Sunday, 6 September 2020

'Three Women' by Lisa Taddeo - absorbing, very sad, very familiar



This had much hype, which didn’t affect my enjoyment, but from reading the comments on the book itself and the comments of those in the BTM reading group, this book was very mixed in reception.  I found it very sad, and very true and oddly silent in places. 

Lina was gang-raped while still in school after being drugged, and seemed to idolise and stay stuck on an earlier crush from that era when she grew up, becoming obsessed with the perfect sexual experience and it’s meaning emotionally filling her life, for her to not be ‘disgusting’ , to be loved and seen – sex and desire were all mixed up with identity and absence.  She has an affair that becomes far more transactional than she can see it to be, with that same man, when they are both married to other people later.  He…treats her as a pet, an afterthought.  I wanted her to do better, but she was so obsessed with how he made her feel – I worried how she would feel when the affair eventually stopped – what scaffolding would support all the outward need she had to feel then? She had no good mirror reflecting back at her what was her own strength, only refractions of the past she played out in lurid emotion.  I really felt her.

Maggie had alcoholic parents and an early sexual experience that she was crucified in school about, followed by an affair with a teacher - at which point she got totally stuck and could not move on: it had been so intense and real and unfinished and then it was a court case and no one believed her [except a little old man, and a reporter, but after the fact].  We see her lose hope near the end, and her father has also killed himself; but not about this…that is a big silence in the book – Maggie’s reaction to her father’s death.  I hope she does ok.

And Sloane.  A rich girl who knew how it all should look on the outside and went to great lengths to make it look right, swinging when suggested by her husband, being the right level of agreeable – ‘optimal’ as the protagonist of Harrow Lake would have said.  An eating disorder to be prettily slender.  In many ways her story was the least interesting because we got to hear the least of it, and because she had/has perfected outward appearance – she’s preserved in amber for however long: the thinnest, prettiest, most agreeable wife sexually.  I felt Sloane needed friends. That you don’t compete with; just friends.

The book was supposed to be about the desires of women, how we feel it and what it does in our lives.  What I read, more than anything, was how empty we seem to be, how small and delicate our sense of self-worth, how we constantly seek to optimise, change, manipulate it for love and a sense of wellness or joy of LIFE of being AWAKE AND HERE!  It was very very sad, to read so many different lives and to see them all come down to the same basic thing: we feel unloved or unheard or unworthy, we are never enough, we must always change for others, our self is always mirrored from without, never self-sustaining.  We’re fossil fuel; we need to get renewable!

All the women seemed totally formed by the school age years and in Sloane’s case, a bit before, regarding sexual experience as formative for personality.  The early years are so important; so many of us get stuck with the identity we feel then, and subsequent change or layering is very much from that point, it felt. We don’t seem to realise we are stuck with the teen or tween we were, and a lot of our thinking about love and sex comes direct from feelings and experience of that era, not now. Stunted growth; sometimes poison, tumourous growth around incidents that happened then. Arrested emotional development.

This is only one of many facets of women’s lives.  You don’t worry about emotional voids when you’re trying to pay the rent or you just lost your job, or your living situation is unsafe…But these are portrayals of states of mind and resulting actions that made sense, and felt familiar; done some, seen some. It makes me want, more than ever, to be more self-sustaining myself. The weird thing is, you ask people who are, and they can’t explain to you how it’s done, they just do it.  I’m not sure how much of the changing behaviour can be learned from books either.  But I keep looking.  

 Lisa Taddeo

Sunday, 26 July 2020

How Do You Like Me Now? by Holly Bourne - problematic, but really readable

I'm here a bit late for this book.  I can see why it got compared to Bridget Jones’s Diary a lot.  And I can see how really middle class it is – as Bridget Jones’s Diary was, in ways I couldn’t when I first read Bridget all those years ago.  You don’t see class so much when you’re younger, unless you’re in a very bad situation where it’s obvious.  Who ARE these people that have endless money to spend going to weddings?  And buying an extra £150 of hair and face product because their ‘facialist’ said so? [When did we stop calling them beauticians?  ‘Cos facialist sounds porny.]

The other thing here was that I really didn’t like Tori, I found her difficult to sympathise with even though I got her.  Her life was ultra modern - an autobiographical self-help book leading to a social media and speaking tour life.  It wasn’t that she was moany – that was honesty.  She was so…her life was so meaningless.  I know it was meant to show how she was enslaved to caring what others thought and how things looked and how that made her judgemental and cold as well as horribly vulnerable, because needing all that outside validation kept her forever open to high levels of emotional draining from everyone and every situation. 

Plus, her BF did behave like a dick, though I’m not convinced that was a portrayal of narcissism; more simple emotional unavailability and stunted emotional development.

I totally got what she said about pre and post baby women, and the sadness of losing someone to that change of internal weather.  It is that tragic when it happens to you.  It’s that tragic when you’re the mum and you are still on the wrong side of the divide – you are still your regular self, just with another human close by who needs care and attention, whom yes, you love unconditionally – but no, it’s not all wonderful.  I am still almost entirely ME. Which is a guilt that doesn’t get explored much.

There was enough in here that was universal that I got – who hasn’t experienced that blow job?; but the females I know of swallowed all of it. (EDIT: 2 days later: why did I write it like that?  Like its a competition - we swallowed it all and Tori didn't?  Like 'we' had it worse?  I didn't mean that; or that it's more normalized.  I think I meant the experience is a bit different but familiar to so many of us.) And yes, it’s very weird that men don’t like to taste themselves on us, in my experience.  What is that about?  Also, there’s a missing scene where a vibrator was going to be a problem, and that scene never happened and is never after alluded to.  Hopefully circumstances made it so Tori never had to go there, as she didn’t want to. But it was odd the way it was built up as a problem then just disappeared.  I got the feeling the scene was edited away.  But not why.

Anyway – an engrossing read, I cared, I wanted her to be happier, I was glad when she went off in the next hopefully better direction.  She had help many of us don’t – a seemingly excellent income; a home she could abandon, and somewhere else to go where they would be happy to have her and have space to put her up for a while.  She had the choice to make a change and the financial ability to make it happen there and then. 

For all my snarkiness, this needed to be told.  But it’s not the best book since sliced bread as many people have recommended it to me as; I see too much class in it – and not mine, so I feel prickly.  That’s not Holly Bourne’s fault.   

I’d recommend this, most people liked Tori as a character more than I did – plus, I usually can’t stay with books or TV/film where I don’t like the characters or at least am enjoying disliking them – but this one I stayed with because I wanted her to be happier.  I worried near the end that she might actually commit suicide, and was relieved it didn’t go that way.   

Also, about the end, when she wrote that letter to her editor, suggesting another book – did that mean she was going to be honest again as before, or that she was going to re-create exactly the same mistake again, by being honest and authentic initially and then lying ever after and becoming addicted to the social media look and like universe?  I wasn’t sure.  Was she saved, or not?  Maybe it was meant to be ambiguous, as we all know what it is to repeat and repeat our mistakes…

Oh, and this book was very funny too.  But the topics underneath that were so serious (underneath the facecream instructions and the shampoo that doesn't weigh down our damn hair) that it's easy for me to forget. 

Remind me to never attempt to be a social influencer, and to never try and know a heroine.  Just leave them where they are, with the book you read and re-read, the film you felt inspired by, the look you base part of your own on.  Take only what's given, don't claw more.  Our heroines are people too.

Friday, 29 May 2020

The Water Cure, by Sophie Mackintosh - not so small review thoughts

SPOILERS! If you haven’t read the novel and want to, probably don’t read this…

It’s difficult to know what to say about this one.  At first I didn’t like reading it at all.  It was a deeply alien environment, these women’s minds, and it felt unpleasant – I didn’t want to keep learning about their lives, where their parents hurt and abused them for love and to keep them safe from an outside world that’s contaminated.  I suspected it wasn’t really, or not to the extent they were told; that their parents were really running a mini cult with their girl children as the unwitting members…It’s never quite made plain, what happened in the ‘outside’, beyond the barbed wire ‘border’. It may have been climate change accelerated, and they may have been in an area where there’s less rights for women anyway [a forwards-backwards time line of a situation set-up].

But then the small chapters and spare sentences grew on me.  I wanted to know what was really going on.  It was almost like a thriller, told very slowly and obtusely, with slow footsteps in sand, and lots and lots of salt and semi-drownings.  The revelation that the mother is dead – sanctioned by the father you thought was dead but isn’t, who sent the men to bring the women back ‘to the mainland’, as their lives isolated had been ‘a failure’ – “our lives are our lives” Grace thinks – the angriest woman in the book.  Lia, so often the least-loved [and how fucked up is the ‘choose who you love by lots for the year’ system?], falls for the charms and meat-presence of the men the quickest, so desperate for love: “love enough to make you sick”.

So many truths in this book: Lia watches Llew move and thinks –

There is a fluidity to his movements, despite his size, that tells me he has never had to justify his existence, has never had to fold himself into a hidden thing, and I wonder what that must be like, to know your body is irreproachable.

Instead, Lia knows: ‘The body is the purest sort of alarm. If something feels wrong, it probably is.’ But then, she cuts herself often, to make sure her pain equals that of her sisters, so that they will still love her and see her as one of them.  The things we all do, this thing, or other things.

It’s a book not just about the difference between men and women – they are meat, solid, strong, dangerous; the women had been carefully and deliberately brought up to be vitamin deficient and weaker than need be, to keep them in the ‘utopia’ their parents had been trying to build.  It’s also about the cruelty women do to other women because love can be unsafe, between men and woman, between women.  All those semi drownings, part baptism, part controlled revenge.  The way their emotions were denied or funnelled into physical acts designed to show them how fragile their bodies were.  The more I think about it, the more I feel the parents were monstrous.  King toward Grace – ‘love of family, magnified’. Mmm. 

Lots of other reviewers describe the book as luminous and haunting, and it is that, the language is controlled and beautiful and deadly – it hits you and you feel the attenuated lives they lead, the suffocation of it, the need to break free, but the fear always there.  Which is why the sad scenes near the end, where the male characters are killed feel so inevitable and hurtful:  Gwil, by cruelty and loneliness [lack of a mother?  But the only mother in this book is not a good one, she is fighting an internal war through her children’s bodies and lives]. James, who tells the truth to Grace and expects womanly comfort – he gets revenge for being a man in on keeping them in the dark, he is removed as the beginning of their escape and path to adulthood; and then Llew, who has proved deceitful and opportunistic, is executed by Lia….it’s why those scenes are even sadder.   

Given their upbringing, the women would react this way to the men. A very true to life blending of self-defence and pre-emptive action against a whole group of known aggressors.  What they did made perfect sense, in the story.  Then men had hurt them - just as they had been brought up to expect.  It was why Gwil was treated badly as a little man, too small yet to be of harm, but unloved by the women because he would become One of Them. Sad and needless, his death.

I keep wanting to call them ‘girls’ as I write, because so much about them was kept in a state of false childhood dependency by their parents – all those exercises to make them strong were also a regime to divide and conquer them, keep them down.  Sky wasn’t even allowed to be taught to read; King and Mother saw how quick to respond Lia was getting and there went her younger sister’s future reading chances.

It was needless, is what’s so sad.  The violence.  And the mini cult - where other ‘damaged women’ used to come till one of them drowned; another killed herself...medicine and trauma close in effect.  And then the ending, where the sisters brave the outside world – a bit reminiscent of The Truman Show – another story of someone lied to for life who goes off to see what the real world was like…Or a reverse Picnic at Hanging Rock; the girls had been living a reality totally real to them, but not the same world a lot of others were in. So they go off, after one last baptism to take away fear and that has rebound them together, without the awful parents, off hopefully, ‘without fear’ to the rest of the world. 

And also without money, passports or a real clue what the world they are going to is like…I worry. Almost like they were the fabled children raised in the forest by wolves: it makes you fierce, but can you speak the language of everyone?  Can anyone communicate with you? Will you be able to make a place for yourself outside?  But I speak as an outsider myself, so I’m probably projecting.

There’s so much more that could be said about this book and all the comparisons and links in life now, to come, in the past – I’m sure more will come to me when I think more (which I will be doing) – but I came straight here to try and understand what I initially thought.

Got a horrible feeling this wonderful dystopia will stay with me.  There’s a reason I don’t read dystopian novels – and it’s not just that they are grey in colour, futuristic, usually mechanised and just depressing…this is the first I’ve read with beaches and sunlight and birdsong.  It’s because most of them are horribly plausible, and there’s enough to worry about right here right now, already.  It’s as if this book already happened somewhere.  Or is happening.

The Water Cure

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Tiny Book Review: Bonjour Tristesse, by Francoise Sagan

Bonjour Tristesse, by Francoise Sagan

Read during Corona lockdown, May 2020. 

SPOILERS! Read with caution if you haven't read the book and want to.

Apparently, this shocked the hell out of everyone when it first came out, in 1954, even though it was France (where everyone is just generally much cooler than England!).  I haven't yet read the why, because I'm still mulling the actual book, and I didn't want social history right this minute, though I'll look it up later.  Personally, I would only be shocked to read this because of its honesty.  I could almost describe it as searing.  

So, this is the set-up: Cecile, the heroine sees a life ahead for herself of dissipation and amoralty, because it sounds easy and fun (I'm paraphrasing).  She and her father have lived doing whatever they want since her mother died some long while ago - they have enough money, and he is permissive with her.  She in turn gets on with her father's mistresses as they come and go because she sees he needs them, like a child with toys.  They don't threaten her world with him.  She especially likes the current one, Elsa.  Then comes Anne, a serious woman, a businesswoman, someone who says things that make you think about how you're living your life, and you suspect she may be right in some of the things she says that don't feel like so much fun.  How dare she make you think?!  But you like her, sort of...But you like your life before she came more...And then she gets engaged to your father. Story continues...

I’m a bit annoyed that I read the novella, then the Introduction, and then came to write this.  I should have come directly here straight after the book, as the Rachel Cusk introduction (Penguin ediation) threw up so many interesting ideas and questions that now my head is full of those rather than my own impressions of the book.  Exactly the same reason I never go round art exhibits with the tape guides on my head.  I want to have my thoughts before I have someone else’s, or I’ll be hard pressed to separate the two unless I disagree violently with the guide. 

Anyway, I loved this.  I enjoyed Cecile’s acceptance of her own nature, her dislike of being made to think.  It was partly her youth – there is, I think, something amoral and selfish in young people, and here it was captured perfectly.  There was also in her something almost neurodivergent – the way she almost turned her love on and off, the way it was just flashes of ‘radiant moments’ for her, the way she was caught up in tales and times, and then later felt nothing about them.  That feels familiar, all of that. 

I didn’t see coming her desire to get rid of her father’s fiancée working so well.  I had no idea she’d end up causing a death by misadventure at the least, after being so Machiavellian.  Her detached amazement at her own manipulative ability and how well it all worked – also familiar, but also sad.  She had more layers than she liked to think she did.  I think she was a bit dismayed at how easily lead people were, especially her father’s ex-mistress, Elsa.   

This was wonderfully French, in terms of how morally sophisticated and/or blase their national stereotype is compared to our nationally stereotypical stuffy English – I can’t offhand think of any English books where a father and his daughter go on a seaside holiday with his mistress, and then his fiancée comes too, and technically it’s just a bit awkward, that’s all. *Loved it.*  Something very down to earth about not making a drama of it all…until there was a bit of a created drams, then there was that sentence where Cecile said that in order for she and her father to be inwardly ‘reposeful’ they needed to be outwardly ‘in ferment’…so I’m overgeneralising like crazy. Also, many years ago, in a very turbulent situation, my dead ex-husband once suggested an arrangement very similar and I cried, heartbroken.  Now, being me as I am now, I would have punched his face.  I’m just not French enough to be cool with being the live in mistress…

The whole question of lack of mothers and motherly nurturing and growing up , and where do you learn your 'morals' from – I didn’t really think of that till I read the Introduction, but it’s applicable comment. Anne was a strange fish too – and the way Cecile only really saw her properly when she’d broken her [seeing through the cool, almost glacial woman to the secretive, lonely child inside], was a growing up experience that Cecile tried to bury almost immediately by sinking back into her past life.  I wonder if her father will end up as Anne prophesied, spent, a bit pathetic?  This was a very enjoyable, thought provoking read.  Could have said far more, but I just want to let it percolate through.  The selfishness of youth, wanting not to grow up, to admit your actions affect others – that may be what I think the story is about; not only how Cecile got to be the way she was.  10/10.  

Françoise Sagan Bonjour tristesse (Penguin Modern Classics ... 
French Book Recommendation - Babylangues - Job In France - French ... 
Francoise Sagan