Although the subjects of the novels below range from coming of age to coming to America, all five have two things in common: They’re written by women, and they center on female characters. What books by women and/or about women have you been perusing?
A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore
Moore’s coming-of-age novel is set in a post-9/11 Midwestern college town. I read it on a Metro North train and I was really into it. So into it, in fact, that I got off one station before my transfer in a haze of which-world-am-I-in confusion. Then, as the doors shut, I realized that I was still an hour away from my final destination. As the train pulled away, I had two additional revelations: I had left my phone on the seat, and this was the last train of the night. I was fully marooned.
“I guess I live here now,” I thought. I trudged down to the taxi stand to start a new life for myself. Now here I am, a happy resident of Brewster, NY. No, $90 later I got home. But the point of this story is: Moore is very absorbing, especially if you like puns. People in her books are always verbally jousting with each other, no matter how unhappy or confused they are. Even when two characters don’t like each other very much, they can usually cease hostilities long enough to bond over a good homophone. It’s Moore’s way of telling us how lonely her characters are. In her universe, puns are the way that people grasp for connection.
The novel’s narrator, Tassie, is a smart college student cut off even from the people she loves most. One of the novel’s key plot points hinges on an email from her beloved brother, who writes asking for advice on a major life decision. Not only doesn’t Tassie write back, she never even reads the email. She doesn’t understand why herself. But the isolation that courses through the book provides the explanation: The vulnerability of her brother’s email, and the prospect of taking responsibility for another person, was too much for Tassie to bear. People turn away from intimacy throughout the book. The decision seems almost sensible, given that nobody is who they say they are–not Tassie’s Brazilian boyfriend, nor the white couple who hire her as a nanny for their adorable, bi-racial adoptive daughter Mary-Emma. Self-deception runs deep too. Their liberal college town, which prides itself on being the kind of enlightened place where you can protest wars and buy organic kohlrabi all in one go, reveals a racist underbelly.
Needless to say, this is a sad book. You kind of hear “Eleanor Rigby” playing on repeat as you read it. But Moore makes sure you don’t drown in melancholy: there are still bowls of fresh strawberries with balsamic vinaigrette, the joy of discovering Simone de Beauvoir, art etched into the foam of cappuccinos. The book recognizes the balancing power of ordinary consolations, even as it suggests–steely-eyed–that they’re not enough.
Away, Amy Bloom
Immigrant stories! I have loved them ever since my elementary school staged an Ellis Island play called Freedom Bound. In retrospect, it was filled with stereotypical caricatures of many ethnicities. Fifth-grade music teachers of the world: Don’t stage Freedom Bound. Anyhoodles, Away is the story of Lillian, a young Jewish woman who moves to New York in 1924 after losing her family to a pogrom in Russia. Soon she finds herself criss-crossing the country–and our northern maple-leaved neighbor–on her way to Siberia. Lillian’s heard that her daughter may be alive, and she won’t stop until she finds out.
Away blossoms with vivid portraits of strivers–immigrants and otherwise marginalized people struggling to gain a foothold in the not-so-gold-paved streets of America. Over the course of Lillian’s journey, she takes a Jewish father-son pair who represent the Old-New World divide as (separate) lovers; works for an African-American lady of the night named Gumdrop who has the strategic smarts and willpower of a five-star general; and befriends a Chinese con woman brimming with cheeky, irrepressible flair. What Lillian shares with all of them is determination. To make it in this America, you’ve got to be bad and bold like a Des’ree song. Like Lillian, you’ve got to shove yourself to the front of the line for a job you know you’re not qualified for, in a language you’ve yet to master. The novel’s spirit is best summed up by Gumdrop, my favorite of Bloom’s creations:
“‘I think the most important thing in the world is being brave,’ Gumdrop says now, in the dark. ‘I’d rather be brave than beautiful. Hell, I’d settle for acting brave.’”
Gumdrop, I’m with you.
Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, Emma Straub
The sweet and aimless heroine of Straub’s novel also has an origin story born of family tragedy. But that’s where the similarities between Bloom’s Lillian and Straub’s Laura Lamont, née Else Emerson, end. Else’s beloved older sister commits suicide when Else is still a young girl growing up in the pastoral paradise of Door County, Wisconsin. As soon as she’s old enough, Else marries an aspiring actor and splits for Hollywood.
In a lot of ways, that’s the last real decision Else makes. In California, major life events happen to her: motherhood, her divorce, her big Hollywood break, her remarriage. The ultimate studio star, Else lets others tell her what to wear and what to weigh, what to call herself, whether to be blonde or brunette. Her passivity is the novel’s biggest weakness. Else’s malleability is likely realistic for a starlet, but I wanted to see her evolve into a woman who would take control of her own storyline.
Still, Laura Lamont has many strengths. Straub is a regular contributor to Rookie magazine, and her writing here–as there–is compassionate and velvety as chocolate cake. I’m eager to see what she’ll fix her sights on next. In the meantime, I’ll be satiating my star-is-born cravings with Anne Helen Petersen’s riveting Scandals of Classic Hollywood. (Get the woman a book deal, if she doesn’t have one already.)
The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker
This book is like Melancholia, but less in your face apocalypse and more slow ride apocalypse: take it easy. Julia, the book’s narrator, is 11 years old when scientists announce that the rotation of the earth is slowing down. Days get longer; then they get so long they aren’t really days at all.
Understandably, people freak. The comings and goings of the sun get so far out of whack with the 24-hour cycle that society divides between the dutiful majority, who observe clock time, and “real-timers,” who effectively drop out of society in order to stay in tune with patterns of light and dark. Birds start dying off; a mysterious syndrome makes Julia’s mother fall ill.
But this apocalypse happens little by little, and in the meantime many attempt to maintain the comfort and stability of routines. That means that Julia has to keep subjecting herself to another, more insidious kind of doomsday: Middle school.
Despite the neat dovetailing of these plot lines,Walker’s apocalypse isn’t a metaphor. Instead, it harnesses climate change fears and applies them to another potentially unstoppable environmental crisis of mammoth proportions. The Age of Miracles is beautiful, but heads up: When you start thinking about it in these terms, the book gets real real grim. “We should look ahead,” Julia reflects, “to the time that’s left. But the past is long, and the future is short.” If you need me, I’ll be in a corner somewhere, shivering.
The Innocents, Francine Segal
I went into this book completely blind, which meant that at the beginning I was unaware of the two most-publicized facts about The Innocents. First, Francine Segal is the daughter of Love Story author Erich Segal (her book contains one hundred percent less terminal illness, however). Second, The Innocents re-imagines The Age of Innocence in contemporary London, swapping in a close-knit, bougie Jewish community for a bunch of New York WASPs.
Edith Wharton, not a particularly huge fan of my people, would likely disapprove of a book that devotes substantial amounts of narrative energy to explaining the intricacies of challah-buying tactics and what Rosh Hashanah’s whole deal is. I, on the other hand, was delighted–though it’s always strange to hear your own culture explained back to you, like overhearing someone describe you at a party when they think you’re not in the room.
In The Innocents, the role of Countess Ellen Olenska is assumed by Ellie, a beautiful, brilliant, tortured model who is the black sheep of the family thanks to a wild New York lifestyle and a mildly scandalous part in an art-house film. May is reincarnated as Ellie’s cousin Rachel, a nice Jewish girl who’s sweet-natured and giving, but so sheltered she’s practically underground. The man torn between them is Adam, who begins to hunger for the world outside his cloistered realm just after he’s proposed to Rachel–an engagement that will definitively bind him to it.
The book is sympathetic to Adam’s fears of entrapment–so much so that I worried about Segal’s portrait of Rachel. Of course the glamorous model is intriguing; that’s to be expected. I’m more curious about understanding the inner life of the good girl who’s constantly getting the fuzzy end of the attention-lollipop. But Segal knows what she’s doing. By the end of the book, it’s clear that Adam’s choice between the two women–and the alternatively big and small worlds they represent–isn’t a clear-cut Matrix kind of scenario. There are upsides to his sometimes-smothering network of Jewish families that go beyond stability and security. For better or for worse, attaching himself to Rachel means that he’ll never be alone.