Our Third and Final Book

what alice forgotThis was the book that seemed to divide us the most. What Alice Forgot is essentially a genre novel, though quite what precise term would be used to describe it, I’m not sure (and Dark Puss says he has no idea!). It deals with the experience of women in the battleground years – 25-40, when they are in the thick of bringing up children, making careers, beating out the ground rules of a long-term relationship. And it’s the sort of book my husband would curl his lip at with a touch of contempt. But I’d read Liane Moriarty before and really enjoyed her writing, finding it witty and astute and poignant.

In What Alice Forgot, the eponymous heroine comes to, flat on her back in the gym after a nasty fall, having lost her memory of the last ten years. She thinks she is in the blissful early years of marriage and just pregnant with their first child. She’s a naturally indolent, laid-back sort of person who wouldn’t scruple about finishing a packet of chocolate biscuits, so her shock could not be greater, then, when she finds out that she has three children, a physical fitness obsession, and a divorce in progress. Having always been close to her sister, Elizabeth, she is worried by the strain that seems to inhabit their relationship now. As the narrative switches back and forth, so we learn that Elizabeth has spent seven unsuccessful years on IVF.

DP: I think it is easy to read, a neat idea, less intellectually engaging so far than either the Piercy or the Shafak.

This time I was the one with the head start. Or at least, I’d begun the book while Dark Puss was searching for copies of our choices in real bookstores (and failing to find them to his great disappointment) and without meaning to, had finished it.

L: Yes, it’s definitely the easiest of the books but I liked it so much because it engaged me more emotionally than the others had done. I found my eyes filling with tears so many times as I read it. Elizabeth’s bitterness and her frustration from too many intolerable failures at IVF felt real and accurate. But it was Alice’s plight that struck home. I could remember so well the enthusiasm that gripped me in the early year of marriage and the hopes with which I fell pregnant. And then just like Alice, I seemed to end up a few years later on the frontline of domestic warfare, having lost touch with my optimistic self and organising life madly in an attempt to cope with it all. So I suppose that’s why I’ve been most intrigued to know how this one will strike you. It spoke directly to my experience as a woman. And I wondered how that would come across to a man.

I was initially horrified by how far women’s desires had gone into reverse from those heady feminist days described in the Piercy. Having children, organising the home, being happy with a husband are the major trophies in this fictional world…. and it gave me pause for thought, too. Even though I’ve had a very rewarding intellectual career, I can’t say that the personal side of my life has been any less significant or important for me.

DP: This is, as you said, a very interesting contrast with the world of Marge Piercy’s characters and frankly I’m much more interested, and empathetic to, their troubles than those of Alice and Elizabeth. I think the premise for the story is an interesting and clever one. I like the way little snatches of memory are recovered by Alice, but I’m not terribly impressed with the trivia of her life (realistic though it might well be). I find the IVF saga rather tedious; to be absolutely honest I find it hard to be endlessly sympathetic to people who wish above all reason to have their “own” child when so many unwanted/unloved children might be adopted. In case you read into that, that I think the child-bearing aspect is one that will divide the male and female readers, I talked to a colleague of mine (expert in ageing) who says that recent research relates that many childless men feel equally “barren” and indeed “broody”, so I’m just relating my perspective here.

I have a nagging feeling this is going to “end happily” and I’m not sure that is something I’m looking forward to.

In fact, it turns out in the book that it’s Elizabeth’s husband who has been against adoption. A recent conversation with Alice (one she’s forgotten) has changed his mind, but this only angers Elizabeth, who now thinks she wants to give up with the whole idea of a family after so much distress. Alice, meanwhile, has been fighting hard to save her marriage, and finds it difficult to imagine what could possibly have turned her against her husband. And then, finally, her memory does return and reunited with all the events and her own, older perspective, the reconciliation hangs in the balance. Only in an epilogue at the very end do we find out how the dominoes finally fall.

L: Do you think that your lack of interest in the trivia of Alice’s life is because it doesn’t correspond with a man’s daily trivialities? It sort of simply isn’t your world? I’m also curious to hear more about the greater sympathy you felt for Piercy’s characters. In many ways the women in that novel were a great deal more self-defeating, more ready to move into behaviours that did nothing for them, or ran counter to their own desires. The tone of the Piercy is completely different – it’s very serious, very detailed, politically aware. I wonder whether that makes their behaviour seem more weighty? Or is it because they are concerned about having good work to do, which may well seem like a more worthwhile consideration than this wishy-washy thing of personal fulfilment?

DP: I’m not uninterested in the trivia of Alice’s life, but it seems to me to overwhelm the other aspects of her being. Maybe that’s the point Moriarity is making. I agree that the women in Small Changes were more self-defeating and perhaps that is why I felt more sympathetic towards them. You ask an interesting question about “good work” vs “personal fulfilment”. I guess if I am honest there is a certain Puritan Principle coming out here in my reaction. Having been negative in my previous email about the IVF, I should say that I thought that Elizabeth’s letters to her therapist were a positive aspect and struck me as insightful.

Grrrr! My “fears” about how this book would end have turned out correct. For me the book started off well and in the last quarter dipped into a rather cliched soap opera. Cliffhangers that weren’t, troublesome children redeemed overnight, very damaged relationships reborn in a blink of an eye, difficult characters packed off to Europe etc. I don’t like the neat “happy” endings and I would have liked it more had some of these not been resolved in such a pat way. Possibly that’s a feature of this genre.

L: I felt that the end was definitely its weakest part, and that the epilogue was a sort of last-minute stab at reconciling too many irreconcilables. I think, like many genre novels, its ‘faults’ lie in the limitations imposed by reader and editor expectations for that kind of book. But I just enjoyed it.

DP: To come to the £999999 question, is my reaction “male”? I’d like to think not. It’s my reaction and although I can’t directly experience birth or failure of conception I hope I can appreciate children and childlessness and marriage and affairs and the messy (and wonderful) aspects of human relationships in just the same way as any female reader.

So there it is, folks. At the end of the day, Dark Puss and I were bound to react differently to the novels we read because we are simply different people, regardless of gender. But did gender play a role in our responses? I would still say it did, and I think Dark Puss would still say it didn’t. He certainly maintains his original skepticism regarding some books as being ‘for women’. I’ll leave it up to you to comment.

34 thoughts on “Our Third and Final Book

  1. I’ve missed your posts on the other two books but I loved this discussion between you and DP. Went off immediately to add this to my TBR list. It’s not an obvious read for me but I know that L would love it. I like the concept of Alice’s ten forgotten years and reconciling her past and present selves. I think, like DP, that I would prefer a more realistic ending but from your review the rest of the book more than makes up for it.

    • Thank you for commenting and do please our other two posts this week and let us know what you think. Do indeed read this, it is well written and a clever idea. Perhaps omit the epilogue ?!

    • Pete, I’d love to know what you and/or L think of this. It was an interesting book on many levels. Once, in the UL, I found a book entitled Sex and Fantasy, and it was comparing the imaginations of men and women by asking them to complete the start of a story. In the story there were two trapeze artists conducting a routine, and at one point, the man fails to catch the women’s wrists properly. The story was then turned over to the participants in the survey. The vast majority of the men came up with a disastrous ending in which the woman was killed or maimed (one even had the circus tent going up in flames). The women almost all had a ‘happy’ ending, where an accident was averted. So now I need all men who actively like happy endings to put their hands up, or I’ll begin to think that gender is involved….😉

  2. I’m thinking this is one of those books that falls into that hazy, silly category so many publishers (and readers, too?) think of as “women’s fiction”. I know–is there really such a thing–maybe that’s part of the question you two are both asking now? But I can see this as being marketed as a great beach read, but a well done beach read. I found your reactions to this book and the other two totally fascinating-thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m sort of inclined to say that gender does play some role in your responses, but maybe that is as much cultural/sociological? I sometimes like books that are pure adventure–swashbuckling swordplay and the like–are women supposed to like that? Of course I prefer to read about a woman in the role of the heroine doing those things, so maybe there is something to be read in that, too. Probably in the end it does come down simply to personal taste–I think any reader can like any book!

    • Hi Danielle, thank you for your interesting comment. Indeed our discussion of these three books came from the gauntet (I do hope you have these in your amoury) that I threw down about “women’s fiction” (and by implication “men’s fiction – Andy McNab perhaps?). I personally do not feel women or men are “supposed to like” anything. It has long been assumed, it would seem to me, that erotica/porngraphy (to take an example) is “for men”. Now in my view there isn’t much excellent writing in either of those two genres, but it is clear that a large number of women appear to be prepared to try them out when “released” from the chains of expectation and what is deemed “appropriate” for them to read (shades of Lady Chatterley etc.).

      There are two different, but related, hypotheses being examined in our discourse on these three books. One is whether there are “women’s books” – I’m very strongly in the NO camp here – and whether men and women (as a group) would have a significantly different reaction to a particular book. I’m still to be convinced, and I’ll let Victoria advance her own opinion on that question.

    • Danielle, part of the reason I love your blog is that you enjoy such a wide range of books, and I think both of us would happily read books that are marketed for men (though I’ve never read a Western – is that the last outpost of macho fiction?). I do find, though, that generally men are less inclined to read the books marketed for women. I don’t think there’s any book that couldn’t be enjoyed by either gender as people are too various for that. But I think there are certain books that would appeal more to women than to men.

      Dark Puss is quite right to say there are two threads going on here. As for the other – how or whether gender affects the reading experience, I say yes of course it has to. If gender has affected your life, then it will affect the way you respond to stories. I was brought up to be compliant and to put others first. I gave birth and took on the majority of the burden of childcare, because it felt ‘expected’ of me and, as a mother, I didn’t feel comfortable with anything that looked like shirking my responsibilities towards my child. I was the 9th woman appointed to a university fellowship that also contained over 120 men. I wouldn’t have had chronic fatigue syndrome if I’d been born male.All these events have deeply affected my life and altered the quality of my experiences. Inevitably I read differently because of them. I became a literary critic – or at least a good one – in part because of my ability to put myself to one side in order to listen better to the other voices. That came out of my being born a woman.

      However, History matters. The past 50 years have seen the social ‘rules’ around gender changing at an unprecedented rate. My experience is not that of a woman born 20 years before me, or 20 years after me. I think that’s why it can be such a confusing conversation, because we are all in a state of transition that’s been persisting for a long time – the length of my lifetime at least. And personality counts, too. It’s my nature to be gentle and conflict-avoidant, and that brings me closer in line to a ‘traditional’ femininity right there. Gosh and now I’ve spent so long writing this that I am late in putting the potatoes on!😉 It’s been fascinating reading with Dark Puss, though, and discussing the experience with our blogging friends. Thank you for the wonderful comment, Danielle.

  3. It has been interesting hearing you both discuss these books. I wonder, though. Is it gender or is it life experience that defines how you have approached them and what you took away from them? Would a father raising and nurturing children on his own – all daughters, perhaps – have same insights as DP, for instance. You know, if he could not do the “ladder climbing” thing because he had to be home to pick up the kids, or take them to the dentist, or fix dinner? Just an idea…the answer to which I have no clue. It’s been fun reading these three posts, though. Hope you do it again with another genre in mind.

    • I do agree that experience matters a lot. And I wonder how things would be if it were the father who took on prime responsibility for the childcare. My brother-in-law was a house husband, if that term is still in use. I’ll have to ask him about it. Though I’d guess that his personality remained unchanged and the dominant factor – he is very thoughtful and works to a system and has a very calm outward demeanor. So all those things made him a very ‘viable’ full-time carer, if you see what I mean. I saw a survey on mumsnet a while back, in which 70% of mothers admitted to treating their sons differently to their daughters. I expect it all starts back there. Thank you, Grad for reading along with us – the comments have been fantastic for getting us to think deeper about the issues raised.

      • Perhaps it is the character you outline for your brother-in-law that resulted in his being a house husband. Does the house have to change its name if it marries?

      • Bookboxed, I’m sure my brother-in-law’s character was a factor here – childcare was something he was prepared to do without it undermining him or going against the grain. Also, my sister-in-law has a very well paid job, so that was a factor too!

        DP – I only read an account of the survey and couldn’t find my way back to the full report (you know how frustrating yahoo news can be!). I expect, though, that the reason was an instinctual one – the boy children probably just put the mother in a different place relationally, or there was greater identification with daughters which altered the mother’s approach. I would have loved to learn more about it – it sounded fascinating research.

    • An interesting question Grad. Sadly I have some idea of “being home to pick up kids” etc. as my wife has had a severe, chronic illness for the last 23 years (it’s very slowly getting better) and for most of those we have had a child to care for too.

      • I am sorry to hear about your wife’s illness, DP, and hope she continues to improve. You have a much better insight into my question than I do, i.e. is it really all Mars/Venus after all? Anyway, the discussions between you and L have been fascinating and I do hope you continue with “male” genre fiction.

  4. An interesting experiment! I think that you need one more book. In order to determine whether DP’s reaction was because this novel was genre fiction and in some ways facile, it should be compared to a more (generally considered) male type of genre fiction that is equally glib and facile and see whether he likes it better!

    • Dear Lilian, perhaps you can suggest something? It might help you to know that Dark Puss’s “Desert Island” author is Colette. Also I don’t think this book is either glib or facile and if my comments have suggested it, then that is my poor ability at reviewing literature. In my defence may I say that I’m only a physicist.

  5. I haven’t read this book so can’t comment. Just want to weight in on your larger debate. I totally agree that men can and should read and enjoy “women’s books,” whatever that means. The world would be better if they did. Maybe we’d have fewer American legislators who have no clue how badly their bills hurt women.
    But that doesn’t mean men and women don’t read somewhat differently because we have different experiences depending on our sex. No just in terms of gender definitions, but physically. Like motherhood. Litlov and I know the pain of postpartum distress and criticized Shafak for glossing it over. The issue there was not just childcare, but how a woman’s body can react to giving birth.

    • MD – on a sort of related note, I was discussing prison sentences with my husband at lunch and he was describing a new initiative he’d heard about that was trying to deal with female offenders differently. So few women commit crimes compared to men, and even fewer of those are classified as a ‘danger to the public’. They’ve also found that taking mothers away from their families has a disproportionate effect on home life, as opposed to removing the father. This all sounded like it was deeply tied in to gender at a level we are culturally awkward about accepting.

  6. Isn’t the way the trivia of everyday life overwhelms a woman’s being sometimes the source of conflict in her relationships? Because so many people expect her to keep up with all the little things?

    • Hello Jeanne and thank you for your comment. I also have a huge amount of “trivia” in my life and people also expect me to keep up with the “little things”. I’m not convinced this is a sex-related issue in principle.

    • Jeanne on a purely personal note, it’s a big yes for me. That was exactly my experience of trying to bring up a young child and devote myself to a complicated and demanding job. The sheer volume of trivia I had to remember and deal with every day was overwhelming, and definitely the prime factor in frying my brain. Because all these things had to be done, but a relationship can go on hold for a while, it was certainly my relationships that got put on the back burner – and often to the annoyance or hurt of other people.

  7. I’m a woman but what you call the IVF saga would annoy me so much. Like Dark Puss I think it’s not a problem really, there are so many children without parents out there. I can understand that someone wants to take care of a child but why they absolutely need their own…
    I find it interesting however to see your different reactions to the descriptions of mundane or daily things.

    • Caroline, thank you for your perspective here. Please see my reponse to “Miriam” and hopefully Victoria will comment on the “mundane”/”trivia” issue too.

    • The IVF saga was an interesting one, as a bit further into the book it turned out that adoption had also been a big issue (I won’t go into the storyline here) and the couple ended up with their own child and three adopted kids. Adoption is by no means an easy issue, however, because of the bureaucracy involved. I have a French friend living in the UK with her Finnish partner and it was made clear to them that they would be on the bottom of any adoption list because they were not natives and ‘culture’ would be a problem for their children. I have another friend who adopted two children after huge wrangles (and there was no obvious problem – two professionals born and bred in the country). I’m not sure if it’s as difficult anywhere else, but it is a long, torturous and often heartbreaking process to adopt in this country. Which is a dreadful shame.

      • It depends as much on the country you live in as on the country you adopt from and how old the child is. The younger the child, the more affluent the society into which it was born, the more difficult it gets. Sure, it’s a shame.

  8. While I very much respect Dark Puss’ undertaking of this project and have much enjoyed reading the interplay between the two of you, I think this last book does show a gendered divide. Mind you, I think gender is socially, not biologically, constructed.

    That said, Dark Puss’ comparative lack of interest in the trivia of Alice’s life coupled with your quite emotional reaction to it I think illuminates widespread literary prejudices (which tend to be male though women adopt them too) that books that appeal directly to the emotions rather than the intellect are inherently less “worthy.” It can be a very subtle prejudice, and certainly one I’ve identified in myself, but I think absolutely patriarchal in origin (the idea that there needs to be a literary hierarchy and that those genres/moods associated with women are the inferior types).

    • Hello Miriam and thank you very much for your comment. I suspect that it is my poor use of language here that does not help. “Trivia” here was not meant perjoratively in a value sense (in the same sense that “critical” is neither positive or negative but often used negatively). I hope, very strongly but I can of course not prove it to you, that I have absolutely no view about the superiority or inferiority of any genres and certainly I do not believe that I ascribe in principle a lower value to emotions than to intellect. Even as a physicist I do have the former! This aspect of “trivia” was one that Victoria and I discussed (and more recently genres in fiction). I hope she will also respond to your comment, what she has to say will of course be very well worth reading.

    • Miriam, leaving DP to one side for a moment (!), I agree with you about literary prejudices in general. I think that there are complex prejudices, dictated by fashion, as to the kind of emotions that appear worthy in books. There’s an elusive but persistent feeling that sad, painful books are more literary than humorous and uplifting ones. With the exception of the misery memoir, which quickly signaled itself in the genre camp. When it comes to love, it’s my general experience that books with unhappy endings are better regarded by professional reviewers, judges on prize committees, etc. Given the recent statistics that came out about reviewing, which is still dominated by male critics and male authors, I think it’s quite reasonable to assume a cultural divide still in place along gendered lines.

      As for this particular book and our experience of it, it was certainly the one where we responded most differently. However, there is a likelihood here that the Puss was responding to the genre elements rather than the gender ones (although I agree still in general that genre novels are the ones most obviously marketed for different genders), and we’re discussing doing one more book – a macho sort of thriller, which would provide an interesting counterpoint. I’m amused by my own reactions to this book, which were definitely coloured by being married to a man who, had he read this, would definitely have called it trivial in an unashamedly pejorative sense! I know my temptation is to see Dark Puss in the same bracket as my husband because they are both male, and yet DP has shown me without doubt over the past few months that he is a very, very different sort of reader!🙂

  9. I have enjoyed these posts very much and the thoughtful conversation between between the two of you. I must say I tend to agree with Dark Puss that there is no “women’s books” as such. My own husband would also agree. I think much of it comes down to publishers and marketing. Are there books women will probably like more than men? Sure. And vice versa. Perhaps what it all really comes down to is the individual reader being more interested in a good story no matter the “genre” or book’s marketing?

  10. I’m coming to these posts so very late (blame moving house and headaches and all sorts of other dull things) but I’m definitely finding them interesting!

    Although I haven’t read this book, the topic does interest me, albeit the treatment doesn’t sound up my street (how I hate those resolved endings!) I was intrigued by Victoria’s question ‘Do you think that your lack of interest in the trivia of Alice’s life is because it doesn’t correspond with a man’s daily trivialities?’ – I think, by setting up the idea of a man’s daily trivialities vs. a woman’s daily trivialities, it’s a self-fulfilling question. I can’t imagine there being such a thing as a man’s and a woman’s daily life – I am curious as to how that division could be made, since people’s daily trivialities cover such a spectrum, with some women’s being like other women’s, some like certain men’s, etc.

    I certainly don’t think childlessness is a woman’s issue – it is a matter I think about a great deal, and what would make the novel appeal empathetically – but perhaps publishers think it is.

    Thank you for running these interesting discussions, I’m so sorry that I wasn’t able to read and comment at the time!

    • Well it’s extremely good of you to come back and catch up! Thank you for reading and commenting – always very welcome and appreciated. As for the trivia thing, ha, you speak as a young unmarried man. If you have children, things do tend to change quite drastically. Dark Puss is quite unusual in being a man who’s had a lot of involvement in bringing up kids. There’s still a strong tendency for women to be given charge of the domestic domain when that happens, and you cannot imagine the amount of trivia it entails – school clothes, lunch boxes, ferrying children around to friends, to afterschool activities, helping with homework, providing meals, getting forms filled in and back to school, vaccinations… And while all this goes on, the father is usually at work and blissfully unaware of it all. I do think that publishers still believe, rightly or wrongly, that anything to do with children will only have cultural appeal to women. We need men like you and Dark Puss to speak up if things are to change.

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