I Don't Know How She Does It

The Trans-Atlantic Question
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 24 2002 11:08 AM

I Don't Know How She Does It

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Hi Karen and Jodi,

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No, the novel would not have worked in an American setting, and I think you're right, Jodi, that it's because of the differences in workplaces here and there—for one thing, our sexual harassment laws, for all their inadequacies, have been developing over the past few decades, and Britain's are still embryonic. So, if Kate were American, we'd wonder why she—and, for that matter, her protégé, Momo, who finds the guys in the office guffawing at a computer over a doctored porn shot with her head grafted on—doesn't file a harassment suit. Not natural comic material, the legal wrangling over sexual harassment suits, though who knows.

But even though the whole sexist-nightmare scenario in Kate's office is obviously exaggerated even by English standards (the vodka in the breast milk: Could it have happened? I'm skeptical too), it's tough to say to what degree that's necessary for the laughs. For me, the shoddy treatment of Kate and the other women at her firm ends up looking less like a good source of comedy and more like a tired old "men are such pigs!" way of making us root for her heroine. There's an interesting piece by Ann Marlowe in Salon about the lack of financial realism in the book. Marlowe points out that Kate lives like a journalist, like Pearson, and not like a hedge-fund manager, who would make at least half a million dollars a year, and that if she'd been that successful in the financial world, Kate would have had to have earned respect from her co-workers and boss. In fact, she'd be the type of woman who'd demand it.

I just don't buy Marjorie Williams' idea that American working moms are more "defensive" about their trade-offs than their English counterparts are and that that's why it took an English writer to broach the topic of working mothers' conflicts. I think there are more terrific English than American books about this stuff right now partly because English publishers have been more willing to publish them—a fact that demonstrates how tricky it is to generalize about sexism. In England, the ranks of serious writers include many women (A.S. Byatt, Antonia Fraser, Doris Lessing, Pat Barker, the list goes on) while here, the literati tend to fall back on the same old boys-only list when they evaluate literary greatness (you know, Philip, Don, Saul, and maybe they'll let Jonathan into the club soon …). So, maybe young American women novelists will have to play catch-up to the new generation of British women writers like Helen Simpson (whom I do like and recommend highly) who write about the conflicts of work and motherhood as a matter of course, as one of many worthy topics. I can think of two other recent and really excellent English books on the subject: a novel called Accidents in the Home by Tessa Hadley and a memoir by Rachel Cusk called A Life's Work. I loved both of these for their sharp but humane intelligence, their refusal to let women take shortcuts even when life isn't fair. These books are the antithesis of what you pointed out, Karen, as the problem of Pearson not being willing to let her heroine make real mistakes. But then, both Hadley and Cusk are literary writers, willing (required, actually) to grapple with the tangled, often unflattering realities of emotional life, to create something as unsettling as it is rewarding. Both Hadley and Cusk can be really funny but not in the all-out way Pearson is. And as you say, Pearson's mistakes are probably those of a journalist-pundit type writing her first novel. Although I still think, even given her broad comic aims, the emotional life she created for Kate feels too self-enclosed and her social insights are just too shopworn to suggest that Pearson has a work of great or lasting literature up her sleeve.

Back to the trans-Atlantic question: I'm actually puzzled by Marjorie Williams' idea that American working moms are somehow avoiding the core of their conflict while English moms like Kate bravely own up to their selfish desire to both work and have children. Seems to me that, just like Kate herself, Williams has been suckered by Kate's brat of a 6-year-old daughter (you said it first, Karen!). That scene in which Emily proudly shows off Kate to her friends at school—I read it as more cute than sad, maybe a little poignant, yes, but not tragic. (What small child doesn't want more of her mother's time?) I'm wary of how the novel lets the bratty machinations of Emily (whom, I admit, I found deeply irritating) stand as an argument for how her family's life should be arranged. Kate does let this kid boss her around, and it's not clear that staying at home would have changed that. Karen, you make a great point about the question of what Kate is teaching Emily, in the end. When Kate is planning her new business venture and Emily says, accusingly, "Mummy, you're thinking," you'd think there would be a red flag somewhere or some acknowledgement that having a mother who thinks is ultimately a good thing for Emily. But alarmingly, Pearson (and Williams) seems to accept that all of a woman's time spent working (or thinking) is somehow stolen from her children. The conflict, I think, is much more interesting than that.

But you know, I have to hand it to Pearson on one other count, at least: She wrote a book that got people reading and talking. There's still much more to say (what about affordable day care? I just started fantasizing about moving to France, strictly for those free, sun-filled crèches that even the 2-year-olds of nonworking mothers spend their afternoons at …) but I'm psyched that I got to be part of it.

Bye for now, Karen and Jodi.

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