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A Short History of Women: A Novel [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

Kate Walbert
3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (80 customer reviews)

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This Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
You may have noticed that some of our books are identified as "deckle edge" in the title. Deckle edge books are bound with pages that are made to resemble handmade paper by applying a frayed texture to the edges. Deckle edge is an ornamental feature designed to set certain titles apart from books with machine-cut pages. See a larger image.

Book Description

June 16, 2009
The novel opens in England in 1915, at the deathbed of Dorothy Townsend, a suffragist and one of the first women to integrate Cambridge University. Her decision to starve herself for the cause informs and echoes in the later, overlapping narratives of her descendants. Among them are her daughter Evie, who becomes a professor of chemistry at Barnard College in the middle of the century and never marries, and her granddaughter Dorothy Townsend Barrett, who focuses her grief over the loss of her son by repeatedly defying the ban on photographing the bodies of dead soldiers returned to Dover Air Force base from Iraq. The contemporary chapters chronicle Dorothy Barrett’s girls, both young professionals embarrassed by their mother’s activism and baffled when she leaves their father after fifty years of marriage.

Walbert deftly explores the ways in which successive generations of women have attempted to articulate what the nineteenth century called “the woman question.” Her novel is a moving reflection on the tides of history, and how the lives of our great-grandmothers resonate in our own.
--This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Walbert—2004 National Book Award nominee for Our Kind—offers a beautiful and kaleidoscopic view of the 20th century through the eyes of several generations of women in the Townsend family. The story begins with Dorothy Townsend, a turn-of-the-century British suffragist who dies in a hunger strike. From Dorothy's death, Walbert travels back and forth across time and continents to chronicle other acts of self-assertion by Dorothy's female descendants. Dorothy's daughter, Evelyn, travels to America after WWI to make her name in the world of science—and escape from her mother's infamy. Decades later, her niece, also named Dorothy, has a late-life crisis and gets arrested in 2003 for taking photos of an off-limits military base in Delaware. Dorothy's daughters, meanwhile, struggle to find meaning in their modern bourgeois urban existences. The novel takes in historical events from the social upheaval of pre-WWI Britain to VJ day in New York City, a feminist conscious-raising in the '70s and the Internet age. The lives of these women reveal that although oppression of women has grown more subtle, Dorothy's self-sacrifice reverberates through generations. Walbert's look at the 20th century and the Townsend family is perfectly calibrated, intricately structured and gripping from page one. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

What are the fundamental rights and responsibilities of a woman? In this newest endeavor, Walbert strives to answer what Victorians commonly called "The Woman Question." Critics praised this work as an intelligent, emotional, and illuminating family account and feminist study. However, despite the elegant writing, they also relayed concerns regarding overall style and structure. Several predicted that the author's use of one name for multiple characters and a crisscrossing, rather than chronological, narrative, would lead readers to throw up their hands in frustration and confusion. In short, reviewers acknowledged A Short History of Women as a thoughtful and complex undertaking, but questioned its broad appeal.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; First Edition edition (June 16, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416594981
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416594987
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 0.8 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (80 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #791,426 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Kate Walbert is the author of Where She Went, a New York Times Notable Book of 1998; The Gardens of Kyoto, winner of the Connecticut Book Award for fiction in 2002; and Our Kind, finalist for the National Book Award in 2004. Her short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and numerous other publications. She lives in New York City and Connecticut with her family.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
55 of 61 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Demands our Full Attention May 28, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
There are some books that I like because they are satisfying in all ways. They are neat, tidy, and don't miss a trick. There are other books that I love because they are unsatisfying, even unsettling. This is such a book. It has left me wanting more. More from the author (I will be looking into her other books for my summer reading), but also wishing the book went on longer, giving me more and more about these characters she has crafted. I want more not because they aren't fully developed (because they are), but because I want to follow these characters even longer.

I have to say that this is one of my favorite reads in a while. I loved the sliding around through history (from 1898 through 2007), living with different generations of the same family, sensing the way women's lives and issues have changed (and not changed). Because of the sliding and shifting that does occur, this is a book that demands your attention--full attention--and I loved this sense of the book making sure I was involved, that I was really listening to it and its characters.

I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for an intelligent, interesting read, especially if you are interested in women's lives through the twentieth century.
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177 of 210 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Short History: Not Short Enough May 30, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Okay. I'll be straight with you. I'm a guy. But I'm a feminist father of a lesbian activist daughter, my personal motto was written by Virginia Woolf, and I'm an ardent believer that the sooner women achieve full equality in this world, the better off we'll all be. But this book was truly a struggle to get through.

I'm perfectly capable of working through, and thoroughly enjoying, a complex book that details the experience of women in the world. Be it The Hours (Michael Cunningham) or Virginia Woolf's own works, I love the challenge, and I love the reward. This book failed on two major counts, and annoyed me on a third.

First failure: the novel that spans generations has been done a hundred times, and done well. It is not a new plot device, and if it is to be done yet again, I'd like to see a hint of originality in the approach. Instead, I found wearying murkiness to the forward and backward literary catapulting, having to make frequent references to the chart in front of the book to relocate the plot line. Tiresome.

Second failure: The book starts off with the death by hunger strike of a woman who explains "There was nothing else I could do". Truly? Nothing else one could do, when so many amazing women of that era DID find something else they could do, and did win incremental battles in a war that is not yet over. I read Gloria Steinem, and I think "Damn! What a mind! What a human!" I attend The Vagina Monologues, and I'm thrilled by the gutsiness and brilliance of the characters. I read about the five woman in this book and I'm left with a sense of "Oh, give it a rest". Somehow women shrink in this book, as if seen through the wrong end of a telescope.
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35 of 40 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Difficult Read May 23, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
A Short History of Women is Kate Walbert's third novel. Her previous novel, Our Kind was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2004.

This outing opens with the death of dedicated suffragist Dorothy Townsend in 1914 from self-imposed starvation for the cause. The rest of the book deals with the consequences of her action on her progeny - from her daughter Evelyn to her great-granddaughter Liz.

I so much wanted to like this book because of Dorothy Townsend and her decisions, because of the historical eras in which the book is set, and because of the reviews being published. Unfortunately, I found this book hard to like. I was never drawn into the characters enough to actually like or dislike them. It's almost as if Walbert was more interested in, for instance, ensuring that Townsend's thoughts and speech patterns were authentic rather than creating characters her readers could relate to. Walbert's goal may have been to write a "literary" novel, but in doing so, she may have lost the main-stream reader. And more's the pity because many if most people are unaware of the sacrifices the early suffragettes made.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Many reviews of "A Short History of Women" on this site express dissatisfaction with the novel. Some readers are impatient with the way the book, which follows five generations of women (a British suffragette who starves herself to death and her descendents), moves back and forth in time; each chapter is the voice of a different woman, although not in linear progression. Other reviews mention that the characters are not really developed enough to be compelling or that it's difficult to keep the characters straight without constantly referring to the family tree at the beginning of the book (there are three Dorothys). And still others mention wanting to like the novel but putting it down in a kind of disappointment.

So there's a problem, but what is it? I don't think it's the structure. Many novelists use the technique of alternating voices---Faulkner, Morrison, to name just two. And I don't think it's the complicated family tree; the novel, at 200+ pages,is not exactly "War and Peace." I think the family tree may, in fact, give a misleading impression, since the only thing that, sadly, ties these women together is their DNA. The life of each woman is a story unto itself (parts of the novel WERE published as short stories), sharply observed and even funny when it's not heartbreaking. But the communication among them consists mainly of silences or broken connections, as when Caroline, a divorced businesswoman, discovers her mother's unhappiness when she comes across the older woman's blog or when Evie, at the end of her life, receives a letter from her niece.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Sorry, hated it!
I felt like there were sooooo many whiny women. Their same names became confusing with the jumping back and forth in history. I would note recommend it.
Published 4 months ago by happycustomer
3.0 out of 5 stars Excellent But Only In A Very Few Parts/ Not Enough
This book must have been sitting here for a few years, and it wasn't the first time I picked it up. It's one of those novels said to be superb--one of the 10 Best Books of the NY... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Jean Gross
3.0 out of 5 stars disappointed since she's one of my favorite authors
I have read her other books and preferred those. I got lost in all the characters (and I am an author myself). You definitely need the visual genealogy at the beginning. Read more
Published 9 months ago by clw
2.0 out of 5 stars Do not get the Audio Book! 1 star....2 stars...I'm torn but it's not...
I fully agree with the reviews of M. Feldman & P. Bigelow, only more so. The book has so much potential for depth and inspiration, but it ends up frustrating and annoying. Read more
Published 10 months ago by L. Adamz
3.0 out of 5 stars I really can't decide if I liked it or hated it
I guess you can say that if a book gets under your skin, that it's a good read. This one for me was like a jumbled dream, sort of like a stream of consciousness story but only... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Dana K. Todd
5.0 out of 5 stars Why so many bad reviews for such a good book?
I read The Gardens of Kyoto last week and absolutely loved it. Found this one and swallowed it whole. What an amazing book. Read more
Published 12 months ago by ash
5.0 out of 5 stars Terrific
The book came quickly and in good shape. It's also an excellent read.
I read it and passed it on to a friend. Thanks!
Published 17 months ago by Sue Williams Keith
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful words, Good Literature
I am so surprised to see that Kate Walbert's book "A Short History of Women" has gotten such lukewarm reviews. Read more
Published 21 months ago by E. Erazo
5.0 out of 5 stars The Lonely Feminist
Kate Walbert's title is that of a patronizing luncheon lecture that she imagines delivered in 1914 by a pompous lecturer (male, naturally) at a London ladies' club. Read more
Published on May 12, 2012 by Roger Brunyate
3.0 out of 5 stars Not a grabber
Tried to like this book, I really did. But I read about a quarter of it, lost interest, struggled to continue for another couple of pages, put it down, lost it, found it again,... Read more
Published on July 29, 2011 by Lynn S. Hendricks
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