A Short History of Women
Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women was one of the ten best books of 2009, according to the New York Times. It’s easy to see how this story of women, all dealing with quintessential “women’s issues” through five generations of the same family, might impress with its postmodern techniques of jumping through time from 1914 to 2003 to 1898 back to 1914; changing viewpoint and even voice with each section; and reproducing blogs and Facebook pages. I, however, found the book cold and uninvolving, with characters about whom I cared not at all and no real plot. As a fictional treatise on the history of women, it has some merit, but as a novel I found it wanting.
The book begins with the death of Dorothy Trevor Townsend, an Englishwoman who starves herself to promote the cause of women’s suffrage. She leaves behind two young children, a girl and a boy, who are split up between relatives and never see one another again. Why this first Dorothy—there are a few others as the years go by—takes it into her head to abandon her family is never adequately explored, though we are told that she gave her body because she had nothing else to give. But no one seems to pay much attention to her sacrifice, and there is no evidence that it had any effect on Parliament’s decision, finally, to grant women the right to vote.
It certainly had an effect on her children, however—and her grandchildren, it seems, and on down through the ages. Her daughter, Evelyn, is the only character who is in the least likeable, probably because she is the only one in the book to tell her story in the first person. Evelyn lives a life different in almost every way from what was expected of women of her era, probably another reason she is at all appealing. But she’s the type of woman who holds others at arm’s length, and her lack of close emotional attachments makes her life seem to pass too lightly. In fact, under the circumstances described in the book she would have been a truly revolutionary figure, but we see little of that.
The women in later generations are stereotypes of contemporary women of different ages. Dorothy Townsend Barrett is a member of the generation that gave rise to the Baby Boom, a woman who married just after the end of World War II and promptly had two children, just as she was supposed to according to the mores of the time. A third child comes along unexpectedly somewhat later, and Walbert writes of this woman in 2007 taking her daughter on a playdate and winding up having a playdate of her own with the other girl’s mother. She presents a picture of modern women as anxious, helicopter parents who have little emotional attachment to their children, but are still eager to see that they get the proper type of everything, from the right schools to the best toys.
A Short History of Women seems intended to hold up a mirror to who we are and where we came from. But if modern women are really as emotionally bereft as the ones in this book, we are missing out on a great deal of life. Ultimately, I found the novel to be deadening in its portrayal of women supposedly attempting to find their own voices and to make sense of their lives; nothing at all seems to make sense to them, or fundamentally to matter to them. There is no emotion expressed in any way except obliquely, implicitly, no love of mother for child or woman for man. Walbert seems to be saying that women cannot know who they are unless they abjure all connections to anyone but themselves. It makes for a grim, cold, and depressing experience.