Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A woman's place

There’s a certain plot that I’d rather not read again. It goes something like this : Heroine has a challenging job in a big city. Either a job problem or a relationship problem makes her travel out to a small town (or a farm, or a ranch) where she realizes how much better life can be. The townsfolk welcome her with open arms and are so much warmer and friendlier than people in the big city. She supports herself by growing flowers or selling home-made jam, all the while becoming more beautiful and more fulfilled. When she receives an generous offer from the big city, she turns it down and lives happily ever after.

I was familiar with this plot from reading reviews of romance novels, and I’d learned to avoid it, but recently I picked up a chick lit from the library. The book was Sophie Kinsella’s The Undomestic Goddess, about a woman who leaves her job as a lawyer and accidentally becomes a housekeeper, even though she can’t cook. I could sympathize with that, and I thought it would be interesting to see the heroine balance her skills as a lawyer with her newly acquired interest in running a house.

I was overly optimistic, since at the end, the heroine decided to stay in the small town, which was straight out of a Thomas Kinkade painting, and be a housekeeper. Every lawyer in the book was portrayed as greedy and manipulative at worst, or cold and insensitive at best, and whether or not that’s in touch with reality, I didn’t like it. It was like reading something from the fifties – the notion that women are not happy, attractive or fulfilled when they’re in business suits and holding down jobs that require degrees. Instead, a woman is at her most feminine and joyous when she bakes bread and cleans a house.

I’m not sure what the appeal of this plot is, unless it’s that country life is portrayed as one long vacation and little details like money or a career, which people worry about in real life, are just not that important. It’s escapist fiction at its best. Maybe the reason I don’t connect with it is that I have an idea what country life can really be like. My grandparents owned a plantation in Sri Lanka – cows, chickens, coconut trees – and I sometimes spent a week or two there. A week or two was all I could take. I like living in big cities (Dubai, Austin, Toronto), being able to walk ten minutes to the library or grocery store, having the Internet at my fingertips, so the usual demonization of the big city that occurs in these books really doesn’t work for me.

I wouldn’t mind if there were also novels about women who left the farm or ranch or small town to find success and happiness in the big city, but if they do, it’s usually a brief and disapppointing experience. Then they return, sadder but wiser, to whichever small place they came from. That’s one reason I like Judith Michael’s Possessions - the main character’s husband leaves her, so she goes to San Francisco and gets a job. That's my kind of heroine.


Luc2 said...

Hey, many lawyers have feelings. But they're often not legally relevant to a case, so we keep them somewhere in escrow.

Without unleashing a discussion about the post feminist blues, I have to say that around me (different country, different values and mindset!) a lot of female lawyers leave their job once they have one or more children. This is odd, since the legislation and general atmosphere here provides for a good environment for part time moms/lawyers. Having talked with a few of them, many admit that in hindsight, they studied and practised law due to family and peer pressure, and ultimately preferred the housewife bit over the lawyer bit. Fair enough,. but also interesting, and I can see enough conflict for an interesting plot.

For trhe record, I also know plenty female colleagues who balanve a full time job and motherhood with flair.

For myself (and I'm a man), I wouldn't mind moving back out to the country and be the housewife/man, cleaning the house, cook good food and write in between. :) Yup, I'm idealizing it and I like it.

Marian said...

It just seems that there's so little about heroines who do what I did - escape the country for the bright lights and the big city and actually enjoy the experience. Granted, it was a Third World country, but still.

My mother was very much into cooking, cleaning, sewing and other housewifely pursuits, but she told me, "Always have your own job, your own bank account and your own car. Don't depend on a man for those." I think that thanks to her, I never had this idea of feminism or independence as being this anti-cooking, anti-housework mindset, so I'm a little taken aback to find it in chick lit.

kiwi said...

There's a multitude of ways of 'being' in this world. But when an author over lays ontology with conservative morality, I reach for my trusty shredder. To many degrees on the wall to waste my time with this type of Bull-Shit :).