A Short History of Women, by Kate Walbert
My mom sent me this book a few months ago, which is entirely appropriate given that it follows multiple generations of mother-daughter relationships. Of course, my initial reaction was to be mildly grossed out at the sappiness and overt sentimentality of the gesture. The second reaction was to roll my eyes, stick it on the shelf, and forget about it for a while. Slightly cruel, I know*. But it’s sort of like a tradition, for us. My mom trying to convince me to bond with her over books about moms and daughters, and me not wanting to. Of course, as anyone who follows this blog knows, I love to read about moms, daughters, and all sorts of women, but something about my mom trying to convince me to do it reeks of some sort of forced bonding exercise that still sometimes pushes my big red rebellion button. This can’t be an uncommon phenomenon, right? In any case, I think I’m growing out of it.
This book was a lot better than I expected to be. Not that I set out to read a bad book, but as you can see I wasn’t particularly excited about this one and was merely looking for something easy that I could finish in a relaxed afternoon or two. It was perfect for my mood. I got sucked right in and finished it in one or two sittings.
In 1914, Dorothy Trevor Townsend starved herself for suffrage. The succeeding four generations of women in Dorothy’s family struggle somewhere between her legacy, their own desires, and their own hang-ups. They are all very different women with a shared problem, the same kind of “woman problem” dealt with by Betty Friedan in the Feminine Mystique. It’s somehow inescapable, this problem, and not just for the Townsend family, Walbert seems to say, but for all of women throughout time and space. Gloomy, indeed. Certainly had me feeling badly about the prospects of aging! Not something I’d recommend for any one with any kind of existential anxiety. But, the subject matter was dealt with so tenderly, so evocatively, so freshly, that I ended up feeling positively, at least, about the book itself. And I was really impressed by Walbert’s writing. She’s got talent!
Of course, it wasn’t perfect. Any book this short (barely 200 pages) dealing with five whole generations of women is going to have to leave a lot out. There was no room for character development, so most of them aren’t all that memorable. And the story moves backward and forward so frequently, and among people with such similar names, no less, that it’s easy to get lost. In fact, if I hadn’t read the book so quickly, I’m sure I would have had to rely much more strongly on the fictional family tree provided at the beginning of the book. I do love a good fictional family tree, don’t get me wrong, but dependence on it has the potential to get very annoying very quickly.
It had it’s problems. But ultimately I had a lot of fun with it. A great book for ladies and their moms 🙂
*Sorry, mom. I love it more than anything when you send me books, and I will, eventually, get to reading them all!