The Women's Room, Marilyn FrenchOver the years, Mira had picked up a little sexual knowledge. She had, for some months, tried to get Norm to make love in a somewhat more tender way, but he was totally resistant to change. He believed that anything other than what he did impeded his pleasure, and that seemed to him wrong, unnatural. The only other act he was willing to perform was fellatio, and that Mira firmly vetoed. On the whole, Norm probably felt that what was pleasant for him was pleasant for her, or if it were not, it was because like so many women, she was frigid. Mira gave up her attempts to change him, but she sought other ways to make the whole thing less wretched for her. She would try to think of other things, to let him do what he wanted and keep her mind elsewhere. But she was never successful at this because the moment his head came down on her breast, she was so full of rage that she could not concentrate on anything else. And no matter how short it was, she felt violated and used and will-less, and every month, every year, this feeling grew. She dreaded the least sign of desire in him. Fortunately, these signs appeared less and less often.

This book is on the money, time and time again. As I read it, I found myself inwardly recognising so much of what the characters and narrative express. It does not just speak truly (I assume) and movingly of women’s lives and experiences in the 1950s and 1960s, but in many ways it speaks truly to our lives and experiences today. Some things have changed. Many have not.

It is also a winding narrative, a soap opera that follows its main protagonist Mira from her youth into marriage and motherhood, and then from divorce into her new life as a post-graduate student at Harvard. Along the way, Mira’s friends from her two lives have their own stories, each woven into the fabric of Mira’s own.

The trouble is, however, that the two elements – the engaging soap opera and the feminist messages – are not well blended. There are times when the feminist agenda is painfully obvious. It feels as though characters are invented and incidents are included merely to show off or drive home a second wave slogan, merely as a vehicle for the feminism and not because they are valuable or interesting in their own right. They are a little two-dimensional, a little bit stereotypical: they are rarely surprising.

It is a grand tour of second wave feminism in novel form: here, the personal is political from beginning to end. Worthy and readable? yes. Great art? not really.

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