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A Short History of Womenby Kate Walbert
"Was the suffragette's suicide foolish — or, worse, futile? Walbert doesn't say. Rather, she leaves us with a potent and lingering image in the final chapter, set in 1985: the embittered Evelyn, now an eighty-four-year-old retired chemistry professor, recalling her mother's emaciated body, 'crippled as mine is now, her spine curved into a singular question.'" Rebecca Donner, bookforum.com (read the entire bookforum.com review)
Synopses & Reviews
National Book Award finalist Kate Walbert's A Short History of Women is a profoundly moving portrayal of the complicated legacies of mothers and daughters, chronicling five generations of women from the close of the nineteenth century through the early years of the twenty-first.
The novel opens in England in 1914 at the deathbed of Dorothy Townsend, a suffragette who starves herself for the cause. Her choice echoes in the stories of her descendants interwoven throughout: a brilliant daughter who tries to escape the burden of her mother's infamy by immigrating to America just after World War I to begin a career in science; a niece who chooses a conventional path — marriage, children, suburban domesticity — only to find herself disillusioned with her husband of fifty years and engaged in heartbreaking and futile antiwar protests; a great-granddaughter who wryly articulates the free-floating anxiety of the times while getting drunk on a children's playdate in post-9/11 Manhattan. In a kaleidoscope of voices and with a richness of imagery, emotion, and wit, Walbert portrays the ways in which successive generations of women have responded to what the Victorians called The Woman Question.
As she did in her critically acclaimed The Gardens of Kyoto and Our Kind, Walbert induces a state in which the past seems to hang effortlessly amid the present (The New York Times). A Short History of Women is her most ambitious novel, a thought-provoking and vividly original narrative that crisscrosses a century to reflect the tides of time and the ways in which the lives of our great-grandmothers resonate in our own.
"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)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Kate Walbert announces the high stakes of her fine new novel in the first line: "Mum starved herself for suffrage." It is a startling opening. Dorothy Townsend dies on a hunger strike with a clear moral purpose but also leaves behind two orphans and a mother who says that "it was just like (her) to take a cause too far." "A Short History of Women," spanning more than a century, follows... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) five generations of females facing moral conundrums. In this telling, "A Short History of Women" is also the title of a 1914 lecture delivered at the Victoria Club by a male philosopher, eugenicist and supporter of women's suffrage. His condescension ("This is not dollies in nappies, ladies") infuriates Dorothy, though she — soon to starve herself — cannot bring herself to challenge him. In a delicious turn, his lecture anticipates an opinion to be voiced nearly a century later by Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, on the subject of women's mathematical abilities "at the high end." Such time-traveling ironies are typical of Walbert, one of five female finalists for the 2004 National Book Award in fiction. The announcement of the five set off a literary snipe fest, and the contempt expressed for "obscure" women writers in 2004 provides an apt echo chamber for this novel's concerns. Walbert's books have all dealt, intelligently if dryly, with the lives of women, but this one is her most ambitious and impressive. The novel shuffles geographies and eras — a chapter set in 21st-century Patagonia is followed by one in late 19th-century Cambridge — as if to reflect the non-linear progress of feminism. Walbert also utilizes compression and flashback to sweep through time, her style reminiscent of a host of innovative writers from Virginia Woolf to Muriel Spark to Pat Barker. Evelyn Townsend, Dorothy's daughter, narrates the shattering time from 1914 to 1918 in an eerily understated voice, her rage sublimated and distilled into frightening clarity. She describes the girls in her safe English boarding school lying "like so many corpses in a trench," linking them not only to her mother and the soldiers dying across the channel but also to her own devastation. Evelyn's is the only first-person voice the novel employs; the other women's stories are told in the third person, even blog posts and a Facebook profile. After the setting shifts from England to the United States, Evelyn and her blogging niece, Dorothy Barrett, whom she never meets, become the leading characters in this tale, but there are no heroes here, no sentimental visions of what it means to be a suffragist or a late-blooming feminist. Like the women's movement, this novel is interested in many voices. It is simultaneously funny, moving and horrifying on the subject of 1970s-style rap sessions and their revelations of secret abortions, a gay husband, unenlightened childbirth. Motherhood is, naturally, one of the central questions of a novel focused on "the Woman Question." In response to her mother's hunger strike, Evelyn, who becomes a chemistry professor, decides never to bear children but to live in chaste comradeship with an older "compatriot." Her niece, Dorothy, has a long marriage and three children, but loses her son to cancer and divorces her husband late in life. Dorothy's daughters, moneyed and privileged, are so distanced from their children, so consumed with free-floating anxiety, that their barrier-free educations and reproductive freedom are no match for the existential questions all humans must face. Walbert weaves in two other political strands, war and class, both deepening the women's quandaries. Protesters inform every era of this novel: The young Evelyn is horrified by the story of Americans torturing Hutterite pacifists during World War I, and 90 years later the aging Dorothy Barrett, in her quest to be a witness, is arrested for photographing Iraq War coffins. Class is also crucial: In several subversive scenes, wealthy women, hypersensitive to condescending treatment, treat their own servants appallingly. But in the novel's closing chapter, Evelyn, who years earlier arrived penniless at Barnard College, expresses restrained but warm regard for a "scholarship girl" sent to assist her, and the writer's empathy for those who have struggled their way to a sense of worthiness shines through. That is not to say that Walbert ties up either her novel or her characters too neatly. "A Short History" deals with complicated women living in complicated times, and if it is empathetic, it is also disturbing, as all moral conundrums are. It is a witty and assured testament to the women's movement and women writers, obscure and renowned. Valerie Sayers, professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of five novels. Reviewed by Valerie Sayers, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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From a lecture delivered to suffragettes in Victorian England to a playdate on Manhattan's Upper West Side, this provocative work chronicles four generations of women, their aspirations, the limits imposed on them, and the sometimes startling choices they make in the world.
About the Author
Kate Walbert is the author of Where She Went and The Gardens of Kyoto. She teaches writing at Yale University and lives in New York City with her family.
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