A review of Three Women and Educated

I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction recently and both Three Women by Lisa Taddeo and Educated by Tara Westover are interesting. (Very different books that I’m only squishing together because I’ve been meaning to pop reviews of them up for ages.)

Three Women is a book I guzzled down. This is a non-fiction exploration of three women’s very different sex lives. Taddeo followed each of them (and others, I believe, although only these three made the final book) for 8 years and crafted their stories into a gloriously readable narrative. Lina is in a sexless marriage and still in love with her high school sweetheart. She begins an affair with him (although affair seems to suggest more than the few quick encounters they have) and the way she romanticises the relationship is heartbreaking. Maggie had sex with her school teacher and thought they were in love. Sloane is married to a man who likes to watch her have sex with other men. Taddeo has a novelistic approach, for instance, describing Lina revealing the affair to some women friends,

“The women are pitched forward, like soup tureens in an earthquake. Their chins are on the heels of their hands, and they are eating mixed nuts nervously.
Oh my, says Cathy. That sounds like quite a man, and a real love affair.
How did it end? someone asks, because women are often better at handling the endings than the beginnings. Lina understands that some women, like her mother and her sisters, truly care for another woman only when that woman is in pain, especially in a kind of pain that they have already felt, and then overcome.”


While the writing is the book’s strength it’s also curiously distancing; it sounds like truth but I’m not sure it is. I felt very much that what I was reading were stories and as such when the end came it was somewhat unsatisfying in its true-to-life inconclusiveness. There are no neat endings here. These are three women who have all had disturbing sex lives in different ways. And I wonder, where is the woman who has a joyous sex life? The woman who has sex with a woman? The woman who is not white? Taddeo never meant for these three women to speak for all women and perhaps the main thing they have in common is they have not been heard before and Taddeo gives them a voice to speak for themselves, albeit filtered through her. It’s certainly a compelling read.

I was late to Educated, the memoir of Tara Westover which has long featured on bestseller lists. She was brought up in Idaho by her Mormon fundamentalist family. Her parents said she and her brothers were homeschooled but in truth, they received no education beyond scripture. Tara watched as her mother was persuaded into being an unlicensed midwife’s assistant, and later the midwife herself, using homemade potions and something called “muscle testing” to heal people. Her father, Gene, expected his children to work alongside him in his scrap business where there was no health and safety, it being God’s will if accidents occurred, as they repeatedly did. It’s an extraordinary story of a life lived off-grid. Gene endlessly prepped for the end of the world and his family lived in fear. Tara was bullied, oppressed, assaulted and uneducated. When she glimpsed the outside world it seemed an immoral place, nonetheless, she taught herself to read and yearned for school, eventually going to college. She is astonishingly bright and despite her lack of basic knowledge her intelligence shone through and she went on to achieve incredible academic results. The book is slightly repetitious and I did find myself thinking, oh no, don’t go back to the bloody mountain again at several points, but it’s a fascinating insight into a hidden world.

The Heartland – finding and losing schizophrenia by Nathan Filer

Nathan Filer’s debut novel The Shock of the Fall was hugely successful so inevitably there is a weight of expectation around The Heartland. This is a nonfiction exploration of schizophrenia, but the similarities are clear as Filer employs the same knowledge, sensitivity and engaging language that was present in his novel to open up a conversation about so-called-schizophrenia and tell the stories of some people whose lives have been impacted by it.

It’s a fascinating book: Filer is our reporter from the frontline of medical practice as he was previously a psychiatric nurse but he is also an eloquent and careful reporter of personal stories. He tells us about a soldier who thought his stay in a psychiatric ward was a secret mission, a journalist who thought she was a criminal and drank a mug of bleach to kill herself, a daughter whose mother went undiagnosed for years, and a mother who spoke about her son, which moved me to tears possibly because hers was the story which felt most relatable to me.

From the very beginning it’s clear this is a subject with no concrete answers. Should people seeking help with mental health issues be called patients or service users? To call them patients suggests they have an illness, however, if you instead believe that the behaviours and feelings are not symptomatic of illness but are instead a natural response to trauma then it is problematic to be labelled as a patient. And if there is no consensus on this, what hope is there of reaching any definitive conclusions in mental health practices?

Mental health issues are spoken about far more widely these days and yet it seems to me that whilst the public are more tolerant, maybe even supportive, of someone who has anxiety or depression than used to be the case, there is a feeling that people with schizophrenia are scary and dangerously unpredictable. This book offers beautifully clear explanations such as “… it might be best understood as a kind of psychological adaptation, a coping strategy gone awry or a form of storytelling carried out within the mind as a response to unbearably painful life events.”

There’s a lot of food for thought. For instance, anosognosia means “…having as a symptom of a disorder the belief that you do not have the disorder.” I mean, crikey! Homosexuality was only removed from the official list of diagnosable mental disorders in 1974! There’s a lot of alarming information here. We like to think that people smarter than us with their knowledge beyond our understanding are capable of healing us. To learn that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is perhaps more woolly than we would want is not great.

I highlighted so many passages in this terrific book because it’s something I will refer back to. I think everyone should read it. Despite the subject matter, it’s not a heavy academic read, instead, it feels pretty essential and Filer’s great skill is giving information to us in an interesting and accessible way. My very favourite note is this:

“It’s not always possible to find the right words but we can still be part of the conversation. We can walk with people for a bit, sit with them, hear them.”

The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

“You’d think it wouldn’t bother me now. The Burneses moved away long ago. Two years have passed.” 

It’s always a pleasurable feeling to begin a novel when the writer is as sure footed and smart as Messud – a whole story lays promisingly ahead. 

Julie and Cassie are unlikely best friends. (Unlikely because of their differing backgrounds — where Julia is from an economically and emotionally stable family, mum a journalist, dad a dentist, both encouraging and nurturing, Cassie’s father died before she knew him and her mum is an overweight, overworked hospice nurse with a religious bent.)  Messud does a wonderful job of conjuring the intensity of female adolescent friendships. The girls are inseparable, Julie somewhat in thrall to Cassie whose white blonde hair and spirit of adventure entrance her. They spend time together on the cusp of teen changes, exploring the countryside, drinking hot chocolate, painting each other’s nails and dreaming of leaving town. As is so often the way, there is a cooling of affections; Cassie befriending a new girl, Julie hurt and bitter, and although both girls pretend their relationship is just as friendly, it never recovers. Julie tells us, “My mother assures me that it happens to everyone, sooner or later, for reasons more or less identifiable; everyone loses a best friend at some point. Not in the ‘she moved to Tucson’ sense, but in the sense that ‘we grew apart’” 

I remember it happened to me, more than once, and can still recall the crushing loss of who I was as part of that friendship. How accurate this seems, “I had other friends, but I’d lost the friend I loved best, and had loved without thinking for as long as I could remember, and it seemed absolutely essential not to appear to care.” Oh the times I appeared not to care!

Cassie dates Peter, the boy that Julie likes, and further distances herself, but it’s when her mum starts unexpectedly dating Dr Anders Shute, a man who has “… pale, pale skin and protruding cheekbones like a death’s head” — a man who moves into Cassie’s home and uses his new found religious zeal to reprimand her for everything and anything, that Cassie begins to disappear from Julie’s life.

Messud plays with reader expectations, after all we are well versed in tropes about religious stepdads and rebellious girls, about pretty teens from disadvantaged backgrounds who sneak out to drink with boys. Unlike Julie, nobody is expecting Cassie to achieve. Her story isn’t told directly but is reflected to us through Julie’s imagination, her assumption of knowledge, filling in gaps with information from Peter and snippets of gossip her dad has heard. It may feel a little unsatisfactory to not be dealing with definite’s but it certainly seems organic, in the way the neighbourhood stories we hear are. 

“Sometimes I felt that growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid. Not paranoid, exactly, but always alert and aware, like checking out the exits in the movie theatre or the fire escape in a hotel. You came to know, in a way you hadn’t as a kid, that the body you inhabited was vulnerable, imperfectly fortified. On TV, in the papers, in books and movies, it isn’t ever the men being raped or kidnapped or bludgeoned or dismembered or burned with acid. But in stories and crime shows and TV series and movies, and in life too, it’s going on all around you. So you learn, in your mind, that your body needs protecting. It’s both precious and totally dispensable depending on whom you encounter. You don’t want to end up at a party not knowing how to get home. You don’t want to end up walking down a street—especially a quiet street—by yourself at night. You don’t want to open your door to a strange man at all, really, ever, if you’re alone, even if he’s wearing a uniform. Because his uniform could be a disguise. It happens. I’ve seen it on TV.

You start to grow up and you learn from all the stories around you what the world is like, and you start to lose freedoms. Not because anybody tells you that you’ve lost them, but because you know you need to take care.”

While the voice may sound more like that of an adult than the still young Julie, it’s sad and depressing and rings with truth – it feels like the heart of the book.

Messud’s novel may not have set the literary world alight, but it’s a thoughtful, quiet and typically intelligent story which I thoroughly enjoyed.

A review of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Standard Deviation

 

I read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman and Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny. I didn’t read them with any pre-conceived ideas – in fact, both were from NetGalley and I knew very little about them – it’s possibly only a similarity of my own thinking, but they seem like a match to me.

Eleanor Oliphant is a massive success; a debut novel that started a bidding war and won The Costa First Novel prize. Widely acclaimed and apparently a prime example of feel good “Up Lit” I feel entirely at odds with popular opinion as I loathed it.

Eleanor is a lonely thirty-something who works in an office and adheres to a strict routine she feels safe with. There is unspecified trauma in her background. She’s an oddball, a figure of ridicule at work, out of step with her colleagues and apparently all of modern society. She’s a cartoon character: LOL she’s so weird cos she gets things wrong! Don’t worry though, she’s going to undergo an ugly duckling to swan transformation via a wax, a haircut, a make-over and some new clothes. The characterisation throughout is wafer thin and the plotting seemed incredibly obvious. Eleanor develops a crush on a lead singer in a band at the same time as meeting Raymond, a man seemingly not at all put off by the things that every other person in the book is. Everything is telegraphed well ahead. The voice adopted is a one-note bright, play it for laughs (never mind the trauma) voice.

The idea of this being a mood-lifting “up” style of novel only works if we can ignore rape, murder, fire, crushing loneliness and abuse. The representation of trauma and (possibly) additional needs is woeful.

Standard Deviation, another debut novel, is about Graham, whose inner voice we are privy to, his younger wife, Audra, and their son Matthew. Matthew is an 11 year old with Aspergers and is described in a wonderfully relatable way and is genuinely funny. There’s a warmth that comes through in this novel, and an authenticity that is lacking in Eleanor Oliphant.

“The terrible twos seemed to have a magical stretching ability when it came to Matthew. They went on for years. Eruptions over milk served in anything other than the Buzz Lightyear sippy cup, over music that was too “tinkly”, over carpet that was too scratchy, over people who stood too close, over the smell of sunblock, the prospect of butter on biscuits, the sight of cheetahs in an animal documentary. The littlest thing could set Matthew off, and there seemed to be no way of calling him back from the land of the tantrum – in an instant, he would be flat on the floor, back arched, legs rigid, mouth a wide open circle of angry scream. They would do anything to prevent it. Graham could remember scotch-taping the last banana in the fruit bowl back into a banana peel so Matthew could eat it monkey-style. Graham’s hands had been shaking with desperation.”

Audra is an excellent (over-loud, over-chatty, gossipy) character who is a great foil to Graham (and his ex wife who seems the opposite of her) and is the stand-out star of the book. I enjoyed this novel far more than I expected to and really am quite puzzled why it doesn’t seem to have garnered more praise. Especially considering how feted that blooming Oliphant book is.

Smile by Roddy Doyle

Doyle makes storytelling appear effortless, his prose slipping down as easily as one of the pints Victor Forde sups nightly in Donnelly’s, the pub he has decided to make his regular. At fifty-four he’s newly separated and living alone in a small apartment. The area is familiar to him from his youth, but the people he knew aren’t around and he works to get in with a new group of guys in the bar, wanting to be one of the lads again. It’s very different from his life with Rachel, his ex. She built up her “Meals on Heels” business to the point she’s now one of the experts in an Irish Dragon’s Den style programme. Victor is a writer, or was. They were quite the celebrity couple. Back in the day he was an acerbic music journo and then made a name as one of those talking heads whose outspoken opinions on pretty much everything serves to bring controversy and ratings to radio stations. He was working on The Novel, but it never happened for him. Any day now he’s going to start writing again and Doyle is painfully funny on Forde the procrastinating writer. In a notebook he writes, “31/7/14 Girl – fat farmer – Czech. Or Polish. Wake. Sadness. Brother/old girlfriend?”
I’d take it from there. It would become something. A short story. I could feel it in me, written. Just waiting. I was ready for another piss, then bed. I’d text Rachel. Using the notebook – writing a short story and a novel. X. No, I wouldn’t do that. I left the phone on the table, to make sure I didn’t do something stupid. I went into the toilet. I came out, I emptied my pockets. I’d lost my phone. I remembered – it was on the table. I remembered why. I sat on the bed.”

A man, Fitzgerald, shows up in Donnelly’s and says he knows him. He’s loud, awkward, dressed in pink, and Victor can’t quite place him even when Fitzgerald tells him they were at school together, both taught by the Christian Brothers. He invokes schoolboy memories, the terror of slagging from the other boys and worse from the Brothers. Fragmented flashbacks of childhood return and Doyle is great at details which bring people alive on the page – speaking about a teacher they nicknamed Super Cool, “We could see inside his briefcase. Sandwiches in tinfoil and a flask; no books, no newspaper.
—Thinks he’s Paul McCartney but he wraps his sambos in tinfoil.
It was true, we decided. Super Cool was trying to look like Paul McCartney.”

Why can’t he place Fitzgerald though, when they have shared so many experiences? Why does he make him feel so uncomfortable?

The novel can be read through as typical Doyle fare – a middle-aged bloke reminiscing about childhood, school, his parents, his first love. There’s a bar and a lot of pints. A chorus of guys. Underneath though something is rotten. Those Christian Brothers …

And then there’s a weird twist which blindsided me. I’m still not sure what I think about it. There’s a particular quality about a Roddy Doyle novel which depends on the reader enjoying his portrayals of fictional characters as real people; we believe in them. This tricksy ending leaves us with an inability to trust what we’ve read, which would probably be very neat and satisfying if it rang true. Sadly, it doesn’t. Perhaps it wasn’t supposed to be realistic, but for all its darkness I would have preferred it to go deeper.

The Girls by Emma Cline

I have a dislocated elbow at the moment; my arm is in a full cast and I’m unable to work so it’s the perfect time to catch up with some of my giant TBR pile. Last year there was a lot of buzz about The Girls, it was hyped to the max, and I remember hoping it wouldn’t be one of those novels that are full of potential that doesn’t quite get realised. The jury’s out on that one, but I’m happy to report that when I began reading I was totally absorbed. It’s a reimagining of the Manson cult (I initially tried using a dictation device as my right arm/hand is out of action, but it typed Manson cult as mints and coat and I gave up) told from the point of view of Evie, a 14-year-old who is bored by her long-standing friendship with Connie, upset with her separated parents, ignored by her crush, and disillusioned by school. She is the perfect blend of yearning romantic and brittle bravado for the Mansonesque Russell and his girls to manipulate and influence. Cline is dazzlingly good at the socially awkward shuffles and games adolescent girls employ hoping to be accepted and cool, and the faith we have that one day we will discover our real purpose, our real lives.

She was lost in that deep and certain sense that there was nothing beyond her own experience. As if there were only one way things could go, the years leading you down a corridor to the room where your inevitable self waited – embryonic, ready to be received. How sad it was to realise that sometimes you never got there. That sometimes you lived a whole life skittering across the surface as the years passed, unblessed.

Interspersed throughout, a middle-aged Evie, damaged and lonely, spends time in the company of a couple of teens who are impressed by her past. Her life is indelibly marked by her association with the cult. Her “inevitable self” is not anything she would have hoped for.

Cline writes convincingly about how the girls, and boys too, come to find themselves part of Russel’s commune, living a bullshit free love existence. Evie is entranced by one of them, Suzanne, enough to return to the grimy commune rather than stay with either of her parents. Russell is the magnetic leader, but he remains distant to the reader as the novel moves towards the inevitable brutal murders. It’s Suzanne who is Evie’s focus, although like all the cult characters she too remains unknowable and mysterious.

On reflection, the weird problem I have with the book is that probably the least successful part is the Manson story. The teen girl insights chimed with me and were where my interest lay. I’m not sure the cult part is that interesting – maybe read Helter-Skelter if that’s your area (the bestselling true crime book written by Vincent Bugliosi, the chief prosecutor in the Manson case – a book I devoured many years ago when I was a teen). I wonder if Cline’s novel was actually hindered by following that narrative. However, her perceptiveness and ability make whatever she writes next very interesting to me.