Reading Alix Kates Shulman’s “In Every Woman’s Life” & Searching for Paula Fox

Sometimes I love a good beach read.

Last spring I read Alix Kates Shulman’s Burning Questions, a superb novel about the rise of Second Wave feminism.   Published in 1978, it is the best, most accurate historical novel I have read about the Women’s Liberation Movement.  It is a feminist classic.

I recently picked up her 1987 novel,  In Every Woman’s Life.  (Both books are free with Kindle Unlimited.)

Is it as good?  Well, it is much lighter, really a beach read, but I enjoyed it immenselyShulman is a novelist of ideas:  she examines subjects that concern women but were especially pertinent in the mid-to-late twentieth century.   In this absorbing novel, she writes about women’s sexuality, marriage, and adultery.

Shulman writes,

In every woman’s life a time must come to think about marriage. Once, that time was brief, to be seized in the moment, or anxiously borne, or boldly flung away; but now it seems to descend like a recurring dream to vex or tempt the troubled dreamer with secret longings and second thoughts—such are the uncertainties of the times.

And the times are still uncertain, yes?

Alix Kates Shulman

The two main characters are good friends who have antithetical attitudes toward sex and marriage.  Rosemary, a mother of two, stays married for the sake of her children.  She likes her husband, but is having a discreet, satisfying affair with a painter.  She is also happy in her work:  she teaches math as an adjunct. On the other hand, her friend Nora, a successful journalist, rages against marriage.  She says Rosemary has wasted her time raising children, and should have devoted herself to work.  Why is she so upset?   Nora realizes that her married lover, Lex, will never leave his wife.  She would like a relationship with an available man.

Parts of the book take the form of  dialogues between Rosemary and Nora.  Call me crazy, but if Socrates had been a woman…  No, I’m kidding; it’s not that deep, but it is very interesting.

NORA: If you had your way, you’d condemn everyone to the bondage of the past. People should only be together because they want to be.

ROSEMARY: But if they happen to want to stay married for any reasons besides romance, you won’t allow it.

The book description claims the book is about three women.  But look at the cover, hm?  I only see two women!  Rosemary’s daughter, Daisy, whom we first meet as a high school senior and later when she is contemplating marriage,  plays only a small part in the novel. Just as much time is devoted to her brother, Spider.

What to read when you’ve finished Shulman?  Well, I had an urge to reread Paula Fox, the much-praised author of adult novels, children’s novels, and memoirs.  Her work has been acclaimed by Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem, and Andrea Barrett.

Most of you will have read, or heard of, Desperate Characters, her masterpiece.  I have read this several times, but have never had the moxie to write about it. (You can read an excellent article about it in The New Yorker.)

Apparently I weeded all of her books except Desperate Characters.  Wouldn’t you know?  And since I have promised not to buy books till fall,  I cannot spend $3.48 for one of her books online.

I rolled my eyes when my husband recently found a book mailer in the trash, and demanded to know if I had bought a book.  It was a gift from a friend.  Really.

In every woman’s life a time must come to think about borrowing books from the public library.  Alas, our library has weeded most of Fox’s books.

But first thing in September…

Quotes of the Week from Alix Kates Shulman’s “Burning Questions”

Is Alix Kates Shulman’s Burning Questions the most underrated novel of the ’70s?

When we remember women’s fiction of the ’70s, we think of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (the American edition was not published until 1971), Erica Jong’s  Fear of Flying (now a Penguin classic), and Marilyn French’s best-seller, The Women’s Room. 

These books have their place in the feminist canon.  But Alix Kates Shulman’s sharp, funny second novel, Burning Questions, is their equal or perhaps a notch or two up.  If Philip Roth had written this tour de force, we’d be worshipping at the shrine.  This chronicle of a woman’s life, from Indiana girl to New York Beatnik to housewife to radical feminist, also delineates the growth of the Women’s Liberation movement in the ’60s and ’70s.

Open Road Media e-book

Shulman treats serious issues, but has a light touch. I am laughing over the antics and reflections of Zane, the bright, nerdy, Midwestern overachiever narrator.  And as I read I am underlining passages. Zane was a Hoosier of the ’50s, I was a Hawkeye of the ’70s, but we were both Midwestern women of different eras looking for meaning that would cost at the least a geographical change.

Zane was always different.  As a child in Babylon, Indiana, she tries to dig a hole to China.  She is tolerated by her peers but considered weird:  she skipped a grade in school, plays chess, and is on the debate team in high school.

Her parents dissuade her from moving to New York straight out of early graduation from high school, so she attends community college for two years first.  After earning her associate’s degree in the late ’50s, she moves to Greenwich Village, hoping to mingle with artists and writers. But after a week’s wandering around the city, she desperately realizes she will never meet anyone this way.  So she contacts the friend of a friend, who turns out to be a beatnik.  And  Zane, an excellent student, quickly perfects her role as Beatnik poet’s girlfriend.

As always, I was a quick and ardent student, purifying my line, learning in minute detail the dos and don’ts of beatnik life. ( Do: divest yourself of property. Get on welfare. Fuck. Learn a craft. Renounce your past. Don’t: read anything with a circulation of over five thousand. Be a joiner. Stay sober. Tolerate the word beatnik.) Others, with achievements or credentials above suspicion, might take the rules into their hands and display a weakness for frilly clothes or indulge a taste for restaurant life, disdain dope, eschew sex, express jealousy, read tabloids or crime fiction. But I did nothing even slightly suspect, afraid that a small mistake would show me up as an imposter

Shulman’s descriptions of Zane’s job as a temp secretary are also illuminating.  When Zane is assigned a broken typewriter , her savvy colleague Nina  guides her to an illicit storeroom that belongs to another department. They help themselves to a state-of-the-art typewriter and office supplies.  (Zane doesn’t really want anything, but Nina explains it’s their obligation to steal from the corporate publishing company that is exploiting them.)

Nina’s supply room turned out to be only the entranceway to a whole underground life she had created for herself outside and inside the office. The next day, as promised, she brought me several books, among them an illustrated volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a 1958 yearbook, Montaigne’s Essays , and a small novel by Colette.

“I didn’t know what you like, but these seemed safe. This company doesn’t have the greatest list. The pickings vary every season.”

“Did you … take these?”

“Does that worry you? Here—” she said, taking the books back and writing something in their flyleaves. “Now everyone will know they really belong to you.”

I opened the books. To Zone, for those old Paris days, Love, Colette. Second-best wishes from your friend Will . I put the books in my bottom drawer and thanked her.

Whether we were Beats, hippies, punks, yuppies, Gen-Xes, or whatever comes later, most of us have tried to fit in with  peers who pride themselves on having no rules, or worked in offices where rebels are sticking it to the man.  Like Zane, I never particularly needed extra paperclips or post-its, but it was fun hanging out with the Ninas anyway.

And now I must race through to the end.

Still Pertinent: Women’s Lit of the ’60s & ’70s

Women are marching for their rights. Wait, didn’t we do that decades ago?

And I wonder:  will Betty Friedan’s classic The Feminine Mystique (1963) EVER be out of date? Does it mean as much to women now as it did then?

I read it in my pink bedroom when I was 13 or 14.  I borrowed it from a friend’s mother, a  political activist. I had never read anything like it. “Far out,” as I occasionally said back then.  (No one ever said, “it blew my mind, ” except the Mod Squad.)   Friedan was inspired to do research  when her survey of Smith College classmates for their 15th anniversary reunion revealed they were unhappy housewives.  And so she wrote about history, the psychology, politics, the media, and the image of women in American society.  Although it may not have changed my life, it did change my ideas about possibilities.

It wasn’t just  sociological and political feminist books that influenced me then:  I was always a narrative person.  Popular literary fiction of the ’60s and ’70s had a great effect.  American women were writing literature about rebellious women experimenting with sex roles and sex.  Think Sue Kaufman’s The Diary of a Mad Housewife, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room.

Here is a list of some less well-known books of the time that have stood up surprisingly well.  And please let me know your own favorites!

1.  In Sheila Ballantyne’s brilliant out-of-print novel, Norma Jean the Termite Queen (1975), housework is driving the heroine, Norma Jean, crazy. Her husband, a professor, thinks her place is in the kitchen, and her three children are non-stop needy unless she parks them in front of cartoons.  She hasn’t been alone in six years, nor has she made any art.  Ballantyne’s bold style and attention-deficit shifting of Norma Jean’s consciousness make this immensely entertaining.

2.  Alix Kates Shulman is best known for Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, but my favorite is her controversial novel, Burning Questions (1978), which inspired three fascinating letters to the New York Times defending the book after a reviewer trashed it.

Told in the form of a memoir, this bildungsroman is the story of a woman from Indiana who moves to New York in the  ’50s s, then  marries a lawyer and lives in square Washington Square in the ’60s,  and  then rebels and joins the Women’s Liberation movement. Some of it is serious, some of it is comical.  And since it has been a long time since I’ve read this, I will leave you with a quote from the opening chapter.

What makes a rebel?

If you had seen the flags waving in front of each frame house set on its neat carpet of lawn on Endicott Road or any of the surrounding streets in Babylon, Indiana, on a Flag Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, V-J Day, or even a particularly fine Sunday after the War (World War II), you would never have guessed it possible that a fanatical radical was incubating there.

There is much humor, as well as an insightful description of the inspiration and confusion of the feminist movement.

3. Gail Godwin The Odd Woman (1974).  This small masterpiece explores a Southern woman’s personal and academic life in a time of unstable  jobs. Godwin’s sympathetic portrayal of a bookish heroine, Jane Clifford, a visiting English professor whose teaching contract  is soon to expire, is utterly realistic (Godwin herself has a Ph.D. and taught at the University of Iowa). But what can Jane do? Hers is the plight of thousands of instructors with Ph.Ds.  She  is an odd woman at the midwestern college, single and in her thirties, reading George Gissing’s The Odd Women. Her married friend Sonia, a tenured professor, is in her corner, but there are no openings at the college. And the rest of her close relationships are long-distance.

Such a great book, one of Godwin’s best.

4.  Lois Gould’s novel, A Sea Change (1976), is edgy, shocking, radical, and anti-male, and would never be published today.  This allegory about violence against women captures the  anger of radical Second Wave feminists (which, believe me, never translates well).  But I found it fascinating.

The protagonist, Jessie Waterman, a former model, lives in a brownstone in a dangerous neighborhood in New York with her sexist husband, Roy, who frequently refers to her as a “crazy cunt.” When a black man robs the apartment and rapes her with his gun, she decides ironically that they are intimate enough for her to refer to him as B.G.   Traumatized by violence, she moves with her daughter and stepmother to a summer home on Andrea Island, where Roy visits on weekends by helicopter. And when he goes away to Europe, Jessie is relieved to be free of him, and she and her best friend, Kate, become lovers.  How will they survive a hurricane and a male intruder?  Jessie plays (becomes?) the man.

You can read the entire post I wrote about this strange book at my old blog here.)

5.  The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford won the Pulitzer in 1970.  The masterly stories in this collection were published between 1944 and 1969. It was the era of the polymath, of a love of arcane multi-syllabic words. These perfectly-wrought stories, set in Europe, New England, and the West, are both subtle and shocking; her descriptions and dialogue are precise and pellucid. Does she go too far for our pseudo-sensitive smiley-face sensibilities? Are her New England spinsters too rich, mean, and snobbish for the modern reader? Is the shocking culture clash between Americans and Germans after Nuremberg too graphic? (It is a horrifying story.) Are the pretentious teachers with new master’s degrees too condescending? (Yes, they are, but that’s so realistic!) Is the obese philology student in Heidelberg too monstrous: she eats whole cakes, uses a sucker as a bookmark, and ominously talks about a dead thin twin. ( I’m fat, and not at all offended!) What about the cruise captain who exaggerates his racial prejudice (or does he?) to tease a liberal young woman described as “a natural victim”? (At the end, she is far from a victim.) These characters are vividly portrayed, realistic, and are sometimes as obnoxious as people we know in “real life.  You can read the rest of my blog here.