This 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.