, September 17, 2011
(view all comments by gopherprairieexile)
Sheila Levine is Dead And Living In New York by Gail Parent is one of the funniest books I have ever read, and one of the few books that I have reread so often that I can quote passages verbatim.
I first read it during the summer I turned fourteen. I was exiled at a relative’s seashore retreat, which was supposed to be a lot of fun, but what was actually a nerve-wracking trial. My hosts weren’t the problem; I was accompanied by two relatives who were obsessed with criticizing me. If I struck out on my own, I was antisocial; if I joined in the conversation, I said too much, or not enough, or the wrong thing; if I helped myself to a glass of iced tea from the fridge, I was being presumptuous; if I asked for a glass of iced tea, I had a lot of nerve expecting people to wait on me. In response, I found the closest thing one can find to an obscure corner in a six room house occupied by fifteen people, and turned my attention to Sheila and her problems.
I wonder today why Sheila struck such a chord with me; many of her experiences are those of an adult woman, and dealt with roads I had yet to travel. But I laughed and cried over every word. Upon reflection, it was Sheila’s pathos, her ability to hit a brick wall no matter which way she turned, that won me over immediately. Like, I could relate. It was around this time that I started to learn that people can come to the same conclusions through a variety of experiences that many would categorize as disparate. It also served as a primer of what not to do as a young woman growing into maturity. Sheila Levine impressed upon me the devastating pressures inflicted by society on all levels to keep women undeveloped, unthinking, unknowing and unaccomplished, in favor of one goal: to marry a man. Not the right man; just a man. And not for love, or any of those indescribable joys that make two people decide to spend the rest of their lives together. But for validation as a human being.
Sheila Levine decides on her thirtieth birthday that she is going to kill herself; the book is her suicide note, which moves from her childhood conditioning, through her experiences in college and as a young woman in New York until that fateful birthday, then switches into a real-time journal where Sheila plans her suicide and subsequent burial. After having little control over her life, Sheila will have it over her death. She buys everything from her tombstone and burial plot to the lavish underwear in which she wants to be found dead. She never bought underwear like that before; as she says, until that point, her concept of good underwear was stuff that still had elastic, didn’t have holes, and wasn’t stained from her period.
That is typical of Sheila; only when faced with death does she do something for herself that comes even remotely close to acknowledging her value as a human being. From square one, her one thought is to snag a man. Not in any black widow fashion, but in sheer desperation: everything she does is focused on that goal. Sex has no real pleasure for her; it is something you have to do so that he will like you. Her hopes of being swept off her feet die hard and early on; actually, how she feels about a guy is beside the point: it’s how he feels about her that really matters. Is he willing to marry her and make her a real person? This is a woman who would have hitched her wagon to a serial killer, if it meant that her mother could dance at her wedding.
Despite the straitened circumstances for women during the period in which Sheila Levine is written (it was first published in 1972, and takes place chiefly during the Sixties), Sheila does have her chances to grow, to learn, to explore, to develop as a human being, but they are all wasted in her desperation to meet a man. Her college career is a joke; she has no real idea of what she’s there to study, she just shows up because, as her mother constantly reminds her, it is important to find someone while at school, because once you leave, it gets harder and harder. Her attempts at a career are unfocused and half-hearted; she puts more effort into a hilariously disastrous Halloween party designed to attract a pool of eligible men. She goes to Europe, to the theater, works in political campaigns, not out of any interest or passion, but as vehicles toward achieving that one goal. Her self-esteem is below sea level, and the only people she seems capable of attracting are gay, both men and women. We watch Sheila’s hopes and dreams dry up with every attempt to make them a reality, but along the way, Sheila’s take on her problems and encounters leave you with a stitch in your side. The irony of the book is that this is a funny, genuine, long-suffering woman with an eye for the foibles of society, who is someone you would like to know on her own merits. We see Sheila’s worth, even though she doesn’t.
I wonder, in this hopeless age of “Bridezillas” and wedding cake bake-offs, if Sheila may be misinterpreted as a laugh at the expense of a woman’s desperation, rather than a heartbreakingly funny portrait of a woman bound by the chains of tradition, family oppression and gender bigotry. Perhaps Sheila can help us get back on the right track. We did it before. We can do it again.