When women are judged by the male gaze, their worth and visibility are often tied reduced to a simple, disturbing equation involving youth and beauty. If you wouldn’t sleep with them, as conventional media tries to help dictate, you don’t want to see them. Many an actress has lamented the lack of available roles once she turned some heinous age like 40. That doesn’t mean that the stories don’t exist; they’re just not being told. In defiance of this drought, the three new books in this week’s book club foreground women whom society often deems unworthy of note: the mousy and introverted, the middle-aged, the moms (particularly mothers of special needs children). The protagonists of these books aren’t all noble or wonderful people, but they don’t have to be in order to be fascinating characters. The point is that they’re here and visible, and their stories can’t be ignored.
1. Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton ($27): “Louise’s days go like this: She wakes up. She wishes she hasn’t. Chances are: Louise hasn’t slept much. She works as a barista at this coffee shop that turns into a wine bar at night, and also writes for this e-commerce site called GlaZam that sells knockoff handbags, and is also an SAT tutor. She sets an alarm for at least three hours before she has to be anywhere, because she lives deep in Sunset part, a twenty-minute walk from the R, in the same illegal and roach-infested sublet she’s been in for almost eight years, and half the time the train breaks down. When they call her once every couple of months, Louise’s parents invariably ask her why she’s so stubborn about moving back to New Hampshire, say, where that nice Vigil Bryce is a manager at the local bookstore now, and he won’t stop asking for her new number. Louise invariably hangs up…She looks in the mirror. Today, she says-out loud (a therapist she had once told her that it’s always better to say these things out loud) – is the first day of the rest of your life. She makes herself smile. Her therapist told her to do that too.”
Louise Wilson is 29, and her life isn’t really going as she’d planned. Once sure she was going to be a great writer someday, she’s now mostly writing nothing of consequence. She covers the rent in her awful apartment by working three jobs, including the SAT tutoring she scores by convincing wealthy parents she went to New Hampshire’s prestigious Devonshire Academy, rather than just going to high school in the city of Devonshire. She’s a semi-reclusive loner without many genuine connections; the person she interacts with the most often is a gross catcaller who harasses her every day on the way to work. So when she meets Lavinia Williams, who is looking for an SAT tutor for her sister Cordelia, Louise is a little in awe.
“Beatific and dark with glitter,” Lavinia is 23, rich and temporarily on leave from Yale, and Louise makes it her mission to insinuate herself into Lavinia’s picture-perfect life. She does a good job of it too; Lavinia seems invested in making Louise over, taking her to parties and even going so far as to invite Louise to live with her. But when Lavinia’s attention wanes, Louise doesn’t want to lose what she’s finally clawed out for herself, and she takes some desperate measures. A critique of the emptiness of the fronts we work so hard to present to others, particularly in terms of the pervasive nature of social media and how it feeds some of the worst parts of ourselves, Social Creature shows us what happens when an invisible woman gets a taste of visibility: “They say if you haven’t made it in New York by thirty, you never will.”
2. Queen For a Day by Maxine Rosaler ($25): In the 1950s, a bizarre yet perhaps unsurprisingly popular game show of the same name of Rosaler’s book was possibly the precursor to reality TV, because it deliberately fed on misery. The three female contestants on each episode of Queen For a Day would tell their respective sob stories (husband out of work! Dying child! Make that six dying children!) and the audience would vote by applause on whose lot was the worst, who would then be given the title and a prize such as a refrigerator. The women in this new “novel in stories,” mothers of special needs children, might technically fall into the longsuffering category of QFAD, but the point of the book is not to make them into simply martyrs, but real people.
When Mimi Slavitt notices that her three-year-old son’s behavior has changed, she ignores the signs, not wanting to risk a label, until he is finally diagnosed with autism. She is used to people dismissing her life and problems (initially, a psychologist blames her son’s neuroatypical behavior on her tempestuous marriage) but is less used to the invisibility she’s privy to now that her son will require constant, unremitting care. Mimi’s story, as Danny grows into his teens, is interspersed with those of other mothers connected to her who also have children different from the “norm.”
The book gets real, acknowledging the pain of deferred dreams and hobbies and the lack of available resources (including others’ willingness to listen) instead of the stereotypical, saintly image of happy sacrificial motherhood: “Then we would see what had been staring us in the face all along. Like Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz, after this moral journey we would be ready to know.” Though the book is not predominantly focused on the children, it aims to treat their lives as multifaceted, and with dignity and respect.
3. Mirror Shoulder Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated by Misha Hoekstra ($16): “‘You’re such a fighter,’ her mom always said, and Sonja is a fighter; she doesn’t give up. She ought to, but she doesn’t.” Nors’ book, a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, gets its first English edition (translated from the Danish). It’s about Sonja, a translator (of crime fiction) herself; middle-aged and bored of the life she’s currently inhabiting, she’s currently taking driving lessons so as not to disappear completely.
Sonja has a sister with a wilder, more glamorous life who she only sort of resents, and an ear disorder that causes “positional dizziness” when her head turns to certain angles, which is a bit of a challenge when one is learning to drive. Another challenge is her driving instructor, who is not really letting Sonja take the wheel in an only partially metaphorical sense. All the while, Sonja remembers her youth in rural Jutland, a place she can’t seem to forget. Can she leave Copenhagen to go home? And, if she does, will anyone remember her?
“Sonja thinks about the dead prime ministers in the cemetery. It’s lovely to take a blanket there. Then she can lie on it, looking at Hans Hedtoft while the ducks quack and the roof of the big chapel gleams in the sun. It’s like the New Jerusalem, or a little patch of far-off Denmark. The sound of cars in the distance. The scent of yew and boxwood; almost the middle of nowhere. In theory a stag might drift past, and she’s brought a cookie for her coffee, pilfered some ivy from the undergrowth. The dead make no noise, and if she’s lucky a bird of prey might soar overhead. Then she’ll lie there, and escape.”
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