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Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters

By Anne Boyd Rioux

W.W. Norton, 2018

This month is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Louisa May Alcott’s classic, Little Women. Over the years, Jo, the fictional March family’s second, rebellious daughter, has been seen by adventurous girls as a role model. Apparently Jo was based on Alcott herself, and the other three March sisters in the book mirror Alcott’s own three siblings.

When it first appeared, Alcott’s book was ground-breaking because it was written in a realist style. While Marmee’s admonitions to her girls are sometimes preachy, the book lacks the deadly sermon-like style of most Victorian- era children’s books.

Still, Alcott’s book sends a mixed message. Alcott, who famously said, “I’d rather paddle my own canoe,” than be dependent on a man for financial support, never married. And in her book Meg marries a man who is poor, Beth dies, Amy is regarded as frivolous because she aspires to wealth and beauty, and Jo, after an early start as a writer, ends up marrying a man old enough to be her father, and running a school.

To my childish understanding, this sent the same message that I saw at my all-girls’ school, where all the teachers were what used to be called spinsters: that being a writer – or a teacher – means giving up the idea of a joyful, companionate marriage of equals. For boring Professor Bhaer, whom Jo chooses as her husband is anything but sexy, and he talks down to her. So for reasons described further in my article, How Childhood Reading Shapes Identity, which appeared this week in the online magazine Women Writers, Women’s Books, I identified with both Jo and her older sister Meg, my namesake. I wanted it all.

As time went on, generation after generation of girls identified with the March sisters, and more intellectual girls identified with Jo. As Anne Boyd Rioux points out in her new book, in the middle of the twentieth century feminist scholars began to dissect Little Women with new intensity. They brought to light Alcott’s darker theme. Jo, who fought against conventional behavior for women, is eventually controlled by her older husband, and Beth, the perfect, submissive adolescent, dies. Rioux suggests that Beth died of anorexia, a symptom of girls who resist the physical and mental changes puberty brings.

Rioux is concerned that Alcott is no longer taught in American schools. Apparently teachers feel boys won’t read books about girls, while girls are expected to devour classics about boys. Huck Finn is in, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy are out.

In a telling paragraph, Rioux notes: “The main obstacle to Little Women’s continued popularity, though, is that young readers are interested in a fundamentally different kind of literature. Girls want adventure, not domestic drama, and they are much more interested in fantasy than realism.”

To my mind, this demonstrates that not much has changed. If girls like heroines who are “witches, warrior princesses or hunters”, then the idea that a girl on the cusp of puberty can truly aspire to the same life choices that are held out to boys, is still far from being the norm.

Read my article in Women Writers, Women’s Books here:
http://booksbywomen.org/how-childhood-reading-shapes-identity-by-margaret-ann-spence/

Refuge

By Dina Nayeri

Riverhead Books, A Division of Penguin Random House, 2017


What does it take for a child to be taken from her native country as her mother flees persecution, to be a homeless, penniless refugee in America, and then to graduate from Princeton and Harvard, and by the age of 40 to have published two novels and won many writing awards? This is Dina Nayeri’s life story and we get glimpses of the psychological cost of her experiences in this semi-autobiographical novel.

In this riveting story the main narrator is Niloo Hamidi, who, like Nayeri, is the daughter of a fundamentalist Christian mother who fled Iran in 1987. The novel is told in the voice of Niloo and her father, Bahman, who stayed behind.

Bahman is a wonderful character. An exuberant dentist who indulges in chocolate, alcohol, and opium, he chose not to leave Iran with his wife. He didn’t want to leave his respected profession, his ancestral village in Isfahan, his house and his drug habit. The novel hinges on the four visits Bahman made to his family through 2009. They meet in the United States, Madrid, Istanbul, and Amsterdam. Over time, Bahman sees his daughter change beyond recognition, and her teenaged embarrassment over her father’s behavior hardens. He’s a mess, and she’s tried so hard not to be.

Niloo is married to Guillaume, aka Gui, a wealthy French-American (the nicest man, she tells her father, and he is). They live in Amsterdam. That’s significant, because an anti-Muslim politician is on the rise, and the city is crowded with refugees who have no visas, no jobs, and no hope. The marriage seems tenuous, despite’s Gui’s best efforts. This couple can’t understand one another. Niloo both depends on and resents Gui’s assumptions of well-being and financial security (he’s an international lawyer), while she creates boundaries between them. In every place they live she makes a “Perimeter”, a few square feet of personal space to hold her treasures. She’s succeeded in her profession as a paleontologist because she works relentlessly. Gui asks her to “waste time”, i.e. to have fun. Unable to understand this concept, Niloo befriends a community of Iranian refugees. All are trying to get asylum in The Netherlands. Gui offers professional legal help for them; she refuses. It takes her a while to realize that in pushing away her husband and bonding with the refugees she is processing her own childhood experience and learning who she really is.

In the twenty-two years this story encompasses, the Iranian situation has worsened. We see this through Bahman’s courtroom plea for his third divorce. The courtroom scenes, spread over several chapters, are a brilliant authorial device, showing Iranian values and how different they are from Western ones. This novel does not shy away from political truths. And it’s beautifully written.

It’s beyond the scope of this review to unearth the ways in which Nayeri demonstrates the complex self- hatred and conflicted identities of refugees, just as she excavates the feelings of Bahman, who stayed behind, feeling guilty he cannot effect change. Niloo’s academic work involves interpreting the teeth of prehistoric peoples, an interesting choice, given her father’s profession. All humans, Nayeri implies, lived through a full gamut of emotions in turbulent times either never recorded or now forgotten, migrating, and evolving as they did so. But their bones and their teeth tell us of the universality of humanity.

First Anniversary Sale!

Ever since I was a kid who wrote a “novel” in a blue exercise book, complete with hand-done drawings, I wanted to see a book of mine in actual print.

Last summer, that happened.

It was an amazing feeling to see Lipstick on the Strawberry in print, with its gorgeous cover, designed by Debbie Taylor of The Wild Rose Press. Thanks to everyone who has been so supportive, have written reviews (so important to authors) or have written me a personal note.

I’m especially tickled by the fact that though I consider women to be the book’s target readers, a number of men have commented on how they enjoyed it. They even liked the recipes!

To celebrate the anniversary, the e-book is on sale from August 17-31!
ONLY 99 CENTS!


The Wild Rose Press

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

iBooks (Apple)

The Ones We Choose


By Julie Clark

Simon & Schuster, 2018

The urge to procreate is profound. It’s driven by the genes of every living thing. In the past few years our knowledge of the human genome has revolutionized science, and reproductive technology also advances relentlessly. In this fascinating debut novel, Julie Clark combines both themes. When a geneticist has a baby by an unknown father, can she ever feel secure?

Surrogacy, egg donation, and IVF have all brought the joy of parenthood to countless people who thought they could never have a baby. There is one technology that it old hat by comparison – sperm donation. There are men who donate semen for money or for altruistic reasons. Women who do not have a partner or whose partner is infertile can select donor semen and become pregnant. If they use a sperm bank they never know who sired the child.

This is the story of Paige Robson and her charming, funny, clever eight-year-old, Miles. Paige almost left the baby boat behind because she’s been so damaged by her own childhood that she’s built a wall up around herself. That’s immediately apparent in the opening pages of this book, but Julie Clark’s characterization is so deft that this reader liked Paige immensely, and adored her son. Clark is an elementary school teacher by profession and her descriptions of PTA meetings, a “drill sergeant” third grade teacher, and playground bullies are often hilarious. Her rendering of Miles and his heartbreaking wish to know who his father is centers the novel.

There are so many layers to this book beyond the paradox that Clark poses at the beginning. Paige’s own Dad has been largely absent from her childhood, and this fuels her anger. But she then chooses to create a child who will never know his father. In Clark’s writerly hands, this
makes sense. As the novel progresses, a tragedy happens, and another question occurs to the reader. To what extent is our foreknowledge of a future genetic possibility useful, given that life is so unpredictable? Is the passion for control more important than being vulnerable to pain? And should love for a child trump all other relationships?

Julie Clark signals all these questions in her title. The word “Choose” implies control. But how much control do we have over other people and over ourselves?

A most thought-provoking book.

The Salt House

By Lisa Duffy
Simon & Schuster, 2017

This book grabbed me from the first page. The story of a family unhinged by grief over the death of their toddler, it is told from the points of view of each of the four surviving family members. The author does a remarkable job of getting inside the head of each of the parents, Jack and Hope Kelly, and of their daughters, sixteen-year-old Jess and eight-year-old Kat.

As a writer, I am in awe of Lisa Duffy’s daring to do this in her debut novel. It is hard to create mannerisms and dialogue that reflect each viewpoint character’s personality. There are a number of books that alternate the voices of husband and wife – Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and The Silent Wife, by A.S.A Harrison, come to mind. Each of those stories features childless couples and involve murder. Duffy’s genre is women’s fiction, a supposedly gentler medium. But the plot builds suspense in The Salt House as Duffy writes each member of the family’s reaction to the death of baby Maddie. A sub-plot holds the story together, fueled by the behavior of the taciturn lobsterman Jack Kelly when an old antagonist reappears in town.

With four viewpoint characters, who is the protagonist here? Duffy’s point seems to be that in a house of grief, all the residents are entitled to their own struggle. By writing them all in the first person she enhances our ability to empathize with them. She does an excellent job in her portrait of the two partners in a marriage. She’s able to write the voice of a teenager so the reader feels again the wash of emotion of first love, and then takes us into the language and understanding of an elementary school child. Kat’s misunderstandings and malapropisms provide light relief from what could be an overwhelmingly sad story. It’s fitting that her action provides a turning point in the family’s move from despair to healing.

Lisa Duffy’s ear for dialogue is spot on. Her settings, too, ring true. Having spent some delightful vacations in coastal Maine, I recognized her descriptions of lobster boats and the territorial fishing culture, the hard, sometimes dangerous work of fishermen mitigated by the gorgeous natural beauty of the sea and shore. It’s summer-time Atlantic coast setting make this a great book for late summer reading. Recommended.

Circe

By Madeline Miller
Bloomsbury Publishing, U.K. 2018

The enchantress Circe, who lived alone on a magic island, lured Odysseus, on the last stretch of his long journey from the battle at Troy to his home in Ithaca, to her bed. His men, she turned to pigs.

In this gorgeous imagining of Homer’s story, the classicist Madeline Miller makes Circe intelligent and independent, more mortal than goddess, a woman reacting to men’s betrayal, a young girl considered ugly and stupid by her mother and siblings, an outcast, a single mother, and a woman who escaped danger over and over again by her own ingenuity.

That made the male species wild. In Miller’s telling, Circe’s father Helios exiles her because she used her magic powers to turn a romantic rival, Scylla, into the six-headed monster who haunted the Strait of Messina. The strait was narrow, and ships were forced between two terrors, the monster and the whirlpool known as Charybdis. Miller’s Scylla is the undercurrent of the novel. Perhaps a projection of the evil that jealousy causes, she’s Circe’s nemesis. But then, so are most of the other characters who populate the story, from her hateful siblings to the gentle Penelope, Odysseus’s faithful wife. Circe, Miller seems to say, will always be alone, because she acts with an agency denied to females in the ancient world.

Circe works hard at her profession. After the first night in exile, she wakes and goes into the forest surrounding her house. “I stepped into those woods and my life began.” Circe tells us that witchcraft is like any other trade. It must be learned and practiced. ”Sorcery…must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over and sung. Even after all that, it can fail, as gods cannot…Day after patient day, you must throw out your errors and begin again.”

Fortunately for Circe, she has years, centuries even, to perfect her craft, undistracted by domestic chores. I loved this passage about her island home: “Though the rooms were deserted, there was no speck of dust, and I would learn that none would cross the marble threshold. However I tracked upon it, the floor was always clean, the tables gleaming. The ashes vanished from the fireplace, the dishes washed themselves, and the firewood regrew overnight. In the pantry there were jars of oil and wine, of cheese and barley-grain, always fresh and full.”

And so she gets on with it. Miller brings many other Greek myths into her episodic story, and Odysseus only appears in the latter third of the book. In the meantime, Circe has learned not to trust sailors who happen upon the island and discover that she lives there alone. Miller’s voice is strong and powerful when she describes Circe’s reaction to rape, and later, her wary reaction to Odysseus, who charms her by his diffidence and friendship. It is not a spoiler to tell of Circe’s pregnancy by Odysseus, who sails off unknowing. Here Miller shows us, movingly, Circe’s struggles to bring up a baby alone, while trying to work. What mother cannot sympathize when Circe describes her desperate attempts to get her infant to sleep? “However I wrapped him, however I rocked and sang, he screamed…. The only thing that helped was if I walked – walked the halls, walked the hills, walked the shore.”

The last part of the book is a delight. In a twist on how Homer must surely have imagined Telemachus, Odysseus’s son by Penelope, Miller portrays him with the soul of an accountant. He is no warrior.

Quite simply, I loved this book. Read it.

Educated

By Tara Westover
Random House, 2018

This beautifully written memoir is on the best seller list, and deserves to be.

Tara, the youngest of seven children of a fundamentalist Mormon family, never went to public school. Instead, she worked from the age of ten as a babysitter, in a grocery store, and for her father in his scrapyard. She also helped her mother midwife babies, and used elementary first aid skills when her family members were injured, which was often. Amazingly, encouraged by one of her older brothers, who had escaped through going to college, Tara took a college entrance test at the age of sixteen and was admitted to Brigham Young University. Eventually she went on to earn a doctorate at Cambridge University.

What struck me about this memoir – and I have been reading a lot of survivalist and counter-cultural memoirs lately, researching my new novel – was how intelligent the members of this family were. Given Tara’s father’s religiosity, which bordered on insanity, and his psychological hold on the family, the five sons and both daughters managed to support themselves while still very young. The father shouted that women should not work outside the home, but pushed his reluctant wife into being a midwife. With the money she earned, she put in a phone line to the house.

Except for the phone, the trucks and cars, this could be life in the American West in the nineteenth century.

Tara portrays her parents with unflinching realism. Her mother constantly placated her father, who, though not deliberately violent with his family, made dangerous decisions, including not trusting the medical profession. Even when one of his sons was so badly injured in a motor-cycle accident that Tara, coming upon the scene, could see his brain through the head-wound, the father wanted Tara to bring the boy home so his mother could treat him. To her credit, Tara took him to the hospital.

Tara’s internal conflicts make up the core of this story. One suspects that what made her so conflicted, as opposed to so angry at her father’s treatment of his family is that when he did get pushback from them, he allowed whatever it was they wanted to do. His control over them was actually weaker than any of them believed. Tara Westover’s love for her family and for the Idaho mountain where they lived, pitted against her determination to make something of herself, makes this a compelling read.

The Secret Life of Mrs. London

By Rebecca Rosenberg
Lake Union Publishing, 2018

I am at Jack London Square in Oakland, California, as I write this. Only its location as a terminus of the ferry to San Francisco reminds us now of London’s love of the sea and of nature. In this historical novel Rebecca Rosenberg reminds us of California in the early twentieth century – a growing, vibrant, place where there was room to build a new society among the redwoods and ranches.

Jack London was one of California’s most influential early writers, a best seller who pursued new ideas of socialism and sustainability while mortgaging himself to the hilt to become a land baron, collecting admirers, and drinking round the clock. He also had a wife who was his close collaborator. Yet Charmian, who was as bright, ambitious, as intellectually curious, and even wealthier than he in her own right, has been forgotten.

Beginning eight or so years into the marriage, the novel shows Charmian’s growing frustration with Jack’s waning desire for her, even as she does everything for him.

He says, “It’s the institution of marriage that strangles love, isn’t it?…over the years the face of your beloved becomes as familiar as your own.”

She says, “You take my visions and ideas and turn them into literature that will be praised and read by generations to come…I tell myself it’s enough to be part of your genius. But is it? Is it really?”

This classic interplay between writer and his female muse infuses the novel, whose tension gathers with Charmian’s increasing frustration. She’s a writer too, but because she’s a woman, is seen only as his wife and typist. In Rosenberg’s excellent portrayal, we are in Charmian’s head, unable to work a way out of her dilemma. Her constant attention to Jack’s needs becomes claustrophobic. Rosenberg cleverly uses the escape artist Houdini, a friend of Jack and Charmian London, as a metaphor as well as a key plot element to enable her to unlock the key to a wider world.

Rosenberg writes evocatively of the gorgeous natural environment of Glen Ellen, a place where vineyards now thrive, of Hawaii and of the cities of the East Coast on the brink of America’s involvement in World War I. But it is her insightful and compassionate understanding of the complex relationship between two brilliant people that really makes this novel stand out.

Highly recommended.

The Tuscan Child

By Rhys Bowen
Lake Union Publishing, 2018

A young English woman at a crossroads in her life goes searching for “the beautiful boy” her late father had written about in a letter to a mysterious Italian woman years before.

Alternating in time between the nineteen forties and the nineteen seventies, between the point of view of Hugo and his daughter Joanna, we learn about an Italian hillside village in the waning, dangerous months before the end of the Second World War, and about how that village kept its dark secrets a generation later, when Joanna goes looking for them.

With its themes of Europe in World War II and English aristocrats struggling to cope with the loss of their prestige and their homes in the bloodless social revolution that occurred in Britain post-war, this novel combines history with a mystery.

The book, delightfully, is also about food. Living with Paola, a widow who rents out rooms to tourists, Joanna savors specialties like eggplant parmesan, bruschetta, risotto, and other Italian favorites familiar to us today, but strange and wonderful to the English visitor forty years ago.

As to the “beautiful boy”, that is for you to discover as you read this page-turning novel.

Books About Mothers

This Mother’s Day, I mused about how many books focus on mothers and their relationships with their children. Here are ten books about mothers. Some have been reviewed in my blog over the past few years. They range from memoir, romance, and women’s fiction to literary fiction. All are worth reading. Mentioned (almost) alphabetically by author.

Glitter & Glue by Kelly Corrigan
A young American in search of adventure becomes a nanny in Sydney, Australia. The children she cares for have lost their mother to cancer. Poignant, humorous and very well written. Reviewed May 2015.

The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande
A mother leaves her children in Mexico to go to the USA for a better life. The children run away from their grandmother’s house to follow her. A harrowing memoir, more topical today than ever. Reviewed October 2014

The House By The River by Lena Manta
The five daughters of Greek village widow Theodora grow up and move far away. Manta explores the adult lives of all five daughters and their own relationships with their children. One theme running through all the stories is male dominance, and how women in this traditional culture were expected simply to stay home and to find total fulfillment in that role. Translated from the Greek, told from multiple points of view in the manner of a fairy tale.

The Good Mother by Sue Miller
Like the late Anita Shreve, Sue Miller was a best-selling author in the nineteen eighties and nineties. Both wrote what I would call classic women’s fiction, though possibly they didn’t like that label. In The Good Mother, Miller’s debut novel, a woman’s sexuality conflicts with her role as mother. The ironic title refers to how Anna, the protagonist, feels about herself. Yet she is in a custody battle for her daughter, Molly.

Family Pictures, by Sue Miller
Family Pictures tells the story of the Lainey and David Eberhardt, whose third child is autistic. The book is set in the nineteen fifties when birth control was not as reliable as it is today and when mothers were blamed for autism. This confluence off actors leads Lainey to give birth to three more children and to the marriage’s eventual break-down. This is a riveting and convincing story of a family struggling to raise a disabled child among siblings who also need attention.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
In this novel the exceptionally talented Moriarty takes on the subject of kindergarten. Bullying
by both children and adults associated with this innocuous school in its beautiful Sydney
beachside setting shows the nastiness that can lie beneath middle-class lives. Reviewed March 2015.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
This is a story of how it is to grow up without a mother. Sisters Ruth and Lucille, whose mother
died in a car accident, are brought up in a bizarre way. I found this a horrifying story, completely absorbing and brilliantly written.

Nora Webster by Colm Torbin
An Irish widow struggles to bring up her four children after their father’s untimely death. In the hands of this extraordinary writer, the everyday becomes illuminated, the preciousness and intimate richness of every single life, no matter how withdrawn and circumscribed it may seem, is made clear. Reviewed August 2015.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Lucy Barton looks back to a time she was hospitalized and over the course of five days had a conversation with her emotionally distant mother. Lucy tries to get her mother to reveal more of herself, to respect her daughter and her drive to be a writer. Lucy’s lack of self-worth comes from receiving too little love and is associated with physical poverty. The novel reveals itself in a series of flashbacks and as it proceeds we ache for Lucy’s need for acceptance from her mother. Reviewed February 2016.

Searching for Mercy Street by Linda Gray Sexton
In contrast to Strout’s thesis, Linda Gray Sexton shows that poverty is not necessarily a pre-condition for difficulties between mother and daughter. This is evident in this memoir by the Harvard-educated daughter of the famed poet Anne Sexton. Anne Sexton, as beautiful as she was brilliant, had a difficult relationship with her own parents. After suffering post-partum depression, she spent much time in psychiatric hospitals before committing suicide at the age of forty-five, leaving a complicated emotional legacy for her two daughters.