Saturday, April 12, 2008

the liberated woman

The other day I mentioned that I'm reading Richard Yates' Easter Parade (well, read, I finished it on the subway today). It was recommended by a dear friend, who thought it might be appropriate to my writing, and he was right. Selfdivider's comment that Yates is perhaps one of the most depressing authors of all time is no understatement. As I read, I found the book strangely, almost grotesquely resonant with my own life and over the past few days I've been in a rather melancholy mood because of it. I tend to get that way with books sometimes.

Anyway, I had promised said dear friend that I would let him know what I thought of the whole thing, and I will, but the thing that struck me most is the book is largely a comparison between two (maybe three, maybe) ways that a woman could live her life and in the first half of this century (I think, think, that Yates wrote this in the 60s but it takes place from about 1920 to the mid 60s, with most of it in the 40s-50s, coincidentally an era I am currently obsessed with). The Grimes sisters, Emily and Sarah, choose opposing paths; beautiful Sarah damns herself to a mediocre middle class marriage out in the suburbs with a husband who, it turns out, beats her for twenty-five years, while slender Emily goes to Barnard shortly after losing her virginity in precisely the way she swore she wouldn't (if I'm remembering correctly), and begins a life of imperfect sexual affairs and semi-satisfying employment, capped with semi-madness and semi-alcoholism. I've just realized I've somehow taken on Yates hard heart, I'm being as uncharitable to the Grimes sisters as he was when writing the novel. The mother...well, Pookie just isn't that relevant to this blog, it isn't a book review blog, it's about housewifery. I also don't think Yates needs my reviews.

At the end Yates offers this sort of copout where he has one of Sarah's sons tell his aunt Emily that he's often considered her an early prototype of the liberated woman. I think this is relatively clear from reading the book but it doesn't hurt too badly. Of course from hindsight it's really easy to say that someone like Emily almost re-enslaved herself (to wanton sexuality? to loneliness? to dissatisfaction?) by not marrying successfully, and that seems to be what her "little wife"-type sister feels as well, but it's an interesting thing to think about. Yates seems to suggest that women could choose or roll the dice and it wouldn't make an iota of a difference. There was no being happy for these women, they each picked wrong and as I see it there were no other options. It would be nice and comfortable to say that the book is a period piece, that women are more liberated and happy and blah blah blah now but I'm not sure I can believe that. If it were true I doubt we'd have Bridget Jones Diary. I doubt we'd have all those "subtle" books about marriage (Vinegar Hill comes to mind) that are so popular with women and girls.

What's really different now? Is it really, literally, possible to be a happy liberated woman? The truth is I want to be in the kitchen, but then again I want to sit in the front row of my lecture classes. So maybe it's a burning need for both, maybe that's what Sarah and Emily did wrong-they had to pick so they did, and in the end the right answer was to do everything, be a career girl and a sexpot, make quiches and drive the kidlets to school (I hate quiche by the way, and Sarah seems like a wretched housewife but she tries hard to be one). Do both. Do both.

Or do nothing.

What do you think?

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