Before I finally took this book off of the shelf, I thought it was nonfiction, like The Second Sex. But it turns out that The Woman Destroyed is a actually a series of three novellas: The Age of Discretion, The Monologue, and The Woman Destroyed. Each story centers around a different woman. The second story was too stream-of-consciousness and disjointed for me, so I skipped it, but I really enjoyed the other two stories.
The first, The Age of Discretion, tells the story of a mother struggling with the loss of her son to his new wife, a woman she doesn’t respect, and the feeling that her husband no longer loves her. It’s a poignant story about aging, about marriage, about motherhood, and about how the stories we tell ourselves are often tragically wrong.
The Woman Destroyed was my favorite story–the most sharply-rendered telling of infidelity that I’ve read. It’s the diary of Monique as she struggles to reconcile herself to the fact that her husband Maurice is having an affair. Monique’s twisted logic is heartbreaking–she tells Maurice she is okay with his affair, wanting desperately to believe that he will soon grow tired of the other woman and come back to her with renewed love because she was so calm and self-sacrificing. But, predictably, he only spends more and more time with his mistress, driving Monique slowly mad with jealousy and doubt and sorrow.
It’s the immediacy of her thoughts, the real-time feeling of the diary, that makes Monique’s suffering so relatable and terrible. Of course, I did not stick around after my own husband cheated on me, but I experienced a kind of accelerated version of her feelings of shock and loss and bargaining and self-deception. At times, the story was painful to read in its insight, almost as though I was reading my own thoughts. But it’s this kind of writing that I long for, the kind that inspires such a feeling of connection it’s as though the writer and the narrator and me are all one person. Ironically, Joe himself came home with this book one day because he got a copy at the office and thought I would like the cover.
Here are some of my favorite lines:
“All women think they are different; they all think there are some things that will never happen to them; and they are all wrong.”
“I believe that with that splendid male illogicality he holds me responsible for the remorse he feels–holds it against me.”
“He has manufactured grievances to excuse himself for deceiving me–he is less guilty if I am at fault.”
“I am in a dilemma. If Maurice is a swine, then I have wrecked my life, loving him. But perhaps he had reasons for not being able to bear me any more. In that case I must look upon myself as hateful and contemptible, without even knowing why. Both suppositions are appalling.”
“When this happens to other people it seems to be a limited, bounded event, easy to ring around and to overcome. And then you find yourself absolutely alone, in a hallucinating experience that your imagination had not even begun to approach.”
“Every night I call him: not him–the other one, the one who loved me. And I wonder whether I should not prefer it if he were dead.”
“The whole of my past life has collapsed behind me, as the land does in those earthquakes where the ground consumes and destroys itself–is swallowed up behind you as you flee. There is no going back. The house has vanished, and the village and the whole of the valley. Even if you survive, there is nothing left, not even what had been your living space on earth.”
“There was a time when I could go to the cinema and even to the theater all by myself. For I was not alone. His presence was there in me and all around me. Now when I am by myself I say to myself, I am alone. And I am afraid.”
It’s difficult for me to even quote these lines because they feel so personal, as though they came from my own thoughts. And it’s been over two years and there’s this pervasive feeling of guilt because I should be “over it” but I’m still haunted by dreams and flashes of memory and remnants of that old life. It’s not just one event, though, “a limited, bounded event, easy to ring around.” There are repercussions everywhere, in everything, reverberations and echoes in books and songs and pieces of jewelry and photos and intersections and movies. There is no end, no neat wrapping up of loose ends. It’s just a piece of life, real and unreal as anything else.
Somehow 2016 is half over. How did that happen? Do any of you know? Things remain pretty static for me–same job, same apartment, same people in my life, for the most part. There’s a certain restlessness because of this status quo state, but I’m also taking advantage of the quiet time–sitting on my porch a lot, taking walks, writing, just trying to be more mindful. And isn’t that what summer is for?
Here are a few things that have made me happy over the last month:
- Did I mention how much I love my porch? I find myself having coffee out there, having a post-work beer, reading for hours on weekends. It’s shady and my roommate has planted flowers, and you can hear life going on just beyond the porch on the busy main street I live on. But you’re also apart from it, somehow protected. It’s my own little piece of vacation, right outside my front door.
- All Songs Considered: The Worst Songs of All Time. This is an old episode, from 2014, but they replayed it recently, so I listened during the times I normally listen to podcasts–on walks and while I wash the dishes or cook dinner. This particular episode made me laugh out loud several times–and Carrie Brownstein returns, and it’s wonderful, although I did disagree with several of the hosts’ judgments. (I have a weird fondness for Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry.” Don’t ask me to explain it, for I cannot.)
- Temeraire. I don’t “do” fantasy, as a rule. I don’t watch Game of Thrones, I’ve never seen Lord of the Rings, and I’m not a Harry Potter fan. The ladies in my book club, however, LOVE dragons, and were determined that we read a book about them, so I went along with it, fully expecting to hate it. I’m happy to report that I was totally wrong. We read His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novick, a fascinating blend of historical fiction and fantasy where dragons are commissioned to fight in the war against Napoleon. Temeraire, whose egg is seized from a French ship by a British vessel, turns out to be a very rare and highly prized Chinese breed of dragon, fiercely intelligent and loyal and, frankly, adorable. There were points (like the battle scenes) where I got bored, but Temeraire and the other dragons totally charmed me–so much so that I actually found myself CRYING, IN PUBLIC, during a particularly heart-wrenching scene involving one of my favorite dragons. Who even am I? Anyway, it’s nice to read outside your comfort zone and surprise yourself sometimes.
- The off-leash sections of Boston Common. Many evenings after work, I find myself cutting through Boston Common on my way to meet friends, and one of my favorite parts of these walks are seeing dogs playing in the off-leash areas. One particular Friday when I had some time to kill, I just stood and watched the dogs playing for about fifteen minutes–not creepy at all.
- Lady Dynamite. THIS SHOW. If you haven’t seen it yet, please drop everything and go watch it (it’s on Netflix). It stars Maria Bamford as herself, telling the story of her breakdown and diagnosis of bipolar disorder and attempt to rebound and find balance in her life. Though it sounds dark, it really isn’t–but it’s not all puppies and rainbows either (although there are plenty of those). Bamford tells her story with a rare mix of grace and humor and self-awareness and honesty–and talking pugs. That’s right–in addition to being a laugh-out-loud hilarious and touching show, it also features adorable pugs who dispense wisdom in German accents. Seriously, what are you waiting for? It doesn’t get any better than this.
- As many of you know, my mom was in and out of the hospital throughout May and June with a mix of ailments, but I’m happy to report that she’s home now, and has been for almost two weeks, so we’re optimistic that this time, it’s going to stick! She’s feeling better and moving up and around on her own, which is encouraging. Thanks for all your good thoughts!
- The Senate filibuster and House sit-in for gun control. After the tragedy in Orlando, it was heartening to see at least some of our government representatives fighting to make a difference in gun control legislation. It’s a small step, but it gives me hope that they will continue to fight against the NRA and corruption in Congress, protecting the rights of gun makers, sellers, and owners at the expense of the vast majority of Americans who support universal background checks and public safety research around gun safety. The state of politics and violence in America has really been getting me down lately, so the sit-in an filibuster were at least temporary balms.
- Narragansett/George’s of Galilee. Last weekend, I went to the beach for the first time this summer. I went with my sister and her husband, and after laying out in the sun for a few hours, we drove to George’s, a waterfront seafood restaurant in Narragansett. I sat in the backseat and enjoyed all the scenery as we drove with the windows down through Southern Rhode Island, scenery that makes me happy that I grew up in a really beautiful state. George’s (and Aunt Carrie’s and Iggy’s and other places like them) makes me nostalgic for childhood in a weird way–not that we went down to the beach all that frequently, but when we did, it was something special, something that symbolized summer. And I get that feeling back every time I’m down there, eating clam cakes and chowder, smelling the salty air.
- My new H&M jumpsuit. I was very, very skeptical of jumpsuits and rompers. Sure, they looked cute on other people (most of the time) but they just weren’t me, I told myself. And then, one day, I went to H&M on my lunch break, as I’m wont to do on especially stressful days when I need some retail therapy, and decided I was going to try something new. So I picked up a blue patterned jumpsuit and never looked back. It’s one of the most comfortable things I’ve ever worn. I wore it to work the very next day and it was perfect–I felt confident and comfortable and cool all day. So next time you find yourself saying “Oh, I could never wear that,” tell yourself to shut up and try it anyway. You just might pick up a new favorite item for your closet.
So clearly I’ve fallen off the “Things That Made Me Happy This Week” post wagon, but I was still keeping notes for a little while, and I think it could be more sustainable for me if I did a monthly, instead of weekly, round-up post. So, here goes–we’ll see how long I can keep this up for!
May was a rollercoaster month–the happy mixed with sad, the joyful with restlessness and boredom. I turned 34 and my younger brother got married, my mom has been in and out of the hospital with a mysterious illness no one seems to be able to diagnose, and I have found myself grappling with larger life questions more than usual. I feel like this first week of June has found me more stabilized and grounded, but my mom’s still in the hospital and there are still big changes I’m working toward making in my own life. I guess it all takes patience.
That said, here are a few of the things that kept me going in May (and late April):
- Bitmoji. These little guys might seem funny and weird and annoying to some, but I love them. I’ve been using them for about a year, and there are few things that give me greater joy than turning a friend onto using them or discovering a new favorite Bitmoji. As I like to say, there’s a bitmoji for nearly every situation. It makes texting so much fun.
- The Marathon. This happened in mid-April, but every year I’m able to catch it, it makes me happy. It’s a special day in Boston and it makes me happy to be here. This year was warm and the crowds were full of energy, and I knew a few of the runners, so I was extra enthusiastic about being lined up on Beacon Street to cheer them on!
- Neko Atsume. Yes, it’s another weird iPhone app. It’s a Japanese game about collecting cats. Hear me out, though. I don’t play games on my phone because I’m worried I’d get too distracted and they would take my time away from reading. The beautiful thing about Neko Atsume is that you can check in, refill the food bowl, maybe buy a new cat toy, and then you’re done. And you get to see cute virtual cats being silly. And, if you’re really lucky, you’ll have a friend or two who also plays so you can share screenshots of the special cats that come to visit you.
- Friend visits. I was really lucky in the past couple of months to get to spend time with dear friends who live far away. First, Mallory & Andrew came to visit all the way from London and I got to meet their adorable baby and we played trivia at the Tam and it was glorious. Then, over Memorial Day weekend, Kim & David made the journey from Brooklyn to Boston and we caught up, played tourist, and grilled on my front porch, and it was also wonderful. Now, I just have to convince them all to come live in Boston again!
- College Roommate Baltimore Reunion Trip. Though we Skype on a monthly basis, my college roommates from senior year and I don’t get to visit all together in person very often. Nancy & I live in Boston, just blocks away from each other, but Meghan is in Baltimore, and Abbie is in Minneapolis. We all convened in Baltimore for the weekend at the end of April so we could meet Meghan’s baby and have a mini-bachelorette for Nancy, who’s getting married in August. We surprised her with an urban pirates cruise and dancing and it was tons and tons of fun.
- My Brother’s Wedding. My little brother got married to a lovely lady and I couldn’t be happier for them and we are all so happy to have her in our family. The wedding was a really fun time, though my mom had to miss it because she was in the hospital, so that was rough for all of us. But dancing and cake and drinks and the happy couple helped us persevere!
These are just the major highlights. There were cookouts and a walk down the Cliff Walk and a weekend at a spa and podcasts and Bob’s Burgers and all kinds of other things that made me happy. Looking back, April & May were actually quite joyful months, with lots of friends and family and laughs. And at the end of the day, I guess that’s all we ever really need.
It’s safe to say I’ve hit a wall with my Bookshelf Project. I’ve been trying to read everything on my shelves, but the problem is that I also keep managing to somehow acquire more books. So I’m getting overwhelmed, and not even really reading the things I want to be reading. I’m torn over whether I should continue at this point, because I want to read the books on my shelves on the one hand, but on the other hand, it feels like a chore when I give it a name and add it to a list. I love reading, and for the past six weeks or so, it’s felt like nothing but an obligation, and not a fun one.
Lists, queues, piles, inboxes–I feel like I’m always scrambling to catch up, even though there’s nothing to catch up to. The probability that I will listen to every podcast on my phone before a new episode comes out is…nothing. Same with watching everything on my Netflix queue or reading (and responding to) every email in my inbox before a new one comes in. And, of course, this is never more true than for my “to-read” shelf, apparently both real and virtual. I currently have 500 books on my Goodreads “want to read” shelf. FIVE HUNDRED. Even if I stopped adding books to it (hahahahah) and kept a steady 50 books a year reading rate, it would take me TEN YEARS to finish every book on the list.
This is not what I wanted to write about, but this is what’s happening. I know we all feel it, this frantic need to watch everything, listen to everything, read everything–it’s FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and I have it bad. It’s like that Portlandia sketch where the two people ask one another “did you read it?” until they’re yelling and eating pages from a magazine.
Things haven’t quite gotten to that level for me yet, but it feels like it in my brain sometimes. Though I no longer subscribe to the New Yorker for this very reason (I couldn’t stand the guilt of the unread stacks), I still have access to them at work, and so I currently have about four unread issues (one from February) sitting on my desk in my office, mocking me and my inability to consume everything I want.
I wonder if I’d be happier, more at peace, if I could just walk away from all the lists and queues and feeds. Unsubscribe from all the email newsletters (that are full of links to more articles to read), stop checking Twitter 27 times a day, read any book I feel like when I feel like it, erase all of the unread blogs from my RSS feed every day. What would that be like? It’s like I’m preparing for a cosmic pop quiz where everyone will be held somehow responsible for the amount of content they’ve consumed in their lives, and I don’t want to fail.
I guess if there’s any good time to give it a shot, it’s the summer. Maybe I’d get more writing done if I wasn’t so busy watching and listening and reading.
Anyway. I read these two books in galley form, courtesy of my roommate’s ALA haul. I really liked them both. Here Comes the Sun is Nicole Dennis-Benn’s debut novel about Margot, a woman who works in a fancy resort hotel near her village home in Jamaica, splitting her days between the opulence of tourism and the desperate poverty of her village. Her mother sells trinkets to tourists in an outdoor market, and her younger sister, Thandi, is a star pupil that the women have pinned all their own unrealized hopes on. Unbeknownst to Thandi, Margot has been sacrificing much more than her days working–a hard truth she’s forced to grapple with when their village is threatened by another luxury hotel and she must make her own wrenching decisions. It’s a gut-punch of a story, but I was totally captivated by the characters and their struggles.
Goodnight, Beautiful Women is another debut, a story collection by Anna Noyes.
|I really enjoyed this collection. It’s reminiscent of Olive Kitteridge, not just geographically (nearly all of the stories take place in a hard-scrabble Maine town), but in the way you have the feeling all of these characters’ stories are linked, though Noyes doesn’t link them explicitly as Strout does.
They’re also beautifully written and poignant. What I loved most about them is the different kinds of love and relationships depicted–love between mothers and daughters, stepdaughters and stepfathers, sisters, estranged friends. Sadness hangs heavy over all of these stories, but it’s not strangling. Noyes does a great job of writing in young womens’ voices, young women who have yet to face all they will face in the world, but who are nonetheless getting warmed up to all of the pain before their time.
I like reading galleys because you feel like you’re on the inside track of the book world…and clearly, I like to be on that track.
Now to have a glass of wine with my friend on my porch–the kind of thing that I will strive to do more of instead of scrambling to READ/WATCH/HEAR ALL THE THINGS!
As I mentioned in a “Things That Made Me Happy This Week” post a few weeks ago, I cheated a bit in the Bookshelf Project and bought myself a new book for my flight to LA. I was inspired to buy All the Single Ladies when I heard an interview with the author, Rebecca Traister, on one of my favorite podcasts, Call Your Girlfriend. I’d also read many of Traister’s articles about marriage and relationships and women and politics before the book came out and I was a fan.
Admittedly, I have a complicated relationship with the notion of singlehood. Though I strongly identify with being a single woman, I’m technically also a divorced woman, which is considered by many as an entirely different thing. And perhaps it is, in many ways, but it doesn’t spare me or any other divorced or separated woman the pain, loneliness, judgements, and freedom that come with being unmarried–especially past a certain age.
Personal identity politics aside, I found this book insightful and illuminating. I learned a lot about the historical impact of unmarried women throughout history–logically, it makes sense that single women typically have a history of being more politically engaged and involved with their communities than those who were married, with families to take care of, but I never really considered it in that way before.
Though the history was really interesting, I was most drawn in by the stories of contemporary single women and how they’re navigating their lives. It’s certainly more socially acceptable to be unmarried than ever before, but it’s still a lifestyle choice (or circumstance) that’s seen as unconventional, and it can be difficult to live in a world geared toward the traditional couple and family structure.
Here were some of my favorite tidbits and passages I highlighted as I read:
- “By the time I walked down the aisle…I had lived fourteen independent years, early adult years that my mother had spent married. I had made friends and fallen out with friends, had moved in and out of apartments, had been hired, fired, promoted, and quit. I had had roommates I liked and roommates I didn’t like and I had lived on my own; I’d been on several forms of birth control and navigated a few serious medical questions; I’d paid my own bills and failed to pay my own bills; I’d fallen in love and fallen out of love and spent five consecutive years with nary a fling. I’d learned my way around new neighborhoods, felt scared and felt completely at home; I’d been heartbroken, afraid, jubilant, and bored. I was a grown-up: a reasonably complicated person. I’d become that person not in the company of any one man, but alongside my friends, my family, my city, my work, and, simply, by myself.”
- Birth control was illegal for single women until 1972.
- “What the women’s movement of the 1970s did, ultimately, was not to shrink marriage, or the desire for male companionship, as a reality for many women, but rather to enlarge the rest of the world to such an extent that marriage’s shadow became far less likely to blot out the sun of other possibilities.”
- “the Equal Rights Amendment, which read, simply, ‘Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction;’ it would be introduced to every Congressional session from 1923 until 1972, when it finally passed but was not ratified by the states. (It has been reintroduced, though never passed, in every session since 1982.)” This is some bullshit.
- “Among the largely unacknowledged truths of female life is that women’s primary, foundational, formative relationships are as likely to be with each other as they are with the men we’ve been told since childhood are supposed to be the people who complete us.”
- “Marriage and its ancillary, committed dating, are simply not the only relationships that sustain and help to give shape, direction, and passion to female life.”
- “…despite the fact that people who live alone make up almost 30 percent of the population…, stigmas about single people, and especially women, as aberrant, weird, stunted, and perhaps especially as immature, persist.”
- “After all, unmarried life is not a practice round or a staging ground or a suspension of real life. There is nothing automatically adolescent about moving through the world largely on one’s own–working, earning, spending, loving, screwing up, and having sex outside traditional marriage…But we’ve still got a lot of hardwired assumptions that the successful female life is measured not in professional achievements or friendships or even satisfying sexual relationships, but by whether you’re legally coupled….those assumptions are often undergirded by an unconscious conviction that, if a woman is not wed, it’s not because she’s made a set of active choices, but rather she has not been selected–chosen, desired, valued enough.”
- “There is a sense of: ‘What happened? How are you still on the shelf? You must be a defective product because nobody bought you.’ This is the message she absorbs every time a friend tries to be encouraging by telling her, ‘I would think everyone would be after you!'”
- “…They found that health, life, home, and car insurance all cost more for single people, and report that ‘It is not a federal crime for landlords to discriminate against potential renters based on their marital status.’..Looking at income tax policy, Social Security, healthcare, and housing costs, Campbell and Arnold found that ‘in each category, the singles paid or lost more than the marrieds.'”
- “…marital rape was legal in some states until the 1990s.”
- In the House of Representatives, “women only got their own ladies’ room in 2011.”
- “…each of our loves is crucial and unique.” Gloria Steinem
- “It is too rarely acknowledged that there are millions of ways that women leave marks on the world, and having children is but one of them.”
- “We have to rebuild not just our internalized assumptions about individual freedoms and life paths; we almost must revise our social and economic structures to account for, acknowledge, and support women in the same way in which we have supported men for centuries.”
So, clearly, I took a lot away from the book. But I think the most important thing I got from reading it at this stage of my life is the acknowledgment of the validity and existence of alternate paths through life. It may seem silly to say that sometimes it feels as though single people’s lives aren’t as valid as coupled people’s, but it’s true. It’s something many of us feel every day. And it’s important to be reminded that being part of a couple isn’t some magical key to happiness or success or “real life” starting. Every day, I accept more and more the possibility that I will never get married again, that I will never have children, or a family of my own in a traditional sense. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t have love and romance and vacations and life-changing experiences and successes both creative and professional–those things I know are still available to me, and I know I will have them. We all will.