One of the scariest things about writing is realising that you have no say over how anyone interprets or receives your work – the reader encounters any narrative through the prism of their own knowledge, beliefs and life experience. Nothing has brought this home to me more than readers seeing all kinds of interesting things in my first novel that I didn’t knowingly put there (the moment I should really shut up and say thank you.) On the other hand, knowing people are free to think what they like is liberating; readers are going to have their own opinions no matter what. You do, I do. We’re not necessarily going to like, agree or identify with the characters, underlying ideas or each others’ views. That’s good, isn’t it?
Today I’m taking a look at two books about three women which illustrate this kind of mixed response from me as a reader. Expectation by Anna Hope and Three Women by Lisa Taddeo were both published last year (soon out in paperback) and achieved a level of success and attention (some might say ‘hype’) which sets the bar high. They’re two of the most stimulating books I’ve read recently, precisely because they riled me at times. In a good way, in as far as they engaged my brain and made me burn to discuss them with other people, which I have, and to recommend them, which I am.
In her third novel Expectation, Anna Hope performs an agile switch of genre from bestselling historical novels Wake and The Ballroom – which I loved and found very moving – to women’s commercial fiction. Lissa, Cate and Hannah are friends who met in their teens/twenties – we first meet them in 2004 sharing a flat aged 29 but a further ten years later life is not panning out as they’d hoped. The characters are ‘only’ 7 years younger than me and I too moved to London after graduation; for those who love a good London novel, this is one. The author certainly captures the panic and poignancy of the ‘is this it?’ moment – these three have a lot going on and a tendency to take things hard.
I empathised with each of them to a degree but the way they behaved towards each other got in the way of deep emotional engagement. Of course conflict is what drives a story but female friendship has such an important, sustaining role in women’s lives that it saddened me to see so little evidence of that in favour of the opposite. Given how many women I know of my age and 10 years either side who are childless by choice, it also surprised and frustrated me to see motherhood still portrayed as the defining experience of a woman’s life. A friend and I kept up a long conversation by text about this novel – including the ending I can’t give away – and I’m sure it’s keeping many a book group up late.
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo is narrative non-fiction which reads like a novel. I was drawn to this book by my interest in female sexuality and strong views about its representation everywhere. More openness and less judgement about women and sex can only be a good thing, I thought, and this book, the result of 8 years of intensive research among American women, was billed as offering something ground-breaking on the subject of female desire. Whilst I would personally have preferred a more traditional non-fiction analysing and reflecting on what must surely have been a very diverse range of intimate testimonies, I can’t fault the author’s skill in telling the heartrending stories of these three women. I read this book during a desperately grim week of my life and I was hooked. As in, quickening my pace to get through the door so I could get back to it. So far, so good.
But for my money there’s an irreconcilable gulf between the premise and execution. This may be a book about women’s sex lives in explicit detail, and I respect their honesty, but fundamentally it’s about men’s desire, if you can call it that. My heart rate has spiked just recalling how enraged I was that each of these women’s lives were affected and directed by male sexual violence, manipulation or the dreaded ‘male gaze’ – reading this instilled a (temporary) loathing of men that really shocked me. It wouldn’t be a ground-breaking revelation to many of us that female sexuality is its own proactive force, not defined relative to men’s, or existing to satisfy their wants. Or that it can be a source of pleasure, connection and self-expression which doesn’t entail punishment, shame and misery for women. It depressed me not to see that here. Surprised? I wish.
Do you enjoy a polarising read or one which ‘pushes your buttons’ but you’d still recommend? Comments welcome in the spirit of the blog (if I have nothing positive to say about a book, I keep it to myself).
Hi Isabel, I was drawn to Three Women because of the hype and positive reviews, and received it for Christmas. Rarely have I felt so strongly that a book (or for that matter any other piece of creative work) failed totally to live up to my expectations. Firstly, the book was (of course) so overwhelmingly American that I couldn’t identify with it at all. Secondly, as you say, what comes over most strongly is the male gaze, and the victimhood of the women. I persevered to the end but it was a chore, I didn’t enjoy it at all, and unlike you I don’t feel that I could recommend it to any British reader.
PS. In the spirit of the blog, I think that I would recommend it to American readers because they wouldn’t have to battle with the trans-Atlantic gulf in identifying with the lifestyles of American women.
Diana, your comment really interests me because the ‘Americanness’ wasn’t a factor for me. Admittedly I’ve been there a lot and actively like American writing, but it’s been pretty big here too.
Hi Isabel, I have only been to America twice, but am normally a fan of contemporary American novelists – particularly the late Philip Roth – and I’m a huge fan of American poets. I think it’s the way that Three Women (for me) falls between fiction and research, biographies & novel, that makes it a difficult read. If it was billed as straight factual sociological research I think I’d have found it more interesting. I freely admit that I’m a boringly well-educated middle class white Englishwoman, but in my work I have entered the lives of women from all socioeconomic groups, and I still find it impossible to identify with the sex lives of the three women – other than, as I mentioned, as a symptom of their abuse. Maybe I’m too enclosed and sheltered in the leafy cities of the south coast!