Book Review: The Stepford Wives

Anyone who does not already know the story of The Stepford Wives should skip the introduction by Chuck Palahniuk that opens this edition and read it at the end. It is a thought-provoking opinion piece but gives away key elements of the plot. I picked up my copy of the tale having seen the film (the 1975 version) so was familiar with what would unfold. As is often the case, the book offers a much more powerful depiction than that shown on screen.

Given the way many men, and also certain women, are currently regarding today’s young women, this is a story that deserves to, once again, be widely read. Have we gone backwards from 1972 when the book was first published? Palahnick writes in this 2011 edition:

“In The Nannie Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada and Confessions of a Shopaholic, in this new generation of ‘chick lit’ novels, men are once more the goal. It’s successful women who torment our pretty, painted narrators […] women may now choose to be pretty, stylishly dressed, and vapid. This is no longer the shrill, politically charged climate of 1972; if it’s a choice freely made, then it’s . . . okay.”

“It’s fine. This is what the modern politically aware, fully awake, enlightened, assertive woman really, really, really wants: a manicure.”

The story opens with Joanna and Walter Eberhart, parents of Pete and Kim, settling into their new suburban home in Stepford having left the dirty and dangerous New York City. Joanna, a freelance photographer, is telling The Welcome Wagon Lady about her interests for the ‘Notes on Newcomers’ section of the local paper. Her female neighbours seem more interested in maintaining their already immaculate homes than in socialising. She hopes the article will help her find more forward thinking, like-minded friends. Walter plans to establish himself within the community by joining the local Men’s Association. Joanna is appalled that her supposedly liberated husband will consider attending a club that bans women.

Through the article in the newspaper Joanna meets Bobbie and then Charmaine. The three women get together and collectively wonder at the many beautiful and carefully presented wives in Stepford whose key interest seems to be housework. Their invitations to set up some sort of club for women have been declined with claims that there is no time for such pursuits if homes are to be maintained. And then the vocal and energetic Charmaine changes.

The gradual shift from suburban bliss to the horror of the situation is masterfully achieved. Even knowing the denouement I had to set down the book to catch my breath before finishing. The lengths the men of Stepford will go to in order to ensure their wives take more care over their appearance and become quiet and subservient may appear extreme. Swap their direct action for relentless and widespread emotional coercion and it is all too believable today.

This is a short book that packs a mighty punch with its succinct and fluid structure and language. I am left pondering just how many men would secretly prefer a Stepford Wife to a partner who is, at least, their equal.

The Stepford Wives is published by Corsair.

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Book Review: Plastic Emotions

Plastic Emotions, by Shiromi Pinto, is a work of fiction inspired by the life of Minette de Silva who was the first Sri Lankan woman to be trained as an architect and the first Asian woman to be elected an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Her father was a prominent politician in Ceylon and her mother a campaigner for woman’s suffrage. de Silva befriended the lauded Swiss-French pioneer of modernist architect, Le Corbusier, and, in this story at least, they are for a time lovers.

The portrayal of Le Corbusier is not flattering. He is egotistical and a serial womaniser.

“He has never appreciated a woman who makes an effort to cover her charms. ‘It is not natural,’ he would say.”

Le Corbusier requires affirmation from all he encounters that they are impressed by his achievements. It is difficult to understand why de Silva was so obsessed with this married man who considered only his own needs.

Ironically, given his personality, Le Corbusier dislikes America and admires India for its ‘absence of ego’. He has this idea that India’s poor are content with their lot and do not desire better for themselves.

de Silva studied in London and enjoyed regular visits to Paris but was required by her father to return home to Ceylon after she qualified. Raised in great privilege, amongst her country’s elite, she subsequently struggled to support herself financially. She longs for the freedoms enjoyed in London and Paris, feeling constrained by the demands of the upper echelons of Ceylon society. She is assisted in many ways by her wider family and develops close friendships, although these suffer over time as Ceylon’s political situation deteriorates.

“She does not understand how she has forgotten him so effortlessly. She wonders whether she has abandoned him because his politics no longer suit hers.”

The various groups of friends depicted consider themselves artists and intellectuals who revel in their perceived talents and cleverness. They appear detached from the wider population believing that only they know how to improve a country in which so many suffer poverty which, in their cocoon of privilege, they cannot truly comprehend.

“There will always be room for us, Laki. We are artists. We stand above such petty arguments.”

The group are scathing of de Silva’s clients who will not bow to her will when designing what will be their home.

“They strike me as the types who appreciate something only after everyone else tells them how wonderful it is.”

Le Corbusier has the same issue when others try to alter his vision for a new build. He is so convinced of his own brilliance that he talks of seeking heritage status to prevent residents from altering anything about a building and its associated surrounds in the future.

Throughout the years covered in this tale each of the key characters indulges in affairs. These include an assistant de Silva employs and then casually sleeps with. When he leaves she feels anger that he takes her ideas to his new position – as if gaining such learning is not why he worked for her. There is little long term loyalty even between close friends.

The main story starts in 1949 and details de Silva’s life through to the 1960s – with brief coverage of how it later ends. Parts are epistolary. A wider picture is drawn by giving occasional voice to certain servants and friends. The pace felt slow in places as there was repetition and little action other than the increasing violence in Ceylon. Friendships are formed and cool; affairs blossom and then wilt with subsequent hurt and recrimination. The historical aspects are interesting as is the personal recognition of behaviours – suggesting a degree of self-awareness. The people depicted live a gilded existence despite personal slights and frustrations.

de Silva struggles to gain the professional appreciation she believes she deserves.

“when she surveys her past work, she finds an uncomfortable truth: all the recognition she has received has been through family contacts. Almost all the contracts she has received have also been through contacts. Very few have approached her on the basis of her reputation. Her reputation, in fact, is generally prefixed by the word ‘woman’. That ‘woman’ architect. As if that somehow sullies the work”

Le Corbusier has no such issues finding new projects, although he spends a great deal of the time period covered working on a large scale development in India. When this is finally completed he ponders how moving on from such a commitment feels.

“It is the same gloom that falls at the end of any long project. Like the first time you take a woman you have wanted for a long time – that feeling of: So? What next?”

The writing is precise and articulate although I struggled to empathise with either de Silva or Le Corbusier. Perhaps those with an interest in modernist architecture may feel more sympathy.

It is a familiar and depressing refrain that women struggle to attain the same regard as men for the same work. de Silva was a first in her field and faced prejudice. Nevertheless, the depiction presented here suggests she had opportunities others could not hope for due to her family’s position.

Although fictional a story inspired by real people will draw readers to their lives and the work they left. I am now curious about architects and their egos. The honesty with which characters’ lives and thoughts are presented – their chafing against expectation and convention – makes this a worthwhile read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press. 

Book Review: The Porpoise

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

In recent years there has been an upsurge in contemporary fiction writers re-imagining classic myths and tales. As I have read few of the originals I come at these stories with fresh eyes. Perhaps I miss clever references. Perhaps I out myself as being less well read. I have little time for literary snobbery or being told I should read any work. A book should stand on its own merits whatever its inspiration.

The Porpoise is based on the story of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Alongside older renditions of this tale, the version resurrected by Wilkins and Shakespeare is cited. Other, more divergent, interpretations have also been woven into this new take. Details change over time but the template remains the same: the beautiful daughter of a powerful man is no more than a device to set a young suitor on the journey where he will have his real adventures.

Opening in modern times the story starts with a plane crash in which the only survivor is a newborn child. Her father – a wealthy and powerful aristocrat who is devastated by the loss of his wife – raises their daughter, named Angelica, in what he considers protective seclusion. The description of her childhood is harrowing. When a young man, Darius, visits their home she is quietly desperate for change. The books that have been her solace growing up lead her to believe that Darius will orchestrate her escape. Her father understands the scandal this risks and sets an assassin on the young man’s tail.

“there are plenty of men who consider their good name more valuable than a girl’s life”

Darius flees and, in doing so, travels back in time. He becomes Pericles and is warned by advisors that he must leave Tyre. There is a shipwreck. He encounters and impresses a princess. Further tragedies strike.

Timelines are intertwined. The reader is kept updated as to what is happening to Angelica. There are sections involving Wilkins and Shakespeare. Characters observe the lives they are leading as their past or future selves through dreams. They feel what is happening even though they do not always understand.

It is a story of fathers and daughters, of grief and the cruel madness that grows from acceptance of entitlement. Women are broken because men use them for pleasure. Any suggestion that the tables could be turned leads to fear.

“The world turned upside down, the weak given power. The revenge they could justify if they had the means at their disposal. A life would not be long enough to repay the debt.”

At some level these men know what they are doing is wrong yet they suppress such thoughts when they can get away with their actions. Roles are ingrained; challenging them can be life threatening.

“She has grown up as a woman. She has been taught to flatter, to please, to depend, to give away, to make herself small and quiet. She has been told to be soft so that men will always have a means by which they can hurt and control her, that ring through the nose which men call femininity.”

The beliefs of the ancient world are referenced with their superstitions and blood sacrifices. When death seems near it is to within, rather than a deity, that the victims turn.

“Perhaps this is what all prayer is, when the ceremony and the theology are peeled away, a serious stillness in which one talks quietly to one’s own best self.”

Such best selves are ultimately selfish. The love so strongly felt is for how the recipient makes the lover feel. When faced with the power of wealth and social standing one’s best hope is to be overlooked, somehow hidden from the notice of those who seek to control behaviour for personal benefit.

“the wisdom that comes with knowing you could be prey”

One wretched scene involves young boys and their burgeoning need to prove themselves strong and fearless. Artistry is recognised then sacrificed, its value secondary to a more primal need when amongst peers.

After the adventures, the risk and the losses, there must be a denouement. It felt contrived although may well be based on the stories from which this one has grown. The author offers alternatives while pointing out the difficulties these would bring. Happy ever after is not how life is lived.

There is a short digression that explores an afterlife in which comeuppance is not as expected. It added to a tale where death, or near death, is a perpetual driver. The men portrayed rarely acknowledge the damage caused by their behaviour. When faced with consequences, regret is for what is now happening to them.

Any Cop?: The layered and interwoven structure works well in drawing attention to key issues and bringing accepted horrors, particularly in the ancient setting, a contemporary empathy. The fluid writing offered moments of insight. Although at times unsettling, this was an enjoyable read.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: A Long Shadow

A Long Shadow, by Caroline Kington, is a family saga set on a farm in the English West Country. It includes mystery, history and suspense. There are beautiful people and admirers vying for their attention. There are unpleasant characters and, by the end, the reasons behind their behaviour. There is the death of a farmer, Dan Maddicott, and a trail of clues to keep the reader guessing if his demise was accidental or something more sinister.

Before laying the groundwork for the main storyline, the reader is introduced to Susan who, as a teenager during the Second World War, fell pregnant to an American GI. Her cruel stepmother packed her off to a house of shame where such fallen women would give birth before handing their babies over for adoption. Susan plans her escape but ends up in an equally perilous predicament. The story moves back and forth between Susan’s subsequent life and that of Kate, Dan’s wife, at the start of the new millennium.

A third timeline details Dan’s life, cut short when he dies due to the discharge of a shotgun. Dan’s family have owned and run Watersmeet Farm for generations. Although an only child he has many cousins, two of whom, Max and Mary, he saw regularly throughout his childhood. Their visits to the farm ceased after an episode on a tenant’s property that inflamed a long running enmity. Jem and then Frank Leach are thorns in the side of the Maddicotts, but ones their landlords have little appetite to displace.

Dan lives within a close knit community and becomes the envy of his many friends. Until the BSE and then Foot and Mouth crises his farm prospered. The cattle he raises are regarded as of high quality. Dan wins the hand of the beautiful Kate who becomes his loving wife. We learn of their meeting and courtship; we are introduced to their two small children. That Dan’s death occurred shortly after he took out a life insurance policy has set local tongues wagging and causes his grieving widow to dig deeper into the farm’s history.

There are many supporting characters adding colour and shade. Dan has a loyal farm manager who supports Kate after her husband’s death. There are other farm hands who have varying inter-rivalries. Dan’s mother is calm and supportive and also a terrible cook. Kate’s mother in Cambridge is garrulous and selfish, blatantly favouring her younger daughter, the enchanting Emily.

Kate’s admirers include Max, an old flame. She grows closer to a widower who owns and runs a nearby farm. Her friends include Mary whose marriage suffers its own challenges. Acquaintances rally from across the country when Kate requires assistance. Despite the difficulties encountered over time by characters – domestic violence, alcoholism and homelessness, culls of livestock – at its heart these people have an enviable support network.

The tragedies, the comic characters, the question of how Dan died, keep the reader turning the pages. The writing is polished and well paced with a structure that maintains interest. The denouement tied up threads without changing characters’ behaviour.

There were few snags in the writing. I was, as ever, irritated by the need to mention a woman’s soft breasts. I was perplexed that pubic hair could be described as silky. Can people have button eyes? – I couldn’t picture what this meant. Such minor issues can be accepted when the tale, although in places idealistic, held its reader’s attention.

I enjoyed the moments of humour such as the older ladies’ competitive grandparenting. Emily was granted a great deal of power but perhaps men do fall so hard for a pretty woman who showers them with attention. Ivan was, unusually, an MP I regarded with a degree of empathy.

The setting offered an interesting perspective on farming with its never ending demands and ingrained duty. Taking Kate, a city girl, and placing her far from her burgeoning media career, much to the chagrin of family and friends, allowed the financial problems Dan encountered and then didn’t share with her some authenticity. The difficulty young farmers had finding partners now that women expect greater support and autonomy was just one of several asides to ponder.

This is a book worth considering if looking for a tale that is neatly written and not particularly demanding. Rural drama with sufficient variety and suspense to maintain reader engagement.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.

Book Review: The Accident on the A35

“The smaller the town, the more inward-looking its residents.”

The Accident on the A35, by Graeme Macrae Burnet, returns the reader to the small French border town of Saint-Louis where the author’s debut novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, was set. Now being described as a series, this latest work focuses on an investigation being carried out by Chief Inspector Georges Gorski, the head of the town’s police force. An eminent and austere lawyer, Bertrand Barthelme, is found dead in his car following what looks like a road traffic accident. His attractive widow, Lucette, asks Gorski to look into why her husband had been driving in a location that made no sense given where he had told her he would be that evening. Lucette had understood that he dined at a club every Tuesday after work, and had done so for as long as she could remember.

The story is told from two points of view: Gorski, and the lawyer’s teenage son, Raymond. At seventeen the boy is trying to establish his desired persona. He carries with him books he believes will impress his peers. He discusses Sartre and experiences a frisson of excitement when considering self-harm – the drawing of blood to shock and rebel.

Gorski is still coming to terms with his wife leaving him. He enjoys the freedom he now has to drink heavily whenever he chooses but misses her company despite their mutual irritations. Attracted to Barthelme’s widow, he agrees to look into her husband’s whereabouts on the evening of the lawyer’s death. He uncovers a potential link to a murder investigation in Strasbourg.

Raymond, meanwhile, finds a scrap of paper containing a scribbled address in a desk drawer in his father’s study. He sets out to uncover who lives there and if his father visited the night he died. Distracted by a girl, Raymond allows himself to act in ways he has never before dared. He is pleased with the change in himself despite antipathy triggered.

“In Saint-Louis, it is frowned upon to have good posture, or to walk purposefully along the street as if one is in control of one’s own destiny. If asked how one’s business is doing, the customary response is: ‘Could be worse,’ or ‘Just about surviving.’ Anything more upbeat is reckoned insufferable boasting.”

The evocation of small town life includes the suggestion of casual racism and homophobia – an acknowledgement that such prejudices exist within groups and are generally overlooked or accepted by acquaintances. The attitudes of the police are affected by an individual’s demeanour and social standing. There is a desire for admiration, especially from those regarded as superior.

The writing is taut and accomplished with character studies a key feature. Although somewhat heavy on description, the plot moves along at an engaging pace. Certain male habits, true to life and serving a purpose in the narrative, were distasteful to read. The men are drawn more vividly than the women, whose supporting role is largely based around sexual attraction.

Readers who enjoyed Adèle Bedeau will likely relish this sequel. I enjoyed it to an extent but with reservations. While welcoming the original take on crime fiction and the frequent dark humour, I couldn’t get past my dislike of prurient detail. However well formed the characters, there are certain personal habits I prefer not to consider.

The Accident on the A35 is published by Contraband.

Book Review: Being Various, New Irish Short Stories

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Being Various is the sixth volume of Faber’s long-running series of new Irish short stories. In her introduction to the anthology, guest editor Lucy Caldwell ponders what makes a writer Irish. Must they be born on the island? Live there? Have parents who raise them to identify with their Irish heritage? She writes:

“I wanted to look, too, at where the new ways of Irish writing might take us. The fresh narratives, perspectives and multiplicities that are coming from immigration to a place so long and persistently defined by emigration.”

Each fiercely intelligent tale from the impressive who’s who of contributors offers a window into the differing impacts Ireland has on those steeped in its culture and prejudices. All the stories were commissioned especially, from writers whose work was first published after the Good Friday Agreement. It is a showcase of contemporary Irish literature.

There are tales that draw the reader in then leave them with ambiguous endings. ‘Stretch Marks’ by Elske Rahill tells of a difficult pregnancy that causes the suffering mother of four to feel she is a failure. ‘BrownLady12345’ by Melatu Uche Okorie looks at modern dating from the perspective of an immigrant who is lonely but unsure what they are looking for or how to achieve the desired connection. ‘The Swimmers’ by Paul McVeigh contains a disturbing undercurrent as a son tries to please his father. The reader is left to interpret each thread of suggestion for themselves.

Clarity is captured through Magic Realism. ‘Pillars’ by Jan Carson explores mental health following marital breakdown, when acquaintances are uncomfortable acknowledging such issues, even when they are made glaringly obvious. ‘The Lexicon of Babies’ by Sinéad Gleeson offers a picture of segregated privilege through state accepted competitive parenting – this odd little tale is beautifully fable-like. ‘Echo’ by Stuart Neville is poignant yet fierce – the story of a family unravelled by grief and the subsequent conspiracy of silence, violently enforced by a mother whose culpability remains veiled. ‘The Eclipse’ by Darren Anderson employs powerful imagery to portray the last days of an elderly woman whose mind has inexorably deteriorated. The love and care provided by her relatives is rare amidst so many depictions in this collection of the damage caused by family. ‘The Adminicle Exists’ by Eimear McBride is an emotive cry for help from a woman whose partner needs care yet poses a threat to her safety. ‘Wings’ by David Hayden is a painfully sad tale of the conspiracies and denials surrounding childhood abuse. ‘Lambeth’ by Jill Crawford offers an excellent depiction of the complexity inherent in an area’s gentrification. There are levels of wealth and poverty, threat and safety. Change may be resisted but is, and always has been, inevitable. ‘Alienation’ by Arja Kajermo is an unusually honest portrayal of Ireland from the point of view of a foreigner. Visitors may be welcomed but those who choose to stay face: prejudice, passive aggression, rejection for looking or acting different. ‘Colour and Light’ by Sally Rooney is fabulous story telling. Set in a seaside town it tells of two brothers, close in some ways yet rarely sharing anything of themselves, and a woman who briefly passes through their lives.

There are tales within this anthology that particularly resonated and others enjoyed but with less impact. Only one struck me off key – ‘The Downtown Queen’ by Peter Murphy. Its subject was memories – of a time when the narrator was part of an in-crowd enjoying sex, drugs, rock and roll. He interacted with famous musicians and their coteries in the early, raw days preceding meteoric careers. The tale felt to me to be trying too hard to be knowledgeable and artful – something that may appeal more to those with an interest in the 70s music scene. My negative reaction may be a dislike of the protagonist as much as the writing. I am rarely impressed by those who name drop for anticipated audience effect.

Any Cop?: For a collection of twenty-four stories, to enjoy all but one is pleasing. The quality of the writing is high, the subject matter piercing. There is humour amidst the darkness and a clear reflection of the Irish spirit in all its shades. This is as good a collection of short stories as I have read this year.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau

Set in the small French border town of Saint-Louis, where many of the residents have lived all their lives, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, by Graeme Macrae Burnet, tells the story of Manfred Baumann – a socially awkward loner – and his dealings with local detective, Georges Gorski. Manfred is a creature of habit who, most lunchtimes and evenings, frequents the Restaurant de la Cloche near the town marketplace. Here he observes the staff and clientele while enjoying predictable meals and glasses of wine. When a young waitress at the establishment fails to show up for work, the detective questions each of the regulars. Not wishing to be drawn into the investigation, Manfred is economical with the truths he tells. Georges needs to work out if the information withheld is of any importance.

Both of Manfred’s parents died when he was a child leaving him in the care of his maternal grandparents. He lost the one great love of his life while still a teenager. Now a bank manager in his thirties, Manfred has found ways of coping with his needs. The habits he has formed provide daily structure but rarely happiness.

Georges decision to join the police force went against the plans his parents had worked towards. The job is a niggling source of annoyance for his wife. Haunted by a murder case from his early career, Georges is determined to uncover Adèle’s fate. With few leads the case is at risk of going cold.

The story opens with a scene set in the Restaurant de la Cloche that introduces the reader to many of the key characters. It then follows Manfred through a typical weekend during which he is shown to have several distasteful habits. While the descriptions provide useful background I considered some repugnant.

After Adèle’s disappearance the pace of plot development picks up. Chapters looking back at Manfred’s childhood are also of increasing interest. The varying timelines have crossover characters, often not explicitly stated. The effects of parochial life, prejudice and gossip are well evoked.

The initial narrative and somewhat slow to start action had me wondering why the book came so highly recommended. These concerns quickly dissipated once details of such things as bodily emissions were subsumed by the dark undercurrents of unexplained hours. Manford’s view of himself is shown to be at odds with the casual opinions of acquaintances, whose own standing amongst their peers proves delusional.

Not a typical crime thriller, the strengths of this story are in character depth and development. What starts as exposition grows into a much more subtle discourse. The denouement is deft if poignant with a trademark afterword by the author. Worth sticking with for a tale that will linger.

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is published by Contraband.