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 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.

My name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Strout is an exemplary storyteller and having adored Olive Kitteridge so damn much, I trust her to tell a quietly unfussy and moving story. MNiLB is narrated by Lucy Barton who looks back at a long stay she had some time in the eighties in hospital recovering from a post-op infection. Her husband and children were largely absent while she recuperated, and her mother, who she hadn’t seen for many years, flew, for the first time, from her small rural home in Amgash to New York. Remaining by her bedside for several days and nights, her mother offers up anecdotes as conversation; tidbits of other’s lives, gossip about neighbours Lucy might recall. Morality tales in the main. Fragments are revealed, as they are in our actual memories, this happened, and this, do you remember? And the pieces of the puzzle are laid out until, oh, yes, we see the picture now. Lucy’s childhood, one of emotional deprivation as well as physical, is revealed. The agonies of not being a fit remaining throughout her life no matter how she learned to blend in with the help of money, husband, kids, a writing career, a New York life.

“Loneliness was the first flavour I tasted…”

Lucy finds a voice through writing, but can’t express herself to her mother. Theirs are conversations where what is not said matters more than what is. We learn obliquely about her father’s PTS and subsequent cruelty, the humiliation he heaped upon her brother, Lucy’s marital problems and her friendship with a neighbour who dies of AIDS.

“It turned out I wanted something else. I wanted my mother to ask about my life. I wanted to tell her about the life I was living now. Stupidly — it was just stupidity — I blurted out, ‘Mom, I got two stories published.’ She looked at me quickly and quizzically, as if I had said I had grown extra toes, then she looked out the window and said nothing. ‘Just dumb ones,’ I said, ‘in tiny magazines.’ Still she said nothing.”

The hopefulness that she can share and connect is calmly devastating.

Glowing at the centre is her relationship with author/teacher, Sarah, who instructs Lucy to write the pages we have read. “This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter,” Sarah says about the writing Lucy has shown her. “Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You are not doing it right.”

This slim novel’s layers peel back to reveal the lumpy truths of a life and its relationships and lays them out for us to examine and recognise. Superb.

The Way We Die Now by Seamus O’Mahony

 

My dad died on February 15th and my world transformed. I am grief-stricken. It’s no surprise that I have turned to books seeking solace, or at least some kind of understanding. The first book I read was “When Breath Becomes Air” which in retrospect I found unsatisfactory and unhelpful. “The Way We Die Now” though has been a strangely compelling read despite its rather stark message. Right from the introduction O’Mahony warns us, “This is not a book of consolation; death is simply affliction and the end of our days. We are frail and vulnerable animals.”

He argues persuasively and passionately against the over medicalisation of death. As a Consultant Gastroenterologist at Cork University Hospital Dr O’Mahony has seen many people die and he uses a mixture of personal anecdotes, patient anecdotes, and high profile celebrity deaths, to highlight how our society places faith in medicine and expects to live despite disease. He explains how many patients receive what he believes to be useless treatments; procedures that take place for the sake of the hospital being seen to do something, often at the expense of a patient’s comfort. CPR that takes place after death is common apparently (and he is clear that CPR is rarely successful as it is in medical dramas. It’s a brutal technique that can leave people permanently damaged if they do survive.) Speaking about the overuse of PEG feeding he says “The procedure became for me a symbol of the medicalisation of death, and of the failure of modern medicine to care humanely for those most in need of its help.”

He is wonderfully dismissive of Kugler-Ross’s famous five stages; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. “The power and terror of death refuses to be tamed by workshops, by trite formulae.” The myth of a “good death” is exploded. It is likely we will die whilst sedated and pain-free thanks to a syringe driver. We won’t make profound death bed statements, we won’t even speak. We will be removed from our own death, but that saves us from dying in terror and pain. There is rarely a peaceful, stoic acceptance. That word terror catches me and makes me realise I had some fairy story death narrative in my head where gradually people slip away. Here’s my comfort, such as it is, my dad died unexpectedly. His heart stopped. He did not know he was dying. We did not have the agonies of having to decide for him what interventions he should endure so that we could keep him with us. I fear I would have insisted on all of them, though I hope I would not have.

O’Mahony writes he was “…deeply impressed by how Catholic ritual – after the deaths of my great-uncle and father in-law – guided the bereaved during the days immediately following their deaths.” The issue in a secular society where “Evangelical atheism has accelerated the flight from religion” is how to find this kind of comfort, and he suggests we worry less about believing and be content with simply belonging. This really chimed with me. Dad had a full Catholic funeral; his body was received into church the night before and his priest led us gently through the rituals and beliefs. During the funeral he took the same care to explain. It felt unimportant I don’t share those beliefs. I was immensely grateful for this acknowledgement of loss and grief, this solemnity, this tribute to my dad.

The book explores “deluded optimism” where patients, doctors, and family and friends collude in a pretence there is hope where there is none. What bloody fools we are that we think we can tame death. There is so much that is interesting here; the fact that patients who have combined oncology/palliative care live on average 25% longer than those who forge on with treatment (seeing hospices as an admission of failure), and that doctors apparently often choose not to undergo extensive treatment themselves. The idea that doctors offer treatment because they don’t know what else to do and need to be seen as doing something is troubling, yet the instinct is to want them to do every possible thing to save the lives of those we love.

How afraid we are, of course, and we are right to be. There’s no magic here, but this is a cool, intelligent look at death, right in its ghastly, deathy face.

Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald

I was given Adult Onset by my boss. (I think she is my reading twin and it’s very cool to have met someone whose reading tastes seems to chime so exactly with my own.) I’d never heard of Ann-Marie MacDonald before, but wow, Adult Onset is a stunning novel and MacDonald is an exceptional writer.

The novel is about motherhood and family and how the past informs the present. I won’t be able to do it justice here. Please trust me when I say it’s rare to read someone who writes with such insight and has the ability to portray the workings of a mind reaching for distant truths with such clarity.

Mary Rose is marred to Hilary. They have adopted one child and Hilary has given birth to another. Mary Rose has chosen to stay home and be “Mumma” and during the week in which the novel takes place Hilary is working away. Beginning on Monday and finishing on Sunday we journey alongside Mary Rose as she negotiates her way through the days of toddler tantrums, domestic crises, parent’s, siblings, and her aching arm; the result of childhood bone cysts, which niggles and nags and flares, beginning the examination of her past.

This book is so damn quotable. Paragraph after paragraph of amazing writing.

“How do you tell yourself what you already know? If you have successfully avoided something, how do you know you have avoided it?”

And

“Mary Rose felt guilty for not feeling warm and happy. Instead of melting into a smile, she felt her face go positively Soviet in a pre-glasnost kind of way. She knew she looked like Brezhnev and there was nothing she could do about it. If she rummaged in her basement, she could probably find the box marked WARM AND HAPPY. But who knew what else might be down there, she didn’t have time to go through it all.”

And

“Mary Rose has thought Rochelle socially awkward, but it dawns on her now that Rochelle may be that rare personality type, the Fearless Pauser.”

So excellent. I will now hunt down everything she has written.

Incidentally, I knew nothing about the author until after I finished reading. I thought this the finest novel I’ve read since Miriam Toews’ superb “All My Puny Sorrows” and it’s interesting to discover that not only are both Canadian, but that this novel is also apparently somewhat autobiographical. I think there’s something incredibly powerful about the truth that comes from fiction and wonder if what makes these novels so strong is the honesty that resonates with the reader.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay’s short fiction has appeared in many of the literary journals I’ve read over the last eight years or so. She’s editor of the mighty PANK. She writes a wonderful blog. Her non-fiction has appeared in many esteemed publications. She basically rules Twitter with her always interesting observations. She has a very clear, authoritative voice and I have long had a complete writer crush on her. Her collection of essays “Bad Feminist” has just been published in the UK. It’s currently number 13 in the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. Roxane Gay is really successful now which is amazing and fabulous and so bloody well deserved. 

A collection of her stories – “Ayiti” – was published in 2011 which I reviewed here. Interestingly the passage I quoted from “Things I Know About Fairytales” features in her debut novel “An Untamed State” which continues exploring the chasm in Haiti between the rich and poor and contrasts it with life in the US. 

Mireille Duval James is a young woman from Haiti who lives in America. She is smart and feisty, an attorney married to an American man, Michael. They have a baby son, Christophe. Returning to Port-au-Prince to visit her wealthy, successful parents, Mireille, Michael and Christophe set off for the beach when their car is surrounded by a group of violent criminals who abduct Mireille, demanding a huge ransom. Her father, Sebastien, refuses to pay, believing that negotiating with the kidnappers can only endanger other members of his family.

Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.

     They held me captive for thirteen days.

     They wanted to break me.

     It was not personal.

     I was not broken.

     This is what I tell myself.

    

What follows is a difficult read. Gay’s powerful prose explores the brutality and violence that is inflicted upon Mireille day after day. I flinched from the words. This is not a book I could look forward to reading. It’s a depiction of a woman being abused in every way imaginable. The first part weaves stories from Mireille and Michael’s relationship with time from her imprisonment. It’s necessary to have the relief the memories of their courtship offer. The second part deals with the aftermath. How does a woman survive such atrocities? Tortured, gang raped, imprisoned, how can Mieille possibly move forwards? 

It’s a novel about family: Mireille’s parents and the compromises her mother makes, her father, her sister, Michael’s parents, their son, Christophe. It’s also about personal endurance, self-preservation, the political implications of poverty, violence, domination, hope and courage.  It’s an impossibly dark read. And very powerful.

When I finished reading I googled to find out more about Port-au-Prince and kidnapping. The UK government issues a warning that they will not negotiate with kidnappers believing, as Mireille’s father does, that it only increases the likelihood of more kidnaps. The BBC warn “No one is safe from kidnapping, regardless of occupation, nationality, race, gender, or age.” 

Horrifying.

 

Vulgar Things by Lee Rourke

After losing his job, and getting drunk, Jon Michaels finds out that his Uncle Rey has died and is persuaded to travel to Canvey and sort through Rey’s personal effects. Jon stays in his uncle’s caravan and discovers recordings, a telescope, letters – things that fracture everything he’d assumed about his life.

Vulgar Things is an odyssey firmly rooted in and around Southend. Rourke’s landscape is not the familiarly romanticised sea, but rather the bleak beauty of grey waves and scrubland. I’m from Essex myself and my parents now live on the Garrison in Shoeburyness (which gets a brief mention) – Southend is a place I know well and it was refreshing to read a novel set there. It made me realise how unheard that voice is and how far away from the TOWIE stereotype much of Essex actually is. The real Southend can be pretty brutal, incredibly sweary, seedy, grubby, violent – drunks and sex workers mingle with day trippers, old folk, families and school kids. Rourke captures this well as Jon walks back and forth from Canvey to Southend, the repetition of the journey, the landmarks he passes, building into the readers consciousness so we feel we’re walking alongside him.  Alcohol is central to the novel, as is the crackle of violence. Jon’s obsession with a woman he briefly meets is part of a deeper story – his character seemingly doomed to repeat a narrative originally played out by his uncle. The woman is wanted not for who she is but for who he imagines her to be. Even the wide Canvey sky bright with stars and planets transforms from reassuring to dizzying, disconcerting, worrying.

The whole novel has a claustrophobic feel despite the sea and skyscapes. The contained life Uncle Rey led in his tiny caravan bleeds into the present day. Jon visits the local pub “The Lobster Smack”, goes on walks with his trusty stick, obsesses over Laura, watches tapes of his Uncle reading from his novel, recorded in the same caravan, over and over. It feels airless and yet the story itself is compelling and I read on, eagerly trying to fit pieces of a puzzle together.

It’s deeply frustrating to feel my mind battle its own limitations. I knew there were layers to the story that I was missing, intentions that went whoosh over my head. Anyway, there’s a brilliantly illuminating interview over at The Quietus that anyone who is interested should go and read. Smarter folk than me etcetera. (Ah, right, Petrarch & Laura!)

Do come back tomorrow if you are interested in knowing what superhero power Lee Rourke would have and what colour he thinks Tuesdays are (Always asking the tough questions). #SmashLits