Summer 2017 is further away than summer 2018, yet I still haven’t put fingers to keyboard and typed about the books I read last year. Continuing the spirit of #notwomensfiction, reading books only by and about women from July through September, this post chronicles my literary selections (includes some read before and after summer). I’m writing this 5 months later, so my memory is as fresh as mid-winter grocery produce (read: not at all).
What I Read
I finally got to chip away at the dusty towers of books in my room, reading the following that I’ve neglected for a few years:
- Getting Mother’s Body by Suzan-Lori Parks, 2003
- Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, 2014
- Black Dahlia & White Rose by Joyce Carol Oates, 2012
- Incubus by Ann Arensberg, 1999
(That being said, I’ll aim to actually buy some books and support women writers next year.)
What I Saw
Before reading her novel, I had heard an excerpt of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You when I saw her at a local bookshop in 2015. This was the only book in this summer’s lineup that I was familiar with in terms of content, though I did have expectations of the grim subject matter in Joyce Carol Oates’s story collection having read her previously. The other two I only had a shallow inkling from each front cover image and back cover/jacket synopsis.
Here are their covers:
- Getting Mother’s Body: The understated, minimalist cover prefaces a book that is anything but. While the Western typography and stars prepared me for a wild ride in a place I used to call home, the coy woman’s face drew me in and beckoned me to hear her story. With flapper curls and a necklace of pearls, she looks like she belongs to a bygone era. Is she the mother? Where is her body and where does it need to go? Why and how are they getting her body?
- Everything I Never Told You: I love swimming, though I can’t recall any books I’ve read about swimmers. The cover depicts a female swimmer surrounded in an endless blue that matches her bathing suit, with sloppy cursive lettering superimposed on the water. Is this the girl’s handwriting? If so, to whom did she never tell everything?
- Black Dahlia & White Rose: Dahlias and roses, adorning this purple cover, are two of my favorite flowers, and JCO is one of my favorite (or at least most frequented) writers—a winning combination, or so I had thought. The Black Dahlia conjured images of Hollywood noir, so I knew this would include some difficult content around the mutilation of the young Elizabeth Short in 1947. Who or what is the White Rose?
- Incubus: The title is a *dead* giveaway of the book’s creepy contents. If this were marketed to men, the cover would no doubt resemble a pulp magazine or late night B movie, helpless woman with torn clothes and a buxom body draped over a monster’s arms. Though the cover is quite boring (red-orange hued with a church steeple in the foreground), I appreciate there not being a sexploitation element to attract readers.
What I Learned
- Getting Mother’s Body: Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks’s debut novel conjures women who recklessly follow their own pursuits, defying men, poverty, racism, and whatever else gets in their way. Set mostly in Texas and partly in Arizona in the 1960s, Getting Mother’s Body follows a cast of characters all associated with the titular mother Willa Mae, a cunning, light-skinned black woman whose memory haunts each. The protagonist Billy Beed, daughter of Willa Mae—a spunky, stubborn teenager who becomes pregnant and contemplates an abortion despite having no money and having lost her mother to a botched abortion—is the epitome of a strong, independent woman. And in Dill Smiles, Willa Mae’s last lover, is defined by her queerness; her peers consider her a man more than a woman. As lyrical as it is heartbreaking, Getting Mother’s Body is an unforgettable ode to the strength, resilience, and cleverness of women—particularly women of color—in times of adversity.
1. How does Getting Mother’s Body reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
2. Getting Mother’s Body is reminiscent of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Toni Morrison’s Sula. How does fiction by and about black women fit into “women’s fiction”? Is this a category dominated by and about white women?
3. Characters in Getting Mother’s Body are inextricable from their race, class, gender, and ability. How does intersectionality play a role in women’s fiction?
- Everything I Never Told You: A literary whodunit (but not quite) that focuses on the characters’ secret inner lives to unravel the cause of a favorite child’s death, Everything I Never Told You depicts the conflicts and grief an interracial family experiences in 1970s small-town America. Celeste Ng creates layered characters, unmasking an increasingly dysfunctional family throughout the novel. While the death of daughter Lydia Lee is the central question of the novel, Ng probes further into questions of identity and place. Lydia’s mother, a white woman who faces discrimination as a woman in a medical academic program full of men (that she reluctantly leaves and never returns to when she becomes pregnant), is scorned by her mother when she marries a Chinese-American man. Lydia’s father is obsessed with cultural assimilation, ashamed of his heritage when he is also discriminated against for his racial Otherness. And the children, whose lives are tainted by their parents’ insecurities, the shadow of their dead sister, and their own Otherness. Lydia’s death by drowning (hence the swimming girl on the cover), which we find out to be accidental rather than a murder or suicide, is a symbol of the characters’ unfulfilled potential and broken futures. Her death also signals in the end that there is hope—that one day the world will be a more welcoming and inclusive place.
1. How does Everything I Never Told You reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
2. I haven’t seen any other explicitly biracial or mixed raced characters in the “women’s fiction” that I’ve read. I would like to read more! Any recommendations?
3. While Lydia is the child everyone is fixated on, the siblings Nath (older brother) and Hannah (younger sister) are integral to the family dynamic and plot. How do different family configurations inform the characters in fiction by and for women?
- Black Dahlia & White Rose: Though I meant to read full novels for this exploration, I include this unlinked short story collection here. This was probably the most disappointing JCO I’ve read, though the titular story “Black Dahlia & White Rose” was the strongest and most evocative (albeit really dark and disturbing). In this piece I found it fascinating to read about Marilyn Monroe before she became the iconic sex symbol, and her relationship with another Hollywood starlet. Overall this collection touched on themes pertaining to women’s lived experiences: broken marriages, violence against women, sexual objectification, absentee fathers and the Electra complex, fat shaming, women’s sexuality, inequity and feelings of inadequacy. I won’t read this again since JCO has much better offerings.
1. How does Black Dahlia & White Rose reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
2. There are elements of biography and nonfiction in the titular story about Elizabeth Short (Black Dahlia) and Norma Jeane (Marilyn Monroe/White Rose). How does fact-based information or research inform the fictional elements of “women’s fiction”?
3. How does form (short story, flash, novel) influence content in this genre?
- Incubus: I read this book in September/October to prep for Halloween, but this book didn’t give me the titillating chills it promised. TBH the scariest thing about this book was how awful it was, despite it receiving a starred Kirkus review. Yeah, let’s make this narrator woman do even more domestic tasks to ward off an evil sex demon, who has in a way enabled women to fulfill their own marital desires (yay feminism?)! Unfortunately, the narrator’s agency is expressed through housekeeping by the end of the book. There were also pointless subplots and obvious motifs, not to mention xenophobia and ableism. I thought this would be a sexy horror story for bored housewives with vaginas drier than Dry Falls, Maine, (the setting of this terrible book) but Ann Arensberg seems to support sexism rather than subvert it.
1. How does Incubus reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
2. I’ve always loved Gothic stories. The common categorizations of the Gothic genre are the Male Gothic and Female Gothic (though that doesn’t incorporate queering of the genre). Does Incubus fit into the Male or Female Gothic tradition? How does Incubus in this genre fit into “women’s fiction”?
3. How does Incubus as horror fit into “women’s fiction”? Is horror for women considered “women’s fiction”? What about horror by but not necessarily for women?
That’s all for now, but I look forward to reading more #notwomensfiction this upcoming summer. I also need to diversify my book choices. Leave your reading suggestions below!