Rebecca Wells book was a delight and I felt that the falling away of feminism in the past twenty years has removed a special and important emphasis on sisterhood from women. The terrible forced competitiveness that dominates these recent novels really needs an injection of Ya-Ya love and sweetness to neutralise it. And I would love to know what you make of Mothernight if you get hold of it. I hope to read Men and Angels very soon – it’s calling to me!

  5. Hello Litlove—
    First let me say how very much I enjoyed your well presented thoughts on The Ya-Ya Sisterhood. I especially love your relishing of ‘every single overripe word’—what an accurate description of my own thoroughly marvelous experience savoring this book.
    Like Bookboxed I was puzzled about the disappearance of the Conference Post (which I thought was remarkable—one of the best blog posts (on any site) I’ve read to date, and not whiney at all and not disloyal (particularly to yourself); but I do understand your reasons for canceling it. You must have done so at the exact moment that I hit “submit” on my comment about it, because it simply vanished (the post, not my comment). I would very much like to send that comment along to you (I saved it just in case the post reappeared as mysteriously as it vanished). Let me know at toujoursjacques AT gmail DOT com if that would be okay. Just to say again what a fine reader and writer you are; your site is a treasure! And do listen to those “surprising and powerful” things. TJ

  6. If you enjoyed Ya-Ya, I’d really recommend reading the sequel, Little Altars Everywhere. There’s also a third book in the series, called Ya-Yas In Bloom, which is enjoyable but not nearly as good.

  7. Ann – Yes, I’m pretty sure Mothernight is a book you would enjoy, and I would love to hear your thoughts on it. Do squeeze it in if you can! Meliha – you are spam, but well-intentioned spam, so I will host you briefly. TJ – oh thank you so much – that is incredibly kind of you and I appreciate your comment enormously. What timing on my part to delete just as you were commenting! I’d very much like to hear that comment and I’ll email you after I’ve written this. Thank you so much. Heather – Thanks so much for the recommendation. I do possess a copy of Little Altars and I’m very glad to know that you liked it.

  8. I remember reading the Ya-Ya with much pleasure years ago, even if the story is quite fuzzy in my mind now… thanks for reminding me! I also have Allison Pearson’s book on my shelf and didn’t mooch it out, even though I remember being highly frustrated with the ending. I would be interested to know what you think about it, even though that would spoil the suspense for people who haven’t read it. I nearly tossed it aside because I thought how depressing it is: no, she can’t have it all, and the choice she makes is SO traditional and against whatever feminists fought. So to me, the book became: “How could she do THAT?”

  9. I, too, like hearing about all these books together to be able to think about connections — like Kate says, it’s like following along with the thinking process of your book. The Sisterhood book is not one I’d thought about reading — getting a little snobby about it I suppose — which looks like it might be a mistake. That kind of snobbishness means I miss some good writers and books, and I’m afraid it means I miss some women writers in particular. Not good! I enjoyed reading your thoughts about it.

  10. Like Smithereens, I read the Divine Secrets some years ago, but your lovely review returned some of the delight of reading it to me. I agree completely that I Don’t Know How She Does It is one of the best chick-lit books out there. I could feel the protagonist’s anxiety as she distressed those mince pies … and relate to it!

    I was one of the readers who was speedy enough to read the Disappearing Conference Post, and I was going back to comment that this was one of the best posts I’ve ever read – not just here on your superb blog, but everywhere. Please think about putting it up again. You didn’t sound remotely whiny, and it was a superb observation of people.

  11. How do you keep all your books straight? You must take copious notes for your research! Is nearly all your reading now for your work? And I’d love to hear about the biography of Elizabeth von Arnim. I had another one in mind, but I see this author is different. In any case I don’t think either are available over here–maybe used. And personally I love your omnibus book review post–but then I tend to be a book glutton–so the more the better!🙂

  12. Oh, count me in on Mothernight — sounds like a winner. Thanks for all of your reviews. (Somehow I’m relieved that the super-literary Litlove reads chick-lit…)

  13. Smithereens – Im emailing you tomorrow in any case so I will tell you exactly what I thought of the ending then. In the meantime your rewrite of the title made me laugh and laugh. Dorothy – ah that’s the joy of being in a slightly different culture. I never picked the Ya-Yas up thinking they were the US equivalent of chick-lit although I can see now exactly why people might think so. I thought the quality of the writing was really rather good, and the family relationships were intriguing. It remains a fantasy, at heart, but that’s a very good-natured heart. But most imposrtant of all is to know as far as possible what you like in a book, after all, there’s an awful lot of them out there to get through! You might need to discard the odd one along the way. Charlotte – that is an incredible opening scene and I don’t think any mother could say, hand on heart, that she hasn’t succumbed to the madness at least once in a while! Thank you so very much for your lovely remarks about the post – I am certainly considering putting it back up there. Danielle – that’s a really good question. Thinking about it, I’m actually quite ruthless and consign to memory just the couple of points I really need to remember from each book. Then when I come to write I go back and check them again. Bringing up a baby while doing my PhD led me into all kinds of corner-cutting ways, alas! I must return to the von Arnim biography and I’m glad if you enjoy the omnibus edition – they are quite fun to write! LK – Yes, I think you would enjoy Mothernight, and I promise you I am happy to read absolutely anything apart from some science fiction and most horror (squeamish). I have a very soft spot for Peanuts cartoons!

  14. Wow, are you ever reading a lot of different books! I admire how you can fit so much into one post. I enjoyed your take on the Ya-Yas. My mom is from the South–Oklahoma to be exact–and reading the book felt very comfortable and familiar in some ways. It’s been a while since I read the book, but you brought back pleasant memories🙂

  15. Hi Litlove
    I too enjoyed the disappearing conference post, which I read via Google reader – and it’s still there on my feed, so not completely removed from cyberspace. I had to do some detective work to identify the speaker, but I’m proud to say it was indeed the person I guessed it was from your waspish – and entirely accurate- portrait. Excellent post.

  16. Stefanie – I’m a bit surprised myself when I look back on a reading week just how much I’ve got through. This week has more writing in it, so the book count will be significantly down! I loved the way the south was depicted in the Ya-Yas – very much made me want to visit one day. Rob – I’ve reinstated it now and hopefully removed a few more markers to identity! I’m very glad you enjoyed it and relieved that you didn’t feel it was inaccurate.

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