I have recently read some brilliant women’s novels, many of which, alas, are out-of-print. Annette Williams Jaffee’s Adult Education (1981), which was praised in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the TLS, is a comical, discerning novel about women’s friendship. It was published by Ontario Review Press, a small press founded by Joyce Carol Oates and her husband Raymond Smith.
It’s odd what women’s novels survive and what do not. Why does one remain popular, and another popular novel vanishes from the shelves? I found a paperback copy of Adult Education on a wintry day in London, when I was clomping from bookstore to bookstore on unshoveled slushy sidewalks. (I plan to teach an adult education class on snow removal next time I am in London.)
Adult Education is hilarious, snappy, and slightly subversive. Becca and Ulli are both pregnant when they meet in an adult education class. Becca, a former dancer who graduated from Bennington, is emotional and affectionate, also incredibly witty about her Jewish childhood in Chicago, while Ulli is a cool, Swedish blonde, a former model who is happy to be a housewife, free from the pressures of looking stylish. The third-person narrative is from Becca’s comical perspective, and that is a good thing, because we can relate to Becca as we can’t to Ulli. I was hooked from the opening witty paragraph.
Becca met Ulli in an Audlt Education course in Pre-Columbian Art. They were both pregnant with their first children and sat like two Marimekko pumpkins in a field of withering vines, a group of professors’ widows. The widows were off to Mexico when the course ended, with the instructor, who was as brown and round as a Toltec jug. Becca later thought of them during the long winter of her motherhood, imagined their knotty legs in support hose, climbing the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, an endless Paradise, while she shuffled back and forth like a tired obedient cow. She knew from her Lamaze training that Childbirth was the Ultimate Experience, but that winter she sometimes wished she’d gone on the trip instead.
Soon Becca and Ulli become best friends. They take adult ed classes in photography, pottery, and tennis: Ulli can do everything; Becca’s only talent is dance. Becca took ballet as a child and majored in dance at Bennington. When she is pregnant with her second daughter she decides to dance for Ulli, but can’t squeeze into her toe shoes. Becca is proud of her long toes and blackened toenails, the result of dancing on point; she explains pain is a badge of honor for ballerinas. But her “restrained pirouettes” make her look like the dancing hippo in Fantasia, she says.
Naturally, it is Becca who becomes a feminist first. Ulli is too practical to think in those terms. Becca’s husband, Gerry, a sociology professor, is unfaithful (an hour before his Ph.D. graduation she catches him having sex in a library carrel with his former girlfriend) and she tells Ulli that playpens, diaper pins, and cribs are “symbols of oppression.” Ulli disagrees.
“Ah, Becca, every housewife is not Emma Bovary,” objected Ulli, mending overalls.
“Oh, yeah? Well, you’re wrong, Ulli. I see us as an entire nation of Sleeping Beauties!”
Jaffee’s plain, brisk style is both funny and touching as she describes Becca’s dramatic life, witnessed at every turn by Ulli. When the two women vacation with their children at the beach, there is a rare period of calm: their husbands join them only on weekends, and they are happier without them. The bond of friendship is stronger than the bond of marriage.
The years roll by. Becca attends a consciousness raising grou0, writes poetry, and falls in love with her impotent poetry teacher. When Becca’s husband learns about the poetry teacher, he calls it an “affair” and threatens to divorce Becca and take away their two daughters. Eventually he leaves Becca for a younger woman, his student assistant. But at least Becca still has her daughters.
Women take care of women in this novel, and when Ulli gets sick, Becca cares for her when Ulli’s husband and son pretty much opt out. Perhaps the men don’t care enough, or can’t let themselves feel enough. I sniveled and cried over Ulli’s illness (a brain tumor), but the novel is more hopeful than sad. If the U.S. had a Virago press, Adult Education would undoubtedly be a women’s best-seller.