Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Too Short History Of Women

This time it's the one that got away. Do you know the book, A Short History of Women? It came out last June. It never made it to my radar I am sorry to say. I recently bought a copy at my library's winter book fair. Lucky me! What a stunning book. The author, Kate Walbert has written a masterpiece of powerful restraint. When I finished the book I had the Reader's Holy Grail Moment. I was deeply satisfied, wanted to talk to a fellow reader about it immediately and knew that in my house of books I had nothing else to read because what could compare? That is a lovely moment.

This is 5 generations of women's lives all starting with a British suffragette, Dorothy Trevor Townsend. Dorothy is starving herself to death as an act of civil disobedience in a WWI London hospital. The day to day routine of hospital is fascinating and a beautiful introduction to how well Walbert captures the quiet qualities of the lives of her characters in this novel. It is WW1 and most Dr's are serving overseas so with almost no males around her, Dorothy's dying days are spent in a world ruled by women. She has children she's not allowed to see, a public that is against her and time to reflect on her life and choices. Dorothy's hunger strike, the extreme embodiment of commitment, will color her children's choices for generations.

Dorothy's heirs: her daughter Evie, her son Thomas's daughter Dorothy and Dorthy's daughters Caroline and Liz all take up the suffragette/feminist mantle in some way in their lives whether they realize it or not though not in the public way their Grandmother did. The paths they choose science, the arts or as a contemporary housewife are all different but they all still chafe at what society has set out for them. Short History is no diatribe against what hasn't happened for women nor is it a celebration of girl power. There is an undercurrent of anger in these characters but also a striving to understand themselves, the complications of their relationships and what to do about it all.

Reading Short History was a pleasure. It's witty, dramatic and enlightening. Walbert's quietly authoritative writing is smart and disturbing. She moves effortlessly from the historical to the contemporary parts of the book. There are big questions here about life and the big events that change lives but they never overwhelm the storytelling. This is a brilliant, unforgettable novel.

Happy, but sorry that the lovely cover of this book doesn't reproduce well here. You'll like it in person.

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