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A Short History of Women: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 16, 2009
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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)
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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.
Top customer reviews
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What Kate Walbert has accomplished is amazing -- producing a novel that helps explore not just the history of women, the way women's lives have changed in the last century, but the way we humans EXIST in this world -- lost, seeking, changing, feeling, hoping, defending, and dying -- all against the back drop of history, all while our language, our clothes, our dreams, our consciousnesses, and our ways of communicating, interacting, and BEING change. Hope & loss, hope & loss. Don't we all live in time feeling emotions, experiencing the events of our lives, even as we reach for ideas we can barely hold on to and grasp? Even as we make mistakes from which we can never recover? And just as some of the minor characters in the novel write insensitive, clueless blog comments about a major character's late in life epiphanies, isn't it true that we don't all feel our lives -- or history -- in the same way? This book is not just historically profound; it's psychologically true.
This is not a hard book to read if you like novelists who love literature, who play with time and character, British and American sensibility, who explore history, gender, and shifting social mores -- topics that happen, as a student and teacher of literature, to interest me. I guess if you hate Virginia Woolf you WILL hate this book, but I just feel like going back and reading Woolf all over again.
If you tune in to the various moments, to the way it captures human flux, hence human existence, you'll love it. If you love the way poetry can touch you and tell the truth -- you'll love it. If you try to read it relatively quickly, -- so you can hold on to the big picture -- you'll love it.
Still, if this isn't your kind of thing -- if you just prefer a straightforward conventional time-compressed plot(I'm not averse to those novels, btw), maybe you should read something else.
As for me, however, I plan to recommend this to all the smart women I know (and a few of the men. The ones who think like this. The poets.)
Finally, my thanks to the reviewers here who got me to read the book that they read. Wow!
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.
This brokenness between generations is only exacerbated by the way the novel moves back and forth in time, and the effect, at the end, is not of a "History" (the title of the novel is surely ironic) but of fragments, shards of the lives of twentieth century women. In one century, the novel moves from the high drama of the martyrdom of the suffragette, Dorothy Trevor Townsend (b.1880), to the banal Facebook entries of the Dorothy "Dora" Louise Barrett-Deel (b. 1989), who professes admiration for Virginia Woolf, appends a couple of "quotes" about women, and notes that "My great-grandmother starved herself for suffrage. Color me Revolutionary." " A Short History of Women" has much to recommend it--spare prose, acute observations, tragedy, satire, even humor--if you approach it not as a family saga, which it is not, but as linked stories. And by the way, I think this novel is far truer to its subject (and thus probably less filmworthy) than Michael Cunningham's "The Hours," to which it will surely be compared.
Most recent customer reviews
They did not feel it shed any unique new light on women;s history or...Read more