The Book Club

Having It Both Ways

Hi again, Karen,

And thanks for the good wishes. I keep thinking about your astute advice that the key to motherhood is to not take oneself too seriously. For now, I’m trying to use the physical strangeness and humiliations of pregnancy as a way of learning that lesson (surely, I tell myself, retching through summer on the New York City subway was practice).

Having snuck in that little sob story of my own, I have to acknowledge that you’re right, of course, that we shouldn’t automatically belittle the difficulties of a privileged woman like Kate. I think the unpleasant reality of her problems, and the large number of women who share many of them, is the reason this book is on the best-seller lists. (That, and the power of humor, which I wish more novelists would try their hands at.) It’s just that Pearson can’t seem to get to the root of any of those problems. The blurry character of Richard, Kate’s husband, is the perfect example. Is it that he simply doesn’t do nearly enough to manage the kids or to keep the household running, or is it that Kate, in her adult-child-of-an-alcoholic drive to take on an impossible level of responsibility in all aspects of her life, doesn’t let him play an active role? We aren’t given enough information to judge that. And so the novel tips back and forth between an indictment of the view that women should be wholly in charge of childrearing and family life while well-rested men blithely go about the rest of life, and the view that Kate herself is the main cause of her own misery.

The novel is constantly trying to have it both ways with stuff like this. For example, is Kate having an affair with Jack Abelhammer or what? If so, bring on the sex—do we really want to read their embarrassing “Hey, I was an English major too!” e-mails, with those unfortunate XXXXXX’s running across the page? That scene where she gets drunk and passes out and can’t remember how far things went is a female version of a Clintonesque cop-out. But Pearson doesn’t want to give us any real ammunition for judging Kate—the sneers of the Muffia, whom Kate looks down on anyway, are as far as she’ll go.

And as you point out, we’re supposed to see Kate as the average working woman and also as someone who’s not at all average. In fact Pearson depicts her as extraordinary, an example of the kind of success women could have even in the most brutal, testosterone-fueled industries, if only (the novel suggests) they could lead the unencumbered lives men lead and if only the men weren’t plotting against them constantly. I really like your idea that if the novel really wanted to say something about the plight of working women, it might have given a little attention to some of the working women around Kate who can’t afford to lavish the kids they barely see with gifts and trips and expensive birthday parties.

But that’s the thing: This book is about the problems of working women only as a premise for a kind of broad, slapstick, ultimately light comedy. Somehow, the way Pearson works that formula makes it come off to me as a book that lacks a heart (loving one’s own children doesn’t quite count—that seems like something we should not give extra points for). And I should say that I am a big fan of Bridget Jones’s Diary—a book that was going for the same kind of comedy. But Bridget Jones left me feeling warmly and as if some kind of sneaky social comment had been made, a real social change had been registered, while I was laughing.

I see I’ve wandered away from the book’s questions about motherhood itself—my pre-emptive denial/avoidance again? I do wonder what you made of the depiction of Kate’s children, Karen. Till tomorrow,

All the best,