October 2003

Veronica Bond

21st Century Fox

Feminism at home

Chick lit gets a bad rap and for a good reason. It's often predictable, uninspiring, and sometimes even a bit offensive. I greatly dislike most chick lit, so I opened Danielle Crittenden's amanda bright@home fully expecting to feel the bile rise in my throat while I read about yet another young woman running off in search of herself, sleeping with a number of men, and eventually coming to realize that there's more to love than just sex and money. Yes, I did find a little bit of that in amanda bright@home, and, true, the plot followed the story of a woman in search of meaning in the manner that has become typical of modern feminine writing, but beneath this there lies some interesting questions regarding modern feminism. Whether or not these questions were intentional may be beyond the point, but their existence was essential in saving yet another novel heroine from the perils of stereotype.

Amanda Bright, the title character, is a stay at home mother with two young children. Having left her job at the National Endowment for the Arts and with her youngest child in school, Amanda begins to feel in her role as "just a mother." She clings to her maiden name, correcting anyone who address her by her husband's surname and she fancifully remembers when all of her free time was her own. With her husband, Bob Clarke, earning a governmental salary at the Department of Justice, Amanda's family doesn't quite net the income to compete with the other affluent families in their neighborhood. Though a second income would certainly help matters, it is guilt that keeps Amanda at home with her children and it is the resulting resentment that begins to consume her identity.

Amanda's struggle throughout the novel is to reconcile the role she performs with the woman she believes she is. She even goes so far as to contemplate an affair with a friend -- a stay-at-home father -- in order to rediscover the person she was before she had children: "As a married woman, she no longer radiated sexual possibility. Without that whiff of promise, she felt like a rose stripped of its scent. At least when Amanda had held a job, men listened to what she had to say. Now, without sexual possibility, without a job title, who was she in the eyes of men but a house elf, a drone, a low-status person they had to endure only if she were seated next to them at a dinner party?"

It's evident that Amanda has some serious self-esteem issues with which Crittenden, unfortunately, seems to think most women will identify. Having never had children, I suppose I'm in no position to judge, but it seems unfair to portray this sort of role conflict as inherently feminine. What saves Crittenden from falling completely into this snare is her effort to portray both sides of the motherhood issue. During a small dinner party, Jim Hochmayer, one of Bob's colleagues, makes it a point to compliment Amanda on her ability to handle the management of her family. "I understand it's not fashionable to say so," Hochmayer says, "but I truly honor what you're doing. People today don't appreciate the hard work and sacrifices a mother makes for her family. An educated woman like you could be making a killing out there in the workforce -- dammit, you're expected to be out there -- and instead you've chosen to do something that is, frankly, much more difficult… and much more worthwhile."

There's a subdued sort of feminist commentary going on behind stale twists of the plot, and it's that commentary that redeems an otherwise plain narrative. Crittenden's question is whether motherhood is a feminist activity and she continues to pose the issue throughout the novel's characters. There's Amanda who, while she loves her children, feels some part of her missing without attention to her work. There's Amanda's friend Liz, with whom she protested anti-abortion laws and who is now happily occupied caring full-time for her four children. There's Amanda's mother, Ellie, whose words suggest that her life would have been better had she never been tied down by the demands of a daughter. All women define themselves as feminists, promoting the importance of choice, though their definitions of choice separate their ideals. For Liz it is the choice to devote her life to mothering, while for Ellie, who tells her daughter that she has chosen to do nothing with her life, it is the choice to escape motherhood.

What saves amanda bright@home is that the argument it poses is relevant. Feminism is about choice, but who is to say what that choice is or which choice is the correct one? Amanda's battle is just that -- figuring out the choice for her, the one that allows her to maintain her dueling identities as mother, wife, and independent woman. It's Liz who gives Amanda the most inspiring advice during her struggle when she says, "Own it, Amanda -- own your time, your identity. It's yours and nobody else's." Amanda does learn to do that, likening femininity to rings on a tree, as many different things acquired over periods of time. It's a definition that works for Amanda and one that respectfully serves feminism as well.

Though Crittenden is guilty of occasional predictability, amanda bright@home was disappointing only in that I couldn't hate it. Motherhood's place in feminism is a valid argument and Crittenden evenly displays all sides in her characters, avoiding any sort of sermon serving her personal agenda. I admit to misjudging Amanda and, perhaps, chick lit as a whole. I don't, however, plan to stock my personal library with girly writing. Reading is about choice, as well, and I have a feeling that for every Amanda there is another woman who would have had that affair, who would have resented her husband and her children, and who would have learned nothing through the course of a few hundred pages. Too often those choices are believed to be the correct ones.

amanda bright@home by Danielle Crittenden
Warner Books
ISBN: 0446530743
319 pages