(Click here for information on the 2020 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. This week, the June Selection, Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room.)
I vowed to complete the “June” Imaginary Book Club title by the end of July and by God I made it with just hours to spare! Suffice it to say, I did not realize what I was getting into when I picked this one, which turned out to be longer, denser and more self-consciously “literary” than I expected. I could also charge it with being Not Much Fun, but I get that that is the point.
This also might be the pinnacle of the Imaginary Summer Book Club concept: the wildly popular, widely influential book of its time that 40+ years on is remembered and beloved by a generation (of whom I would venture a guess has not re-read since) and unknown to anyone too young to have not read it at the time.
The narration switches back and forth between the third and first person, through an unnamed Narrator, as it follows middle-class New Jerseyite Mira Ward over 40 or so years, and the precarious social structure of the groups of women she befriends as a struggling newlywed, affluent wife and middle-aged divorced graduate student.
Precocious Mira comes of age just after World War II and attends college and starts dating proto-Beatnik Lanny, although she has little interest in men or sex. After narrowly escaping a gang rape (orchestrated by Lanny to pay her back for being a “tease”) and rescued by a male acquaintance, Mira comes to realize how unprotected she is in the world as a woman, and soon hastily accepts a marriage proposal from Norman, a medical student, and drops out of college to marry. For someone in medical school, Norman seems totally in the dark about sex and even more so about contraception, and when Mira becomes pregnant, he accuses her of ruining his life.
These early scenes do succeed in creating sympathy for Mira, focusing on the banal horrors of housekeeping and motherhood: the maternity ward that reads like something out of Rosemary’s Baby, the dilemma of how to get two babies and one carriage down out of second-floor apartment without anyone to help and EVERYONE judging you for leaving a child unattended, a husband who moves back in with his parents because the whole situation isn’t conducive to his very important studies. And the amount of labor and the logistics render any kind of an adult social life impossible, isolating Mira away from the rest of humanity.
When Norm starts his residency, they move to Meyersville, a suburban enclave full of young strivers, and Mira regains something of a social life, as she and the other wives start hosting cocktail parties, which sometimes get a little naughty in a very 1950s way. While Mira is relieved to have the companionship and support of the women (and the distraction of the various flirtations with the husbands), behind closed doors, things are not so idyllic for the young wives of Meyersville, as vignettes reveal the couples various clashes of class, expectations, religion and sexual proclivities. The friend-group collapses when various infidelities among the couples come to light, and Mira’s closest friend cold-bloodedly frames her for an affair she is having with another friend’s husband.
This collapse coincides with Norm going into private practice, and the move to the even more remote and affluent suburb of Beau Reeve, with an even larger house that Norm refuses to hire help for.
A new, more affluent friend-group enters the picture, with even bigger domestic problems (I made a flow-chart of all of the couples, but I am still having problems keeping them straight); highlights include a night out with a couples’ friends from “the old neighborhood” which ends with a bunch of people getting beat up by the wannabe gangsters. As the wealth of Mira, Norm and their contemporaries increase with the prosperity of the 1950s, so do the stakes of the bad marriages: one wife committed to a psychiatric hospital, another abandoned in the Bahamas after her husband hits the big time, unhappy extramarital liaisons, suicide and attempted suicides.
This period of Mira’s life culminates with Norm coming home one night and demanding a divorce.
As grim as the depiction of married suburban life is in these chapters, it is engaging. One of the enduring charges against the book (…mainly by male reviewers…) is the men are weakly drawn as characters (IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU), but I actually found that French at least tries to engender some sympathy towards the husbands, railing against what we would now classify as Toxic Masculinity (alienation from their children and the domestic sphere, rigid gender roles, emotional repression, Gay Panic).
The second half of the book deals with Mira finally taking an active role in her own life, as she returns to school and finishes her degree, then sets off on her own to Harvard to earn a graduate degree in literature, leaving her ex-husband and his new wife with their two sons and the Beau Reeve house. The novel picks up chronologically where the prologue started, at Harvard in 1968, with Mira figuring out where she fits in in this new academic and political landscape.
She is surprised to find that she is among a number of discarded or drop-out middle aged ex-wives who have returned to school under Harvard’s newly liberalized admissions policy, and Mira is integrated into yet another large group of female friends, of which I made several more flow-charts, but dominant among them is Val, who is several years older even than Mira, full-time political activist, single mother to a teenager, and recently arrived from a commune.
Most of the formal contemporary feminist ideology in the novel comes out of Val’s mouth on the page, and the style occasionally gets experimental as French pauses the narrative to have meta-arguments with the character.
Mira is a less likeable character at Harvard than she was in the suburbs: used to being the “intellectual” of her group in New Jersey, she finds that she no longer is; while the younger students look up to her, she finds that she doesn’t relate to their generation or to anyone with a different background than herself.
Mira also starts a relationship with Ben, a (white) specialist in all things African, although she is reluctant to introduce him to her sons out of a sense of propriety, and reluctant to accept his marriage proposal.
And hey, what about those sons? I mostly feel bad for them when they arrive for a Thanksgiving visit, and Mira expresses disappointment about how square they have turned out (navy blue blazers and flannel pants!) and the fact that all they want to do is watch TV, eventually berating them for not seeming to care enough about her friends or her studies or her life at Harvard, which seems like it is asking a bit much of a couple of teenagers.
Various domestic dramas and couplings and re-couplings occur within the Harvard group, suggesting that marriage isn’t really any better or more enlightened than it was in New Jersey.
There is a lengthy detour into Val’s life, when her daughter goes away to college at Northwestern and is raped; mother and daughter and treated predictably poorly by the police and the court system, and Val drops out of Harvard and devotes her life to an unnamed “militant feminist group”, eventually being killed by the cops when they try to break a woman out of jail who was railroaded on a murder charge.
After Val’s funeral Mira has a change of heart about Ben and tries reconnecting with him, but it is too late- he has gone back to the fictional African country of which he is a specialist forever.
French wraps up the narrative, finally revealing that the Narrator is also Mira, who after a long-delayed Grand Tour of Europe returned to the United States to find that the Ivy League’s interest in middle-aged women with literature degrees has waned, and she is now a professor at a second-rate community college in Maine. Of course, we end with Narrator/Mira hinting that she will write the book we just read.
The book was filmed as a two-part Made-for-TV movie in 1980, with Lee Remick and Colleen Dewhurst leading an all-star cast; the movie is unavailable, but I turned up a few contemporary reviews, in which the (male) critics fail to tell us anything about the movie but go on at length about how personally offended they are by its existence. Which actually made me feel somewhat warmer towards the book, frankly.
The whole time I was reading it, I was thinking about the similarities to Judy Blume’s Wifey, also about a New Jersey housewife awakening to how stifling that role has become, also written in an experimental style and published in 1978 (but set a decade earlier). Blume’s novel deals with a lot of the same issues, but manages to do so with a sense of humor that The Women’s Room isn’t going for (although one of my margin notes does read “LOL sick Norman Mailer burn”); and of course for all of Blume’s casual attitude towards infidelity, she does end her novel on a note of attempted compromise and reconciliation.
Very Serious Literature Discussion Question: What do we make of the main character’s name? Is it a command to ¡Mira! ? Is it a homophone for mirror ? Late in the novel it is revealed it is short for Mirabelle- did you exclaim mirabile dictu! ?