A Short History of Women
by Kate Walbert
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
A Short History of Women / 978-1-4165-9498-7
The fact that "A Short History of Women" is not your 'usual' novel is evident to the astute reader from the introductory pages. It is not uncommon for multi-generational novels to open with a 'family tree' reference page, and the reader notes with bemusement that this particular family tree features a somewhat self-referential naming scheme of three separate Dorothys and two distinct Jameses. (Both Jameses are 'James Francis' to be apparently distinguished from the 'Thomas Francis' also contained in this rather odd family tree.)
The reader's bemusement rapidly turns to genuine alarm at the chapter headers contained in the table of contents: Dorothy Trevor (Townsend), Dorothy Townsend (Barrett), Dorothy Trevor, Dorothy Trevor (Townsend), Dorothy Townsend (Barrett), Dorothy Trevor, Dorothy Townsend (Barrett)...whether this is some surrealist interpretation of inner narcissism or simply a reunion planner's worst nightmare is unclear, but one thing is certain: the reader is in for a bumpy ride.
To begin with, the going is relatively easy, and the reader is not shaken and jarred too badly by the manic naming scheme. There are a few moments of confusion, but overall the first two or three dozen pages are easy enough to digest, largely because the excess Dorothys and Jameses have not yet been born into the story. Once the time skips ahead, however, things start getting rocky quickly.
It is somewhere around page 50, when Dorothy is reminiscing about her grandmother Dorothy to her granddaughter Dorothy (that is, the first Dorothy's granddaughter, not the second Dorothy's granddaughter) whilst simultaneously recalling a letter from James (not that James, the other James) about his favorite Wadsworth poem - the one where he goes wandering with his girl Dorothy - that the reader starts to reach a point of dreamy surrealism. What is the significance of the multiple Dorothys, each with her own "T" surname? Is it a metaphor for the indomitable nature of womanly spirit, surviving into each new generation? Is it meant to elevate the three protagonist women into a single, combined "meta-protagonist", as it were? Is it worth trying to keep all the names straight and persevere on to the end?
Sadly, the answer to that last question will likely be for most readers a resounding 'no', not the least because of the naming issues which are legion, but also greatly in part of the dreary narrative style employed throughout. The writing lurches painfully, moving from topic to topic seemingly at random in a manner that seems almost reminiscent of Proust, but if indeed Walbert is attempting to channel the master, she has fallen unfortunately short of the mark. I want to appreciate what she is trying to accomplish, but the end result is a narrative that tells lavish details without ever giving the reader any reason to care about them, and this rather slim volume reads like a painfully tedious tome, failing to maintain any interest.
Indeed, I almost suspect that "A Short History of Women" will be received well critically, because of its unusual style. It takes a brave author to attempt the lazy, hazy, random leaps and lurches of stream-of-consciousness writing, particularly one that embraces multiple generations of the same family. Perhaps, in that manner, Walbert was trying to emulate Faulkner, for many of the same elements are present in "The Sound and the Fury" - right down to the multiple naming schemes. However, where Faulkner was compelling, gripping the reader with concern for his fictional family and their fates, Walbert somehow fails to do the same, leaving us with style but no substance, and with a family whose members are so indistinguishable that, even had the names been dissimilar, I cannot say that the reader would be any better served at telling these bland characters apart.
I would like to give "A Short History of Women" an 'A' for effort, but I cannot honestly recommend this book as enjoyable reading - because it simply is not.
NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through Amazon Vine.
~ Ana Mardoll
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