I am so behind on my book reviews that I despair of ever catching up, but to help a little bit I’ll do a few multiple review posts. One book I’ve been reading on and off for several weeks now is The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert; I suppose it’s self-help officially, but it’s such an interesting book that I’ve been taking my time over it, trying to let its information sink in. Gilbert suggests that there are three dominant patterns of mental and emotional response in the human mind, one is motivated by desire, which sets in motion our striving, competitive instincts and yearns for the hyped-up buzz of achievement, another is motivated by aversion, which locks us into states of fear, anxiety and self-criticism. These two patterns trigger each other off, so when we fail in competitive arenas we fall back on self-loathing, anger and anxiety. The third pattern, the one that eases us out of a mad back-and-forth between desire and aversion is compassion, the state of mind that releases kindness, sympathy, reassurance and soothing into our otherwise fraught systems. The key to life, Gilbert muses, is in knowing how to fail, and in managing our disappointments, and we cannot do that without recourse to the compassionate side of our natures. Indeed, the contented life requires us to keep all three of these patterns in a careful balance. But we live in a culture that celebrates competition, considers kindness to be for wimps and feels it is our ethical duty to buck up and achieve. We all could use a little help with being compassionate to ourselves and others, Gilbert suggests (and after the comments on my last post, I feel the one community who probably knows all this already is the book blogging one!).
Two recent reads have made me think a lot about this absence of compassion and how it might play out in subtle ways. Meg Wolitzer’s The Ten-Year Nap is a beautifully written and witty look at the lives of four New York-based friends, (almost) all of whom have given up high-powered jobs to look after young children. But now their children are growing up, the question is how, or whether, the world of work will reclaim them. Louise Levine’s A Vision of Loveliness is set back at the start of the 60s in a cautiously swinging London, where Jane James, longing for a world beyond the confines of her Aunt Doreen’s unhappy house, is led by means of a lost crocodile handbag into the glamorous society of Suzy St John, who may be a friend or a foe. Both of these books are essentially wondering what it is that truly fulfills women, raises their self-esteem, gives them a sense of purpose and meaning, but they do some from opposite sides of a certain spectrum. Wolitzer’s book has its focus firmly fixed on the world of meaningful careers, Levine’s on the frivolous pursuits of being drop-dead gorgeous and trapping husbands. The difference can be accounted for by the ages of the women concerned (scraping into their twenties in Levine’s novel, hitting forty in Wolitzers) and by the eras that they showcase (pre-feminism 60s, the equal opportunity world of the new millennium). But both of them show the inside of women’s minds as being a place of quite scary hostility and self-criticism.
The Ten-Year Nap is one of those novels that does its best to represent a broad range of options by means of its four main characters: Amy, clinging to the comfort zone of her home even though she knows the family’s finances are heading into debt, Jill, struggling to connect with her adopted daughter and bruised by the gentle implosion of her academic career, Roberta, jealous of her husband’s unexpected success and without direction for her own art and Karen, who is the only character wholly at ease with herself, a maths genius who has never given up her job despite family pressure. This is a narrative that lingers over its characters, moving slowly through the events that will bring them all to new perspectives on their lives, burrowing deep into their lives and their attitudes. But for all its attempts at roundedness, this is a novel with a clear message that women need work to define themselves, and not one character is permitted to stay at home with her children on the grounds that the children need her, or that she might choose successfully not to work. Bringing up children is the ‘nap’ in question, seen as an easy, slightly slovenly time out, that risks leading women astray, away from the goals that might define and motivate them.
In A Vision of Loveliness, the ‘work’ concerned is mostly the upkeep a woman must do to perfect her face and body, to snare killer dresses at knock-down prices and to master the rules of social etiquette. The heroine, Jane James, has it easy as she is naturally beautiful, and, well aware of this, must only to consider how to turn her assets to her best advantage. And that advantage is of course, social climbing; domesticity in this novel isn’t about napping, far from it. Instead it’s seen as a sort of necessary evil in exchange for a luxurious standard of living. Jane recoils in horror at the thought of babies that will ruin her figure and tie her down; all she cares about is… well, it’s difficult to know what Jane cares about really, but she’s out to have fun, to rake in compliments and free meals and as much fabulous fashion as she can get her grasping hands on. This is a sort of Cinderella story, only written from the point of view of a woman who just wanted the ball dress and the prince was an unnecessary extra. The first half of this story was bitingly funny and I thought it might be another contender for best books of the year. But something happens halfway through and the delicate balance between gorgeous surface appearances and tawdy, dark insides fell apart. Gradually all the characters revealed themselves as deeply, deeply unpleasant and the acid tongue of the narrative voice began to scorch rather than entertain. Maybe the author wanted to write a bleak morality tale about what happens to women’s characters when they surrender to their competitive instincts over beauty. It certainly becomes that by the end.
I should be clear: both of these books were quite compelling reads with a lot to recommend them. The Wolitzer in particular is wonderfully written from start to finish and Louise Levine’s novel was excellent for the first two-thirds. They are novels that respond well to particular moods – if you’re feeling like a philosophical but amusing overview of the state of combining motherhood and careers, you’ll love The Ten-Year Nap. If you’re in the mood for a very bitchily funny look at the world before feminism, pick up A Vision of Loveliness. But don’t expect these novels to satisfy; they raise as many questions as they resolve, and for all that they are sharply and clearly written, there are dark ideological undercurrents that make the reader pause and frown. What I found intriguing was that The Ten-Year Nap set out to appeal to my good side, my serious work ethic, and A Vision of Loveliness set out to appeal to my bad side, my lets-enjoy-being-mean-and-frivolous side, but I found both to have an unkind streak that troubled me. In A Vision of Loveliness it slaps you in the face. But The Ten-Year Nap is subtler. To use Paul Gilbert’s terms, the women in it seem to be suffering an aversion to work, and the answer is to force themselves back into a competitive commercial arena, as if desire is all that allows us to feel alive. That motherhood might have introduced the women to an experience of compassion that is unknown to the working world, and that might have diminished its allure for them, isn’t something the book considers. These are both books that are more provocative than they intend to be – and that alone makes them interesting. They’re the kind of books I wish someone else would read so I could dissect them in good company!