The Other Woman by Therese Bohman. Other Press| February 2016| 201 pages | $15.95| ISBN: 978-1-59051-742-7
This novel bursts with intellectual prowess. It’s witty, provocative and thoughtful about money, class, what it is to have less and desire more, to be educated and smart but not particularly suited to anything. Swedish author Therese Bohman examines societal expectations of what makes a complete life: a good job; a happy coupling; a nice place. All the things by which we define ourselves but realize the innate superficiality of it all. If we focus on the having and not the feeling and the experiencing then we lack integrity, depth and strength of character.
A young woman works at the bottom of a hospital hierarchy as a kitchen aide. Of interacting with her co-workers, she comments: “To them I am someone who has been to college, unlike them, and that creates a distance.” She meets and begins an affair with an older married doctor named Carl Malmberg. While there’s passion and connection, she knows that he thinks her beneath him and will always feel that way. While this independent woman remains resolute in her thoughts and convictions, the relationship causes her to doubt herself and her future goals.
“Perhaps I ought to become a teacher or a librarian, surely not everyone who follows those career paths can feel passionate about them, they have simply chosen a route and followed it through, that is how people live: they make a choice and stick to it, whether it is a matter of education and training or a job or a partner. I have never been able to do that. I always think that I have an uncompromising attitude to life in that respect, an attitude that makes things difficult to me, but which I cannot talk myself out of. I have the same attitude about everything: people, clothes, literature.”
In embracing and exploring her femininity, this young woman questions feminism. Understandable that many young women think that to be a feminist one cannot also be feminine. She seems at odds with her peers in their revolt of certain “feminine” things. By such conscious questioning she’s defining her own version of feminism as every woman should do. It’s a myth that’s been carried throughout the years. She notes: “Femininity was an intricate network of rules with a minimal amount of leeway, where everything was unspoken in the bargain.” Then she says this: “I am a failure as a feminist woman. I am a failure as a perfectly ordinary woman as well, I am too clever—I said that to Emelie once when I was drunk, she got angry with me, really angry, she looked at me as if I was a traitor.” She may think this but in living as she’s living and in desiring equality and certain standing she’s without doubt a feminist. When a woman questions herself and her feminism, she’s inherently a feminist.
She makes an intriguing new friend named Alex. She confides in her about the affair. She remarks: “Talking to her about it feels sexy too, I like Alex’s smile because it is hungry and inviting, not in terms of eroticism perhaps but in terms of life, or adventure . . .” In both the affair and this friendship she’s discovering herself and blooming. Perhaps re-thinking her present situation and contemplating a writer’s lifestyle.
This is the best novel I’ve read so far this year. As someone who has yet to find her path, I completely relate to this character. She’s somewhat stuck at the moment but not accepting and not giving up. Isn’t that why we often read novels? If not to escape, then to find kindred spirits. She notes: “I am an expert when it comes to being alone. I have always been alone, because no one else is like me.” I think to myself: me too. It’s not the standard, predictable novel about an affair. It’s twisty and existential. I dare not give away too many details.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.