June 09, 2009

The Women's Room

Recently Marilyn French passed away. She wrote The Women's Room, which is one of my favorite, if not my absolute favorite book. My friend Neela sent it to me when I was 16 -- this is the copy she mailed me, the original 1977 paperback she found in a used bookstore. Now the pages are unbelievably yellow and it's rather creatively held together by packing tape. It smells like an old book smells, kind of sweet.

This book really shaped the way I think about the world, about gender and about how women and men relate to each other. I think this book is the root of why I eventually did a degree in women's studies. For me, French really hit the nail on the head with this narrative, her characters and each of the characters' experiences and stories. This is one of my favorite (long) passages about the narrator. It's a passage I think about a lot.
"I feel terribly alone. I have enough room, but it's empty. Or maybe I don't, maybe room means more than space. Clarissa once said that isolation is insanity. She never says anything carelessly, her words come out of her mouth like fruit that is perfectly ripened. Unripe fruit she doesn't deal in: that's why she is silent so often. So I guess isolation is insanity. But what can I do? At the one or two parties a year I'm invited to, I have to listen to academic gossip, snarling retorts (never made in fact) to the president, nasty cracks about the mediocrity of the dean. In a place like Harvard, academic gossip is pretentious and hollow, full of name dropping and craven awe, or else it oozes complacency, the invulnerability of the elect. In a place like this, where everyone feels a loser, the gossip is mean-minded and full of that kind of hate and contempt that is really disgust at one's own failure in life. There aren't many single people here except for a few very young male instructors. There are damned few women, none single, except for one sixty-year old widow who does needlepoint at faculty meetings. I mean, not everything is in your head, is it? Do I have to accept total responsibility for my fate? I don't think it's all my fault that I'm lonely. People say -- well, Iso wrote (she would!) -- that I should drive down to Boston on weekends and go to the singles bars. You know, she could do it and she'd find someone interesting. But not me. I know it. I'd meet some middle-aged swinger with a deep tan and sideburns (not quite a beard) and a mod suit (pink jacket, maroon pants) and a belly kept in by three hours a week at the gym or the tennis club, and I'd die of his emptiness even more than I'm dying of my own."
That last bit I'd underlined in the book when I was a teenager. Prescient, in retrospect.