Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Must unconventional female characters be punished?

So I just finished reading Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger. I almost didn't buy it because of this cover:

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Someday I will write a screed about literalism and book covers, but, OK, it was the 80s. And Moon Tiger won the 1987 Booker Prize, which struck me as a good sign.

Still, when reading the back cover copy, I had my doubts: if this was "the life of a strong, independent woman, with its often contentious relations with family and friends," was I in for a tale of this woman's eventual comeuppance? As Claudia Hampton "lies alone in a London hospital bed," reviewing her life, will she come to regret her choices--her aloneness, above all, showing how wrong she has been?

No. And, therefore, yay!

Claudia, a best-selling history writer, worked as a war correspondent in Egypt during World War II, where she met the love of her life and, soon enough, lost him. And while this love affair is presented as the heart of the story, and of Claudia's life, it doesn't represent Claudia's one chance to settle down and have the normal life she secretly wanted--it wasn't, and she didn't. Her loss doesn't impede her from going on to a successful career, despite the obstacles that stopped less determined--and less abrasive--women at that time. The affair ultimately is no more and no less than heartbreak, which all of us, conventional or not, will experience at some point in this life.

Claudia does have a child with another man, whom she never marries. But motherhood doesn't change her. She doesn't find it, or her daughter, Lisa, very interesting--and here's where I think Lively does an especially good job of criticizing without condemning or pitying. The story is told from multiple points of view, so we sense the daughter's pain as her mother once again brusquely dismisses her. But we are also discouraged from making easy judgments. We come to understand that these two are simply made of different stuff, and they're doing the best they can under those circumstances. Lisa craves convention as much as Claudia loathes it. Perhaps Lisa's conformity is her rebellion against her mother, much as nonconformists rebel against their straight-laced families, but no matter. As the novel unfolds, we see both of them accepting their own and each other's limitations, while not being exactly happy about them.

And in the end Claudia [SPOILER] does die alone. But this is not a punishment or comeuppance, but, as I read it, a kind of triumph. Lively suggests that aloneness can be beautiful and satisfying--at any rate, no more imperfect than "proper" family life.

This is where Moon Tiger departs from another, more recent story with a non-conforming female protagonist, Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs. This book sparked a much-needed conversation about "likable" female characters; in a now famous interview, Messud sharply pointed out that "likability" is an absurd, sexist, and shallow demand that male authors and characters don't have to contend with. Still, I read The Woman Upstairs as ultimately supporting traditional definitions of female success. Nora defies conventions for female protagonists, but not convention itself: she is angry because she hasn't been able to get married and have kids and succeed as an artist by her early forties. Lively, in contrast, allows her protagonist to suffer the downsides of defiance while still showing that defiance was worth it.

I don't mean to suggest that novels should have a particular political agenda, or that Moon Tiger is "better" than The Woman Upstairs because the former is more radical. But I do think that more books like Moon Tiger would be good for us all.

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