OUR KIND, A NOVEL IN STORIES, BY KATE WALBERT.
NEW YORK: SCRIBNER'S, 2004. 195 PAGES.
In "Sick Chicks," the sixth of the ten mordant, moving stories that make up Our Kind, Kate Walbert's dead-on novel about women at the end of their lives, there's a book-group meeting in a hospice, in the Sunshine Room. Some of the members are "guests" for life in the "state-of-the-art facility"; the others are visiting Judy. "Bring a different perspective." Judy says: "Can you imagine if it were just us sick chicks?" Judy might be making that nice distinction with irony: irony is the mode of choice tor these women, required by their circumstances. Our Kind is narrated in the present time, in the first-person-plural voice of ten women (including Judy) who "were married in 1953. Divorced in 1976. Most of us excel at racquet sports." Detritus of the 1950s, they are washed up together in old age in their rich Connecticut suburb, "in the same boat," ruefully rifling their memories to identify the beginning of their end. ("The Beginning of the End" is the title of the unforgettable final story). To "us," the still enterprising and finally dry-drunk Canoe and her buddies, Judy's fellow hospice residents are immediately familiar, "like all the women we had ever known, their faces slipping past in the silverplated coffee urn, in the sugar bowl, the salad fork, the butter long." Elegant outmoded accoutrements of the well-born, prosperous, propertied class: nice things like the women themselves, if cold and hard and (some of them) pointed ones, "not used to unpleasantness."
Viv, who is running the book group, is among the nonresidents; Mrs. Dalloway is the assignment of the month. Viv sets up the discussion by explaining it is about "us," that is, "women of a certain age" ("we" Americans don't of course mention class; and Clarissa, who invites the prune minister to her party, is of course English). Too brightly, Viv asks the teacher's standard question, "Did she peg us? How many of you identified with Clarissa?" Total silence. Then, "I've always been fond of the name Clarissa," Barbara says. "You don't hear it anymore." You know just where Barbara's coming from, and so does everyone else, poor deflated Viv included: wittily or stupidly, these women cling desperately to words. ("Intervention," half-crazy Esther says, when she's asked to make one in the hrst story [called "Intervention"], "is not a word of which I am particularly tond." In another story, Barbara remembers that when her ex-husband called to tell her that their daughter Megan committed suicide in his garage, she had to stop herself from correcting him: not /IMHO but hanged.) So Viv battles the depression and distraction endemic to the Sunshine Room and her own regretful nostalgic memories of more focused attention to books, when she was a star student at Smith College; she soldiers on through the fine points of Mrs. Dalloway. But Betsy Croninger says the phrase "the hour irrevocable" makes her think of the word cancer, then plaintively observes that she would rather not die. Stalwart, formal Mrs. William Lowell continues to insist that Virginia WoolPs novel is "intentionally confusing": she prefers a good story, she says, and wants them all to read Pride and Prejudice next. The women agree. But Mrs. Lowell dies before the next meeting, and the group misses what, "given her own pedigree," she would have said about Darcy and Elizabeth and their social problems ("there was a First Lady in her background"). And as they think of her, Mrs. Lowell is suddenly vivid to them, or rather her former self is-"a spry Mrs. Lowell in pearls and mules, carrying the conversation as she no doubt once carried the conversation at dinner parties. I like a good story,' she would offer. A beginning, a middle, and an end.'"
You gather the beginnings and middles of these women's stories from painfully sharp shards: Gay Burt terrified in the closet on her wedding night, group excursions with daughters, a collective recollected pang for the sexy nameless real estate man who is "our common "past encounter." As in Clarissa Dalloway's story, fragments of the past keep welling up. "It is not the materials in isolation that form a garden, but the fragments in relation," reads the epigraph to Walbert's earlier, very different, novel in fragments of time, The Gardens of Kyoto (2001). The beauty here is more in the relationship among the fragments than in the relations among the women-and in the pitch-perfect tone between heartbreak and heartlessness with which the "we" confront the collective end of life: "We are not cruel, understand. Nor are we anything other than who our daughters will become. But we wish it over, this display; we'd like it gone. Because there's nothing to be done, we could tell them; because death comes to all the living; because they think us heartless and we are, somewhat, our hearts worn down by the slow drumming of our blood" (71).
"We think back through our mothers, if we are women," Virginia Woolf wrote memorably. Dedicated to the author's mother, Our Kind looks back through the scrim of the present at women who came of age in the fifties. They see themselves, in a metaphor drawn from their lives as fifties girls, as "yellowing pearls on a taut string: valued once but now too fussy. Grit when crushed, we could tell them; we were fakes all along" (173). Would their lives have been different and better if they had been women of another place and time, or if they had profited from what the moralizing women novelists of the eighteenth century called a "proper education"? (Viv, who went to Smith, is exceptional among the women of Our Kind: "Most of us had studied to be secretaries or teachers' aides-it was the highest we could reach: girls who substituted, who took dictation from war heroes in gray suits. We enrolled in the colleges that specialized in this instruction, studying from the spiral-bound notebooks that covered what our teachers referred to as the three Gs: Grooming, Grammar, and Grace. Some of us dropped out before Grace ..." .) Our Kind is a satire on compliant materialistic snobs in what by common consent was an awful moment for women-on timid, shallow, lazy upper-class girls who feared disapproval and lived to regret the marriage made too early and easily and the fellowship not taken. (Full disclosure: I am not of the social class of the women oi Our Kind, but I remember a classmate of mine being turned down tor a fellowship in the late fitties because she was married and would have children and drop out of graduate school.) While it portrays in devastating detail American women of a particular time and place, it quite as convincingly and even more terrifyingly evokes the way most of our lives come to an end now-for the most part, in the company of women. Resisting and yet yielding to the coercive but exclusionary first-person-plural narrative voice, we take in the collective narrator of Kate Walbert's stories as not our kind at all yet, nevertheless, on the deepest, saddest level, as our kind.
Is it the current repressive regime and the consequent fear of losing the gains of the sixties and seventies that is provoking anxious glances back toward the fifties? Does the new fashion for stay-at-home moms (and perhaps the resurgence ot pearls) remind one of how deadly that decade was for middle-class American women? Or do we look back apprehensively to the fifties right now because we have, in these perilous times, a sharpened sense of the brevity and fragility of human life, and therefore of the truth that so much depends on contexts and circumstances, choices and details? Such an apprehension of the world is, of course, traditionally the novelist's. In The Wife (2003), Meg Wolitzer, another witty writer of fiction who came of age well after the fifties, also looks back at a woman ot that period. Like Viv in Our Kind-and like Betty Friedan and Sylvia Plath in real life-Wolitzer's Joan went to Smith College; like poor Viv and all her friends, she got trapped in a conventional marriage. Like Virginia WoolFs Clarissa, who wonders mildly at "this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway," she is aging and looking back, but her strongly and ingeniously plotted story has the beginning, middle, and end that Mrs. William Lowell requires. A WASP from New York's Park Avenue, Joan belongs to something like the social class of Walbert's suburban women, but personally she is more like a woman of today. Even as a college girl she wanted sex and success, respect and recognition, and she is still attractive and energetic at sixty-four. Like Austen and Woolf and most women writers in the great tradition of the novel, Meg Wolitzer invites her reader to "identify" with a single and singular heroine, as Kate Walbert refuses to do. And Joan's story is, in the end, in its wry way inspiriting. Read alongside Our Kind, it invites one to reflect on how only the better part of a lifetime ago, false assumptions about what women can and must be and do shaped and warped the selves and self-images ot people who might have been very different.
RACHEL M. BROWNSTEIN is the author of Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels (1982) and Tragic Muse: Rachel of the ComediéFrançaise (1993). She has been teaching English and women's studies at Brooklyn College since the seventies, and, since the eighties, at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.…