I read this novel for an ‘I’ll Read Yours if You Read Mine’ challenge. I was challenged to read it because I don’t like chick lit. Well, I still don’t. This book tries to be feminist, but it’s just a lot of New Age blather that simply ignores men.
It’s the story of Meg, a middle-aged, middle-class American suburban wife and mother whose life undergoes a series of drastic changes after she watches her husband Bob having an affair with another woman. The event leaves Meg broken and she goes into a lot of detailed whining, but as the narrative progresses it seems to be the best thing that’s ever happened to her, causing her to escape the life that has made her so unhappy and start a new one more in tune with her passions and friendships. Meg finds solace in a multitude of strong, wise women who are always available to listen and have no shortage of inspiring metaphors and anecdotes. These women and Meg’s friendships with them are nice but unreal – wonderful as they are, the way they pop up wherever Meg needs them is terribly contrived.
In fact, given the people and influences in Meg’s life, I couldn’t understand why she’d married Bob in the first place or why she’d allowed herself to become so unhappy. Each flashback chapter shows a ‘feminist’ influence in Meg’s life, but none of these seem to have had much impact on her. She encounters several women whose stories show that marriage (at least in this society) is bad for women, turning them into unhappy servants of their husbands and children and reducing their aspirations to daydreams. At one point, she admits that she doesn’t know of any happy marriages except her grandparents’. Other characters encourage Meg to follow her passions rather than submit to social pressures. And yet she still marries Bob at 20. I don’t think it’s impossible for something like this to occur, but given the circumstances, I found myself waiting for an explanation, a glimpse of Meg and Bob’s early relationship. I felt Radish owed it to the reader, but it never came.
I was also left wondering why Meg, a well-educated woman with so many strong, outspoken women in her life, never seems to have talked to her husband about her unhappiness and tried to work things out, either before or after learning about his affairs. Despite the novel’s strong feminist tones, the conclusion it offers is that women are still the weaker sex. They may have the strength to leave their husbands and stay single, but they don’t have the strength to face the men in their lives and confront the problem of sexism. They can escape, but they can’t fight. If they’re lucky, they will find kind men with egalitarian sensibilities who will not pose a threat. Or they can just live with other women, and avoid men.
Divorce seems the only solution posed for an unhappy marriage then, because it’s always going to be unhappy. Women must find solace in each other, or in themselves. But on the whole, this feels like a fantasy. There are mythical women like Elizabeth, Linda, Dr Carol Kimbal – goddess-like in their wisdom, strength and beauty. There are magical places – Elizabeth’s apartment, Mexico, Meg’s new apartment. There are New Age ideas and practices throughout and the ending is a lovely dream of success. To me, all the wonderful things the novel celebrates feel unreal, a New Age fantasy. In contrast, there’s a ‘real world’ where men like Bob are still in control and that fantasy falls flat. I wanted the novel to solidify into a biting feminist tract or just veer off into a thrilling reckless fantasy where Meg parties and has wild affairs on gorgeous Mexican beaches. Unfortunately, it falls somewhere in the middle, trying to impart serious messages about empowerment in a way that makes it all to magical to be real.
Nevertheless, I still found aspects of the novel inspiring, even if I don’t agree with the way Radish has expressed them. The voracious appetite for change is so exciting, the suggestion of being happy while staying single is both calming and thrilling. I also valued this perspective on middle-aged women in suburban middle-class America – a culture far from my own. It’s clearly something that speaks to them, and to women elsewhere. And I too would love to do some of the things Meg does as she changes her life, but for me this novel could only work as an inspiring fantasy, nothing more. And for novels about women, there are many others that are better-written, more fun, more feminist…