Women’s Friendships, Women’s Voices, in The Story Hour

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar is about the friendship of two women from two different cultures, whose complicated personal histories and cultural values eventually lead to judgment and misunderstanding and threaten to end their relationship.

Lakshmi is a 30-something woman who immigrated to the US from India to join her Indian husband, a store and restaurant owner. As we are introduced to Lakshmi, we begin to understand how lonely she is in the US and in her marriage. She feels no love from her husband who treats her more like a possession than a partner and who has forbidden her from ever contacting her family again. Lakshmi tries to kill herself one night (this is written on the back cover), and while hospitalized is assigned to talk to Maggie, an African-American psychologist.

Lakshmi’s husband scoffs at the idea of therapy and tells Maggie they cannot afford it. At that point Maggie tells them that she will meet with Lakshmi in her home without charge.

With the therapy sessions Lakshmi gradually comes to develop a voice for the first time, encouraged to believe that her stories are worth telling. As she tells her stories and becomes braver in her trust in Maggie, she reveals more and more, and we learn that her marriage to her husband is not what it seems.

At the same time, and unbeknownst to Lakshmi, Maggie is dealing with her own issues in her marriage and questioning how much her abusive relationship with her father has impacted her and her relationships to this day.

Toward the latter half of the book, the issues of the two women clash and come to a head, and both are reeling in their judgment of one another. Both are not the people they had imagined the other to be.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit. To me it was women’s literature without being chick lit. There is the cultural piece, for those who want to read “diversely”; as an Asian-American who’s very familiar with how it feels to have one foot in one culture, I saw well the cultural differences that Lakshmi and Maggie were dealing with. Do you honor family or do you honor yourself? Is passion in marriage more important or duty? In very traditional Asian cultures, it is often hard to have both.

Mostly, I enjoyed the psychological complexity as I’m always drawn to stories of basically good human beings who are confronted with difficult life decisions and choices. I thought this was an intriguing study of two women with complicated histories that are made more complex by the cultures in which they grew up. It’s also an interesting story about women’s friendship and the expectations we have for our women friends. We can want and love so much and at the same time be very judgmental and unforgiving. In the case of Lakshmi and Maggie, I’ve wondered how much each was projecting on to the other, and did judging the other make it somehow easier to accept (or not think about) one’s own mistakes? This would be a fun book to read in a book club.

When Your Partner Isn’t a Reader (or Athlete, etc.), and You Are

Call me irrational, but I used to get nervous about the idea of dating athletic or active men. My big fear was being expected to go hiking or camping or rollerblading, and thus having all my non-athletic, non-rugged characteristics exposed and losing the guy’s interest.

So, of course, with my luck, I somehow ended up not only dating but marrying an athletic man. He’ll stop short of jumping out of an airplane, but he has done and enjoyed most of the sports that I can think of: soccer, basketball, baseball, swimming, surfing, scuba diving, skiing, golf, and on and on. But our relationship went off without a hitch in this department because he never pressured or expected me to do sports, and always met me where I was interest-wise. On our days off together (pre-parenthood) we ate out, shopped, took walks, watched DVDs and talked. Then, because I like to dig in places where I really don’t need to, I learned that his ex-wife was an athlete like him, and concluded that in this past life Max actually had a partner in the activity he loves most. Of course, a shared interest clearly wasn’t enough to have kept them together, but I’ve often wondered about the significance of being able to share a passion together.

I’d like to consider myself a reader, even though there have been huge gaps in my life when I wasn’t reading much. But books have been a significant part of my life for the last couple of years now. Because it’s important to me, this has inevitably spilled over into our family life.

Max does read. When we were dating, I was surprised to learn that he had read Wild Swans, a biography of three generations of women in China. He had a bookcase of books at home, and he enjoyed browsing in bookstores. Now that we live in the U.S., it is harder for him to access books in his native tongue. He used to stock up whenever he visited Japan but recently became reluctant to lug books back. There are weird issues with the Kindle in terms of accessing and purchasing books outside the U.S. Max does read books in English, but it’s a slower process for him, which means that overall he ends up reading less.

I think he finds all of this a slight disappointment, but he is surviving without undue pain. He is not a book fanatic the way I am. His preferred way of going about his day is still through physical action. He enjoys working and working out. He likes to lose himself in a video game or an episode of “24” to combat stress. The library is not his “happy place.”

We also have very different tastes in reading. Whereas I read a lot of literary fiction, he tends to gravitate toward books about business and spirituality.

And for me, that’s okay. I’m realizing that, as I’m writing this, it is okay because he’s never questioned or judged my interest in reading or my obsession with book hoarding. I’ve snuck around with my book purchases the way some women might with new shoes, but he has caught me and never complained. In fact, he will drive me to book sales because of my anxieties with driving. He agrees it would be nice to have an at-home library and recently built me a bookcase. And he doesn’t seem to mind listening to me talk about what I’m reading. I can still share my reading life with him and not feel shut out (or shut in?) in this area. In other words, having a somewhat separate hobby has not made me feel disconnected. I wonder how I would feel if he actually disapproved or judged my interests in reading and/or buying books, which has happened with friends.

In the meantime, I’ve learned to get out of my head – and my chair – more often. Living so closely with two active boys has meant that I’ve had to allow myself to be changed by them. They’ve taught me that not everything in life needs to be thought out thoroughly or picked apart. They’ve shown me that meaning can also be found outside the written word. Since being a part of this family I’ve taken up running, hiking and swimming. Exercising the body and mind. Our seemingly opposite interests have been a gift.

Mary Cassatt’s “Young Woman Reading”

I am curious to know: Does your partner read, and if s/he doesn’t, does that bother you? What hobbies do you share or not share? 

What Matters Most in Life: We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas is frequently touted as a novel about the American Dream but I’d like to think of it as a story about what it means to define meaning and happiness in one’s life, and that’s something that anyone – American or not, immigrant or not – can relate to.

Eileen Tumulty was born to poor and alcoholic Irish immigrants in Queens, New York. She was a hard worker and grew up with ambitious dreams. She wanted to make a life of which she’d be proud and in which she’d be happy and secure, and that included succeeding in her own career and marrying well, preferably to someone who wasn’t Irish. Well, things don’t work out exactly according to plan in terms of marriage, as she ends up falling in love with Ed Leary, another Irish-American. But he is kind and he is an academic – a promising scientist and professor – and so she optimistically begins her life with him. They eventually have a son, after years of battling fertility issues.

As Eileen rises in the ranks as a nurse, Ed receives but turns down opportunities to rise in the way that she wants him to. Instead of taking a position at a lucrative pharmaceuticals company (if I remember correctly), he decides to take a teaching position at a community college. Later, instead of seizing a chance to move to the prestigious NYU (New York University), he chooses to stay at the community college. His decisions exasperate Eileen to no end, who has visions of continuously climbing “up” in life. She is also secretly annoyed at the “browning” of her neighborhood and yearns to move into a more affluent and higher status part of town. Ed is adamant about staying where they are. Without his knowledge, Eileen begins visiting dream houses with a real estate agent.

Then one day they receive devastating news, and the rest of the book centers around this seismic shift in their family. It’s an event that causes Eileen to look back on her life and to question her long-held assumptions about what is important to her.

This is a lovely story about so many things, in particular the struggle to marry one’s dreams and definition of happiness with that of one’s partner. It is also about marriage and parenting and the sacrifices and endurance that both require. In my quick summary I don’t think I paint a very appealing portrait of Eileen, but she is a more complex and sympathetic character than what you see here. She’s got a lot of grit and she is tremendously devoted to her family. I find her quite realistic.

At over 600 pages long, the book is also a surprisingly easy and quick read for the most part. I will say that I started to lose steam at around page 400, so I guess I felt it was about 150 pages too long. The story moves along at the pace of life, and though it’s been described as an “epic,” it is a quiet story about an ordinary family. This is not one of those sprawling sagas spanning generations and filled with family secrets and twists and turns. The Learys’ story could be any family’s story.

So I was not the most enthusiastic reader during those last 200 pages, until I came upon this, something that Ed says to his son Connell:

Picture yourself in one of your cross-country races. It’s a hard pace this day. Everyone’s outrunning you. You’re tired, you didn’t sleep enough, you’re hungry, your head is down, you’re preparing for defeat. You want much from life, and life will give you much, but there are things it won’t give you, and victory today is one of them. This will be one defeat; more will follow. Victories will follow too. You are not in this life to count up victories and defeats. You are in it to love and be loved. You are loved with your head down. You will be loved whether you finish or not. (page 594)

In my opinion, this is as much a message to Eileen as it is to Connell. We have to accept that life will not give us everything we want.

You are in it to love and be loved. You are loved with your head down. You will be loved whether you finish or not.

And sometimes people, books, words, etc. have a way of finding you when you need them most. I was going through a soul searching struggle in my parenting, trying to break the cycle of severe self-criticism that extended to my parenting, and these lines almost brought me to tears.

(Literary Wives) Not Enough Marital Connection and Too Much Facebook: Wife 22

I apologize for my sporadic writing of late, but I’m back to review our (on-line book club) Literary Wives’ October book, Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon.

Wife 22 is a book about contemporary issues: growing disconnections in family – between mother and children and especially between wife and husband – and the role that technology has come to take in the modern family.

Alice Buckle is a 44-year-old mother to two (a surly teenage girl named Zoe and a still affectionate tween boy named Peter) and wife to William, an advertising professional who loses his job about a third of the way through the book. Alice is a passionate playwright who now, because of family commitments or a past failure, works part-time for the drama department at the local elementary school with funds from the PTA. Like many upper middle class suburban wives, she is trying to juggle schedules, raise good kids who would still like her, make sure she hasn’t lost her husband in the midst of parenting, and, somehow, remember what her own needs are.

Twenty years into her marriage, though, she is falling apart. Her position at the elementary school is shaky; her daughter is constantly sarcastic toward her; she is nearing the age at which her own mother had died; her husband feels like a stranger; and she is spending too much time on Facebook.

Then one day Alice receives an invitation to participate in a marriage survey/research study. She accepts it and is assigned the anonymous username “Wife 22.” She is given a lengthy set of personal questions asking her to reflect on her marriage and on marriage and love in general. She is paired up with an equally anonymous “Researcher 101” with whom she occasionally and then, eventually, frequently corresponds. Their emails soon become more and more flirtatious and more and more intimate. Alice is in the giddy but uncomfortable position of finally feeling the intimacy that she wishes she had with her husband.

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

There are several wives in the book. There’s Alice, of course, and then there’s her best friend and neighbor Nedra, who is about to marry her long-time partner, Kate. There are also a few minor characters in the book who are married. The experiences depicted in this book all fit our modern, western definition and expectations of what it means to be a wife: to be independent, to feel purpose beyond marriage, and to be emotionally connected to and respected by one’s partner. Alice is flailing in the absence of these things, and she needs them to feel herself again. She had once worked full-time in advertising along with William and she was good at it. She and William had once been so in love with one another, so connected. No doubt the intervening years parenting and the growing complacency in a long-term marriage have diluted that early connection. Nedra offers a contrast to Alice. She has been living in a committed relationship with Kate for many years now (and have a teen boy). Though not legally married until late in the book, their relationship is rock solid. There is another minor character who is happily married and another who eventually divorces, presumably all due to how well they’ve mixed their particular formulas for a successful marriage under our modern definitions.

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

Alice really wants connection with her husband and she is clearly very lonely. But she is passive. When her husband gets “laid off,” she goes behind his back and asks his co-worker to send her the video from work that did him in. She watches in horror but doesn’t let on to him that she knows anything about it. She later helps him get a job but she does that in a round-about way, behind his back, as well. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve read this book, but I don’t seem to recall an instance of her trying to talk to William about her feelings or needs. Of course, I understand this is a catch-22 (hence the book title perhaps…) – the less she and her husband communicate, the more distant they become; the more distant they become, the harder and more awkward it is to communicate. So she finds herself on the verge of getting in too deeply with another man and she has knowingly allowed herself to get into this position.

In my opinion Alice has defined “wife” as a rather weak player in marriage who allows circumstances to dictate the direction she – and her marriage and family – will go in.

~~~

Overall I really enjoyed the book. I’d been on a steady diet of literary fiction and very heavy subjects, and Wife 22 was a breezy, funny, and thoughtful read that was right up my alley. As someone who has also been married a long time, I appreciated the discussion of husbands and wives trying to connect, and the technology context was also quite fun. I wasn’t entirely crazy about the twist at the end of the book, which I had suspected, and which made the story a bit too romantic-comedy-movie for me. I can totally picture this book as a Jennifer Aniston movie. Anyway, I did like it all in all.

………………………

Please also check out my fellow Literary Wives club members to read their takes on the book!

Ariel of One Little Library (she will post in a couple of weeks)

Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses 

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Kay of WHATMEREAD

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

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Marriage and Personal Struggle: Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

I’m back, or so I hope! I had a hard time motivating myself to write over the last few weeks but I’m hoping to now slowly get back into the swing of things. 

I have been reading my books, though, so I have some reviews to catch up on. I’ll start with one of my favorites from the summer, Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.

I first spotted Dept. of Speculation under the category of “Mystery and Thriller.” I skimmed the blurb which described it as a suspenseful tale of marriage and motherhood and immediately decided that it was right up my alley.

It turned out to be completely different from what I expected. First, it’s a slender book at 160 pages. And when you flip through it, all you see are what appear to be little paragraphs. Indeed, the structure is unconventional. The book reads almost like poetry and the nameless narrator (sometimes “I,” sometimes “the wife”) jumps from one thought or short vignette to another. Offill’s lyricism reminded me of Paul Yoon’s beautiful Snow Hunters.

The story is a first-hand account of the changes in a marriage, and one woman’s slip into depression and the impact on her marriage and ability to parent. It is about the realities of marriage – about how chasms build and how difficult it can be to bridge them. There is an element of suspense, because her struggles hit a climax and as readers we hold our breaths to find out what happens, but I would most definitely not classify this book as a mystery or thriller.

I found such beauty in Jenny Offill’s writing. The book is small but each word is pregnant with meaning. She throws in a number of literary and scientific references, including many about living in space. But all of it is relevant. And she conveys just as much in what she chooses not to write. Here is a passage that really stayed with me:

So lately I’ve been having this recurring dream: In it my husband breaks up with me at a party, saying I’ll tell you later. Don’t pester me. But when I tell him this, he grows peevish. “We’re married, remember? Nobody’s breaking up with anybody.”

“I love autumn,” she says. “Look at the beautiful autumn leaves. It feels like autumn today. Is autumn your favorite time of year?” She stops walking and tugs on my sleeve. “Mommy! You are not noticing. I am using a new word. I am saying autumn instead of fall.” (page 46)

And here is a space reference:

Survival in space is a challenging endeavor. As the history of modern warfare suggests, people have generally proven themselves unable to live and work together peacefully over long periods of time. Especially in isolated or stressful situations, those living in close quarters often erupt into frank hostility. (page 56)

“The wife” never tells us she’s anxious about her marriage, or that she is slowly falling apart as a mother and human being. I recognize her depression because I have been there: Anxious when marital longevity has deceived us into thinking communication unnecessary; fearful that my mood swings will one day drive my husband away; guilty about how absent I am as a mother even when I’m physically there. It’s eerie, how I picked up this book during a depressive relapse, thinking it was going to be some literary version of Gone Girl and instead hearing the whispers of another woman speaking right to me. “The wife” and I do not experience the same marital crisis, but I could relate to what goes on inside her head.

It’s a book that I am planning to re-read, and this time with a pen and notebook, in order to pick up on everything that I had missed the first time around. It’s a surprisingly intimate read given its brevity – a little somber, sometimes irreverent, but ultimately hopeful. Most of all I just found it very real.

Madame Bovary Readalong

 

Alas, I didn’t get a chance until now to post about this Madame Bovary readalong that I’ve joined. The readalong started April 1 and it’s being hosted by CJ at ebookclassics (whom I’ve had the pleasure of “meeting” through Carolyn at Rosemary and Reading Glasses) and Juliana at Cedar Station. I’d had this book hovering near the top of my to-read list for about a year, so this readalong is perfect.

As many of you know, Madame Bovary is French writer Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel about a young woman seeking happiness and fulfillment in her mundane life as the wife of an ordinary and devoted husband. She ends up having a number of affairs until her various choices lead to her downfall.

A couple of things have surprised me about the book so far. One: it is extremely readable, even easy to read, and two: it feels timeless. If you disregard the various references to transportation and dress, this book can easily feel as though it was written in and about the 21st century. Here’s an excerpt:

Before her marriage she had believed herself to be in love; but since the happiness which should have resulted from this love had not come to her, she felt that she must have been mistaken. And she tried to find out exactly what was meant in life by the words “bliss,” “passion” and “rapture,” which had seemed so beautiful to her in books. (page 34)

The quote made me think of a 43-year-old woman I worked with once who had left her husband despite her own description of him as “perfect” – kind, gentle, loyal, etc. She told me she had wanted more in the way of excitement. (Yes, I can hear the sad sighs of nice guys around the world…)

If you’d like to join the readalong, please check out the master post here at ebookclassics. It lists the reading/discussion dates and you can link up there as well.

For those of you who are following, I’ve put on hold my Grapes of Wrath readalong, which I had announced last month I would be doing (face cast downward in shame…). Madame Bovary is just more fun for me right now.

 

Literary Wives: “Wife” as Depicted in The Zookeeper’s Wife

As some of you know, I’m part of an on-line book club called Literary Wives. Every two months we post a review on a designated book and April’s read is Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife (2007).

The Zookeeper’s Wife is a non-fiction account of the heroic efforts of Jan Żabiński, director of the Warsaw Zoo and his wife Antonina to save 300 Jews during WWII.

The Żabińskis were respected owners of the high-profiled and thriving zoo. In 1939, however, when Germany invaded Poland, much of the zoo was bombed, and many of the animals were killed or taken away (the rare/special animals were sent to Germany).

At this point Jan and Antonina began using the zoo and its villa to temporarily house and hide Jews. Jan became an active member of the Polish Underground and later in the Warsaw uprising near the end of the war. Antonina, in the meantime, kept the entire operation at home running; she had, in addition to those in hiding, a young son, an infant daughter, animals in and out of cages, and staff. And she did so while working desperately to keep as upbeat of an atmosphere as she could during this horrific time.

The questions we are discussing in this series are:

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

The main story really doesn’t focus on the Żabińskis’ relationship, but I did find some striking passages. During the height of the Żabińskis’ efforts, Jan became increasingly “short-tempered and uneasy.” Antonina wrote in her diary that Jan was “cold and expected more from me than from the rest of the people in our household” and that “nothing [she] did ever seemed good enough, nothing made him proud of [her], and perpetually disappointing him felt wretched.” (page 231)

It is, of course, hard to say if these dynamics were characteristic of what it meant to be Jan’s wife. After all, they were both living under extraordinary circumstances. As Ackerman writes, “To keep their life livable, [Jan] checked and rechecked every ritual and routine, a taxing responsibility, since the tiniest chaos, neglect, or impulse could unmask them. Small wonder that he rigidified from the strain and began addressing [the house guests] as his “soldiers” and Antonina as his ‘deputy.'” (page 231)

One day, Jan suddenly praised Antonina when he heard about her success warding off German soldiers in a narrow escape. Antonina wrote in her diary: “He was talking about my talents, praising me in the presence of other people. It never happened before! . . . He was serious?! He had called me ‘silly’ so often I’d started hearing it as a second name.” (page 235)

Near the end of the book, we learn from various interview excerpts after the war that Jan had always appreciated and admired his wife’s abilities and efforts. In one interview he said, ” . . . she was terrified the Nazis would seek revenge on us and our young son, terrified of death, and yet she kept it to herself, and helped me [with my Underground activities] and never ever asked me to stop.” (page 314) There were more acknowledgements like this about various aspects of Antonina’s character and strengths.

Was Jan condescending and did he assume a superior role in the marriage because of his gender? It is possible, given the times. I also wonder, though, how much was personality. I certainly know of couples in which the woman is the one who condescends or is sparing in praise. From Jan’s detailed acknowledgements of Antonina’s contributions and rare talents, it seems clear that he knew his wife well and appreciated her, but perhaps rarely showed his feelings to her during the war.

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

It seemed important to Antonina to win her husband’s approval. This could have been a function of her status as a wife, or it could have been a matter of personality. It seemed that Jan was rather stoic and sparing in his praise, whereas Antonina was more open with her feelings and wanted the same in return.

The above quote by Jan about how Antonina kept her fears to herself also shows Antonina’s loyalty to her husband. At the same time, I believe her willingness to put others’ needs before her fears speaks to her mindset as a rescuer. Antonina had unique strengths – an uncanny ability to relate to animals, the wherewithal to apply this ability to her interactions with enemy soldiers, and great compassion for fellow humans – and she used these as the perfect complement to Jan’s more analytical and physical work with the Polish Underground. I saw the Żabińskis’ marriage as a partnership with wife and husband sharing the same mission but offering complementary strengths.

. .  .

Overall I had mixed feelings about the book. It took me a long time to finish despite the fascinating (and important) subject matter. I think it was because the story didn’t really feel linear in a way that I wanted it to be in order to stay engaged; Ackerman interrupts Antonina’s story with lots of facts and musings about everything from Nazi ideology to animal behavior. All of it is relevant on some level I suppose, but I found myself confused a lot of the time, not able to really picture how the Żabińskis were actually hiding the Jews, for example, because the story felt so scattered. Every time a chapter went off on a tangent I found my mind wandering.

. . .

Anyway, those are just my thoughts. Please check out my fellow Literary Wives club members to read their takes on the book!

Ariel of One Little Library 

Audra of Unabridged Chick

Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses 

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Kay of WHATMEREAD

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

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