About a Girl
It’s been feeling like a pretty girly summer. In May, Lisa See published her novel Shanghai Girls, about two sisters living in the titular city in the mid-'30s. In June, there was Courtney Eldridge’s novel The Generosity of Women and Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women, both told in a chorus of women’s voices from multiple generations. Bich Minh Nguyen’s saga of two American-Vietnamese sisters, Short Girls (which came out last month), also unfolded in chapters alternating between two characters points of view. This month brings us Allison Burnett’s Undiscovered Gyrl, and Carlene Bauer’s memoir, Not That Kind of Girl.
All these books join similar titles from earlier years like Lucky Girls by Nell Freudenberger, Serious Girls by Maxine Swann, Girls in Trucks by Katie Crouch, and Girl by Blake Nelson, and a host of memoirs including Michelle Tea’s Rent Girl, Diablo Cody’s Candy Girl, Amy Silverstein’s Sick Girl, and Janice Erlbaum’s Girlbomb.
I like girl-centric books as much as anyone (okay, probably more), and I’m a fan of many of these books. But I’ve started to get a little uncomfortable with the way titles like these pin down their subjects. While it may be significant that a protagonist is short, or serious, or lucky, this kind of gendered title makes clear that the most important thing about her is that she’s a girl.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: plenty of great books have been written in which girl or womanhood really is the subject, and characters experience their coming of age (or romance or divorce or trauma) in ways only a girl can. And it’s certainly an encouraging sign that putting “girl” front and center on serious books of literary fiction and memoir (rather than resigning it to chick lit, where a gender signifier in the title mostly just seems redundant) isn’t frowned on in this market. Indicating that a book is about a girl can be a sign of confidence, a statement that the book can stand up to whatever assumptions may be brought to it. It can also just be reductive.
In her novel A Short History of Women, Kate Walbert crafts a narrative that lives up to its ambitious title: through the women in one family, the book guides us through one hundred years of landmarks in the continuing struggle for equality, from the fight for suffrage to the battle for selfhood on Facebook. Walbert’s history is of “women,” not “girls,” that choice elevating the subject above anything tangentially girly and lending it historical heft.
As fiction, it’s an elegant book -- full of lush, careful prose that asks to be read slowly -- but it can also be read as a Women’s Studies text, with educational value contributed by narratives about suffrage and consciousness-raising and the struggles of working moms. Walbert has written and arranged the lives of women of several generations so they illuminate each other, and while this is a deft narrative maneuver, it’s also easy to interpret as a statement about the enduring, communal nature of womanhood -- a belief that there’s something essential about women and their history.
Where Walbert takes a keen interest in gaps and silences, Lucinda Rosenfeld, in her novel I’m So Happy For You, is interested in surfaces. Despite its relatively restrained title, hers is probably the most obviously girl-centric book I’ve read this summer, and also one of the least subtle. Poised between satire and sincerity, it’s the story of Wendy and Daphne, two thirty-something women who have been friends since college, and have lately come to resent and despise each other. When we meet the pair, Wendy is (mostly) happily married and has a decent job. Daphne is a mess. Then Daphne meets a dashing guy, gets engaged, gets pregnant, and moves into a luxury townhouse in an enviable neighborhood. Without a close pal’s personal chaos to offset her own insecurities, Wendy comes unhinged: Her decent enough life starts to pale in comparison to Daphne’s fairy tale.
While the basic emotional facts here ring true, there’s no sense that Wendy and Daphne’s friendship is built on anything real or lasting, and the extremity with which Rosenfeld portrays Wendy’s animosity, and Daphne’s obliviousness, makes them seem cartoonish. It’s true that these emotions are a feature of many friendships, and that some people manage to be consumed by them. But most don’t. Most people who are jealous of their friends’ happiness don’t also have, as Wendy does, a nemesis who openly taunts her for having trouble getting pregnant, and a gynecologist who snidely suggests that the reason she’s having trouble conceiving is because she’s not wearing nice underwear. In the real world, feelings of resentment are insidious largely because they tend to be understated. Those feelings would have more resonance here if they were portrayed as part of a life that wasn’t so totally cringe-worthy.
Still, the story tugged at me, and I’m glad for Rosenfeld’s acid attention to an aspect of women’s friendships that’s so often glossed over. It’s worth noting that while the book is packaged like a light and frothy confection, Joseph O’Neill does not typically blurb vacuous fiction. It’s never a good idea to read too much into a blurb, but his praise on the back cover (along with that of Zoe Heller, hard to surpass as an authority on women who are mean to each other) signals that despite appearances, this is a book to take seriously. Rosenfeld knows exactly what she’s doing, and she makes sure we know it, too: at the end of the book, she includes a short piece about her inspiration for the book, and a “friendship reading list” that spans Aristotle, Austen, Dostoyevsky, and Waugh. She straddles a tricky line in writing light while thinking hard -- wanting to be enjoyed both superficially and meaningfully -- and while I wish the story had been less heavy-handed, it’s one I’m finding unexpectedly hard to shake.
Carlene Bauer’s memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, is also nearly impossible to fit neatly into any one category. If you had to describe it quickly, you might say it’s a coming of age story about Bauer losing her faith and finding herself, but it is also (much more than many thematically similar books I’ve read) about a million other things. Those things include reading, exploring, questioning, writing -- and most of all, thinking -- as experiences worth contemplating in and of themselves. Bauer considers them all pushed up against each other, writing long paragraphs that have a controlled stream of consciousness feel to them and are laced with gorgeous, perceptive prose (a hickey “looked like grape jam that had migrated to the wrong place”; Bauer muses that she might be in love with someone because she’d “started to decorate him with metaphors”). She could have turned her journey into a series of lessons about feminism or religion or the importance of a room of one’s own. Instead, she makes sure that, in every detail, her story is uniquely her own. That doesn’t mean parts of her experience weren’t shared, or that others of her gender and generation won’t be drawn to it. It just means that specificity goes a long way -- and here, it goes somewhere bold, surprising, and lovely.
I could be wildly jealous of Bauer for writing a book that so wonderfully captures the soul of a certain kind of girl, or I could try to squeeze her into a legacy of women writing about their lives. Instead I’ll take a convenient lesson from Bauer’s title, and let her stand on her own.