I Don't Know How She Does It

The Brit Factor
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 23 2002 4:32 PM

I Don't Know How She Does It

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Some questions for our reviewers: How intrinsically British is this novel, and could Pearson have written the same novel with Kate as a New York investment banker?

In the Washington Post, Marjorie Williams wrote approvingly about the book's British provenance, arguing that American women are too defensive to acknowledge the selfishness and compromise inherent in being a working mother. I have a different take: Yes, this book only could have come from Britain, but that's because it's a far more sexist place than the United States. No one would buy a description of, say, a Goldman Sachs mommy being tortured the way Kate was at her firm. Take the imbecilic co-worker who spikes the refrigerated breast milk with vodka: In the book, he gets away with a laff, but in the U.S., he would be fired or sued or arrested or all three. (Oddly, an identical anecdote shows up in Helen Simpson's similarly themed Getting a Life—did something to this effect really happen? Is it an urban legend being passed around London playgrounds? And did you like the Simpson book—more restrained, more devastating—better?)

Of course Kate quits her job; it would take a superhero-slash-saint to persevere in a workplace where no one clucks sympathetically over childhood colds or indulgently at desktop photo frames. This was a deliberate choice on Pearson's part, of course. As she recently explained, "I wanted a place where Human Resources has a policy for dealing with mothers similar to their one for dealing with cocaine users, except they believe there's a cure for the drug addicts." Next up from Pearson: a novel about the life of a mother who works for the Taliban.

But then again, don't you think this kind of exaggeration is necessary to make the novel as funny as it is? Say Pearson had set the book in San Francisco, or in the socially liberal, eight-weeks-of-vacation-a-year side of England instead of the rich, jolly-hockeysticks side. We might gain social commentary, but we'd lose the farce. And that's what this novel is: a big, sloppy farce, full of dramatic entrances and exits, and broad characters colliding with maximum force as the result of unlikely coincidences. And as such, it made me laugh harder than anything I'd read in months.

Jodi

Karen Karbo is the author of Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me and a contributor to The Bitch in the House. Maria Russo is a senior editor at the New York Observer.