We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

My life in books: _Three Women_, a modern _Little Women_? · 8 October 05

Dear Fanny,

Back to what I’ve been reading:

I finished Piercy’s Three Women last night—insofar as I’m going to finish it. About 3/4s the way through I suddenly tired and began to skim and to skip to the ending.

The problem for me resides in the young heroine with whom the book increasingly focuses: I can’t get myself to care about Elena’s fate. I’m probably supposed to feel for her: but she’s cold, hard to get along with, is endlessly vexing and difficult, aggressive (demands she have this room or that furniture, leaving her sister to take second best and her mother to struggle even to keep her mother’s space to work, her room, for herself, although the mother is paying the rent). Elena also has these delusions of sexual power. I’m not sure Elena deserved the lousy way she was exploited by several selfish men who just wanted her for sexual release and to service them, but I think to myself, who cares anyway? She makes life miserable (punishes and tries to take advantage of) for others who want to be good to her. She’s doesn’t bite or jeer at them; I’ll give Elena that. But then she’s not clever.

There is still much graphic sex as Elena jumps into bed with a second man upon command and we are told what the two do to each other at each step. I talked about this element in Piercy’s novel in an earlier blog also partly about Piercy. While Piercy’s language is not laughably, embarrassedly grotesque and ludicrous like Zadie Smith’s in On Beauty (apparently a work of shallow cliché, reviewed everywhere by respected people, expected to get yet more prizes galore for this genetically black author & wisely multicultural author), after a while the shock value wears off, and I was left wondering why Piercy felt a need to describe all this repeatedly. Is she showing off? I didn’t think so, but that rather she’s has this need really to show us what sex is like for women and what doesn’t get on the pages of romance. This is what sex is for women. These grotesque postures, sucking a man’s penis, being sucked and "eaten." And she also explodes by ignoring all the still lurid fixation on apparent chastity we still find in women’s romances.

There was towards the end of Piercy’s Sleeping with Cats a growing schmaltziness (I’ve no better word for it), and this begins to take over in the last 3rd of Three Women. Everyone is just so growing together and bonding. I first wrote the title as Little Women—Freudian slip here. Piercy’s Three Women is not about three women, but a whole bunch: mother, Suzanne; grandmother, Beverly; two daughters, Elena and Rachel; Beverly’s sister’s adopted family which is basically a matriarchy; and then some little girls on their way to adulthood. And there’s Suzanne’s long-time friend in whose house she is living and renting much space: Marta. Six Femmes?

Alas, no Laurie or Prof Bhaer in sight. Not even any male close to this, though Marta’s Jim could stand in for Mr March as he’s supported by Marta who works hard long hours as a lawyer. She’s much more effective in the social world than he, and he panicks when she comes home to find him fucking away in Elena and begs her to keep him, but nope, she throws him out. Marmee’d never do that.

I’ve Little Women on my mind as Kathy C, a member of WWTTA, is reading the book, and she’s been writing interestingly about it, prompting me to provide the list with a group of good essays on Little Women, and some of us to discuss these1.

Still, like Alcott in her Little Women, finally, Piercy presents her material from an angle that is on the whole for life. In her Memoir I could see she doesn’t really mind the way society works. It’s not just ongoingness, but optimism.

And for me there was a mechanical feel as the plot-design of Three Women progressed: this is so much a novel that to retell the plot would have begun to feel soap operaish. Who’s in love with who, who’s throwing who out, what is the state of this court case, and how is mother doing in the hospital today? Piercy is churning something out—a while back I read an revealing article by Margaret Drabble where she discussed the difficulties of producing a new novel every two years and the necessity of doing this if you are to live on your proceeds which includes keeping your presence before your fanship’s eye (or niche in the marketplace). Three Women shows this making book quality.

Piercy’s poetry is more original and her Sleeping with Cats more genuine until near the end and even there she at least tells us how she and Ira continue not to get along easily and ends her book with sharp comments about what the future holds and how much her cats (fellow mammals) and house mean to her.

Though probably a weaker book, I prefer Suzy McKee Charnas’s Dorothea Dreams whose story is much more unusual, heroine and hero (Dorothea and Ricky) characters I like and can care about, and tone much more congenial. Also wider subject matter about politics directly. When I finish Charnas’s novel I’ll write about it separately on this blog; it’s the book we are reading and discussing on WWTTA this month.

Onto LeCarré’s Constant Gardener.


1 Stephanie Foote, "Resentful Little Women: Gender and Class Feeling in Louisa May Alcott," College Literature, 32:1 (2005): 63-85; Sheryl A. Englund, "Reading the Author in Little Women: A Biography of a Book," American Transcendental Quarterly, 12:3 (1998): 198-219; Judith Fetterley, "Little Women: Alcott’s Civil War," Feminist Studies, 5:2 (1979): 369-83.

Posted by: Ellen

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