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.