Monday, August 25, 2008

Now on the Shelves

Today I'm reviewing a book that I was lucky to receive from Library Thing's Early Reviewers program. I have quite a lot of women's fiction in my library, so I can understand why I was a good match. The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton is a book about female friendship and life in the middle of the twentieth century. After I wrote my impressions on Library Thing I got a lovely message from the author herself, who is also on Library Thing (which means she's cool- at least in my world.) We had quite a nice discussion about what she was doing with the book, and I'm now pleased to post my review here. As an added incentive to read this book- when my mother visited me recently she pulled this book out of the *ahem* many books I have stored in the guest room, and she stayed up late reading to finish it. She came of age during the same period as the main characters in this novel. Without further adieu:

The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton

It is a rare thing to read chick lit with an explicitly feminist message, but that's precisely what one gets from Meg Waite Clayton's The Wednesday Sisters. The novel tells the story of five women, all young wives and mothers, who become friends in suburban San Francisco in the late-1960s. All five have aspirations and dreams, which for many of them focus on writing. Thus, the five friends form a writers' group, and the novel tells the story of their efforts to support one another in meeting their goals within the confines of late-1960s expectations of young women. In this Clayton has created a good and engaging story, one with developed characters and which easily retains the reader's interest and sympathy. One of the larger goals of this novel is clearly to explore women's lives in a time of tremendous change and upheaval. The five women are clearly placed in time-- they watch the moon landing, and they attend an anti-war rally. Where the book was most interesting for me was in its treatment of second wave feminism, looking at how the growing movement shaped the lives of these five women. The book opens in 1967, before the myriad transformative events that will shake the world in 1968. What strikes the reader, and where Clayton does an especially good job, is in showing how white, suburban America in 1967 looked far more like the 1950s than what most of us associate with the 1960s (tie-dye, drugs, bra burning, and the like). But the changes do begin to happen, and the Wednesday sisters do not remain untouched. The book makes clear that the pace of the changes with which we credit the 1960s was sometimes slow, and that for many people, ideas had to change before the realities of their daily lives did. Most importantly, this books highlights some of the limits of feminism (and the other radical changes of the late-1960s). My one significant criticism is that I didn't care for the way in which the story was told in retrospect with Frankie, the narrator, offering 21st century commentary on things she thought and did in the 1960s, offering side notes like "Of course we thought differently then." Just letting the characters be and exist in the 1960s would give them more complexity, and also highlight the limits of change. These women have their flaws. They have racist ideas. They have strong ideas about how families should be structured and the duties of husbands and wives. I'd prefer to just watch these things exist, unfold, and see how they changed, rather than getting presentist commentary. Overall, though, I enjoyed this book. It's a great summer read, particularly for the daughters of these 1960s women who are now young mothers, wives, writers, and businesswomen.

Meg Waite Clayton, The Wednesday Sisters (Ballantine, 2008) ISBN: 0345502825

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