Wednesday, June 13, 2012

"A Short History of Women," by Kate Walbert

Regular readers of this blog would probably think, as I did myself, that I would immediately want to read a novel titled “A Short History of Women” (Scribner, 2009), which was written by a respected author, Kate Walbert, and which was well-reviewed. I remember picking it up and looking at it in the library and then in a bookstore, and somehow -- despite the title and the good reviews -- not being drawn to it enough to buy or borrow it. Recently, however, when browsing in an excellent independent bookstore in Healdsburg, Copperfield’s, I saw the book on the sale table, and this time I decided I wanted to read it. I knew I was going to be taking a long plane trip soon after, so I put it on my mental packing list for that trip. Although it is not the kind of novel that keeps a reader turning pages quickly, it is a thoughtful and engaging book. It tells the story of five generations of women, from the late 19th century to the early 21st century, in a family spanning England and the United States. (I happen to be a big fan of “generations of women” novels.) The first woman, Dorothy Trevor Townsend, was a suffragette who starved herself for the cause. The succeeding generations are all, directly or indirectly, influenced by her life and cause. The story cuts back and forth among the characters and the time periods, which is sometimes a bit jarring, but overall is effective. The strength of the novel is its reminder of how the discrimination women have experienced from generation to generation is an ongoing factor in women’s lives. Some women are more aware of it than others; some suffer from it more than others; some are more dedicated and/or braver in their fight against it than others (often because they have enough privilege and capital -- financial and social/cultural -- to do so). This description perhaps makes the novel sound like a polemic; it is not. The “women’s issue” forms a connecting thread throughout, but the stories of the women’s lives over the years are full of family, relationships, careers, and more, and are compelling in their own right.

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