A few years ago, as I researched and imagined the world I would create in my latest novel, The Last Resort, I picked up Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. I had a dim but fond memory of reading the novel in university; I recalled an unhappy protagonist walking into the sea, a woman who pursued pleasure and self-actualization but then welcomed her own demise in favour of living what she saw to be an impossible lie. I also recalled that it had been negatively reviewed. “Too strong a drink for moral babes,” read one gem of a review. Women seeking pleasure was too heady a concoction, too upsetting for the masses to be palatable then – but what about now?
My character, Shell, was standing at the edge of the ocean herself. Was she going to let go, and allow the waves to wash her away? I wasn’t sure yet. Two more characters, Johanna and Grace, were beginning to realize that to be true to themselves was going to mean turning away from everything that made them feel secure. Pursuing their own happiness was going to mean peril for both of them.
I wasn’t sure what would become of my characters, but when I closed Chopin’s delicate and devastating novel for the second time, I knew what wasn’t going to happen. Reacquainting myself with Chopin’s Edna brought to mind other characters who had once commanded my rapt attention – before breaking my heart, utterly. These were women who had loved people they weren’t supposed to love, pursued sexual pleasure the way only men were known to at the time, bucked societal norms in favour of heeding their instincts and been lost in the process: Anna Karenina. Sarah from The End of the Affair. Daisy Miller. Emma Bovary. Ophelia.
I wanted a different ending. It didn’t have to be perfect, or even happy in the traditional sense of the word – but, at the very least, no one was going to be drowning herself or jumping in front of a train as penance for her sins. Not on my watch, and not in 2019. There are moments it feels we’re going backward – but especially, perhaps, for writers such as Chopin, who appeared to exist in a world devoid of any hope that women could be anything they wanted, who died not knowing or likely even daring to hope her novel would become part of the literary canon, it’s more important than ever to keep pressing forward.
Once The Last Resort was written and edited, I opened my eyes to what was going on in the real world again and saw how informed my work had been by politics, seismic shifts in relations between men and women and disheartening changes to the rights many women had taken for granted. So, it would seem, had many other female writers. The books that had accumulated on my desk and on my radar in the intervening months were just as fierce and modern as I had intended The Last Resort to be.
Happily, I dove into my reading list. I read City of Girls, the latest novel from the wildly bestselling Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love). Gilbert wrote the novel as an antidote, both to the turmoil and grief she was experiencing in her own life after losing her partner to cancer, and the frustration and uncertainty many women are facing in the world. The novel, which Gilbert has said she wanted to “go down like a gin fizz,” features female characters who follow their own whims and answer to no one. They are promiscuous, they don’t always exercise the best judgment, they are honest and real – and while it can’t be said they don’t suffer, nor are they ruined by their choices.
“I really wanted to communicate that a woman can survive her own consequences,” Gilbert says. “I didn’t want to end the book with, ‘And then, after I learned my lesson, I became a good girl.’ The reality is, bad things will happen to you and you will survive that. You’ll have agency. You’ll test your boundaries. You’ll have shame and regret. And you’ll be fine.”
It’s an awful lot of fun, but the book has a deeper message, Gilbert says – and it’s not cautionary. “I wanted the secret hidden message of the book to be about female friendship. The great lesson to be taken away from the consequences is what it takes for a woman to be a friend to another women.”
Instead of redeeming themselves with husbands, children, backyards and gardens, the women in Gilbert’s book find themselves on a path toward an ending that is different from the ones many women get in modern books and movies. This makes City of Girls just as refreshing as the cocktail Gilbert wanted it to resemble – and even more potent.
I also read Bina by Giller-shortlisted author Anakana Schofield. This was one of those books I picked up just to see what it was about and found myself unable to put down, hours later. Described as a “novel in warnings,” the book is alarming at its core. Bina’s bell-clear, furious voice is a siren that warns of danger at every turn. This is a book about a woman at the end of her rope. As I read it, I was struck by how rare it is to come across such a character, especially in the form of an aging woman. Middle age and beyond is when the world tends to look away from women – and they are missing so much.
The theme of female friendship surfaced here, too. “Bina is a deep portrait of the profound bond that is female friendship,” Schofield says. And it’s also a novel about women who have had enough. You have to dig a bit harder to find these stories about unapologetic women with nothing left to lose.”
Up next was Every Little Piece of Me by bestselling Canadian author Amy Jones. This book follows the intersecting lives of two young women who exist in the spotlight and are picked apart, particularly on social media. The relationship between the women plays a starring role in the story Jones weaves. “Women’s relationships with men have been explored to death in media,” Jones says. “It’s just not something I’m super interested in writing about anymore.” Jones, too, was influenced by the state of the world as she wrote. “We’re all angry,” she says. “We’ve all reached our limit, we’re all vacillating between fear and, if not hope, then at least some kind of resolve. These are the stories I’m interested in telling, and the types of characters I’m interested in exploring.”
It’s hard to know how your work will be received beyond the generation you’re in – or if your work will be remembered at all. But what I do know as I release my third novel is that I’m proud to be in a cohort of female writers who are honest, who are angry, who are looking to each other for answers – and who are not doing anything close to what is expected of them by those who want nothing more than a happy, easy ending.
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