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Moving the novel forward

July 13, 2010

Before I leave Walbert’s A Short History of Women behind, I want to address the second quality that for me makes a reading experience a novel-reading experience and that is moving forward, the desire to turn the pages, the push, paradoxically, to get to the end. Walbert, for the most part, satisfies this desire. She certainly does so, as I wrote in my previous post, with the ending of her book. While the ending provides cohesion, it also gives finish, a sense that one has had larger questions answered, both concrete (how did the mother die?) and emotional (how did her daughter feel?). One feels that one has moved through the time of the novel and come to its end.

Clarity is another essential quality to forward movement. While it perhaps does not push one to turn the pages, its absence would cause one to stop. Walbert titles her chapters with the names of the protagonist and the dates covered. She gives us the family tree to refer back to, and I did do this, almost every time I got to a new chapter. The family tree and dates are especially necessary because three out of the six protagonists are named Dorothy.

Where Walbert makes the reader work harder is in her choice of different points of view. Evelyn’s story, for example, is told in the first person, but this is not immediately announced. The novel begins: “Mum starved herself for suffrage, Grandmother claiming it was just like Mum to take a cause too far” (3). Could be first, could be close third.  The whole first paragraph and most of the second, in fact, do not announce the I. The second chapter, which belongs to Evelyn’s mother Dorothy, starts in a similar tone, “Bloody hot that day and earlier a trip to London…” (19) but turns out to be a close third. At the bottom of the first page it is announced: “She’s too hard on him, of course. She’s too hard on all of them” (19). One chapter in the middle of the book, titled Dorothy Townsend Barrett, is told from the close third person point of view of Charles, Dorothy’s husband. While this is announced almost immediately (in the second sentence), I found it confusing throughout the whole chapter, not because Charles’ name wasn’t given frequently but because I couldn’t quite get my head around the contradiction between the title of the chapter, the theme of the novel, the moves that Walbert had made so far, and this change to a man’s perspective, particularly because he spends a good chunk of the chapter watching and thinking about his wife. Intellectually, I understand why Walbert would have made the choice she did, but my reading experience challenges that choice. This was the only point in the book that I wondered if I should finish it or put it down.

The most effective technique, in my view, for making the reader turn the pages is the high interest of each protagonist’s story, and the scenes Walbert crafts to dramatize these. The reader is excited to read about each different character: the first Dorothy, a suffragette, starving herself for the cause. Her daughter, Evelyn, a girl at a makeshift boarding school, who encounters soldiers returning from World War I. The second Dorothy, in 2003, trespassing on military property in order to take photographs.

One chapter just past the middle of the novel is laugh out loud funny while still developing ideas related to “the history of women.” In this chapter, which consists essentially of one scene, the same, second Dorothy is depicted at a 1973 women’s “rap session.” It is held in the home of a friend, Chick, who starts the session by saying, “Since I have the ball, I’ll go first… I had an abortion… No, I had two abortions” (147). She then throws the ball to another woman, and so it goes. Another woman reveals her abortion, one confesses that her husband is a homosexual, and Dorothy says, “I am a hollow bone” (151). There is a certain antagonistic, competitive quality to these women’s interactions, and the reader turns the pages to see the interactions develop. At the end of that chapter, I couldn’t wait to read the next one because I trusted that Walbert would deliver another quirky, arresting story. And she does.

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