who you think i am by Camille Laurens. Other Press| March 2017| 208 pages | $14.95| ISBN: 978-1-59051-832-8
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg. Houghton Mifflin| March 2017| 208 pages | $25.00| ISBN: 978-0-544-82424-9
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
I decided to review these books together as they focus on how society makes 40something women about their life choices. Both characters in who you think I am and All Grown Up question their place in a patriarchal society where they choose not to check off the boxes like most people. These women aren’t embracing motherhood and being partnered up. They question their value and place in society. Both novels read as feminist meditations on how unmarried women over 40 contribute to society and where they might fit in when societal standards dictate woman over 40 aren’t supposed to be living independent and solitary lives.
In reading these novels I found both characters possessed qualities to which I could completely relate: the odd woman out who chooses that less-traveled path. Perhaps these women aren’t completely satisfied with their imperfect lives but they’re doing their best and they’re fighting stereotypes along the way. Both women aren’t quite sure where they belong. Both women strive to be comfortable in their bodies. By literary standards one would define these characters as unlikable. Both are easily relatable in varied ways. I’ve never been married and don’t have children and don’t always feel grown up despite being in my 40s just like Andrea Bern in All Grown Up. Like Claire Millecam in who you think I am I often feel undervalued, unwanted and misunderstood. Also I’ve done a considerable amount of online dating/ meeting men online. Both women approach their circumstances in different manners. Authors Camille Laurens and Jami Attenberg utilize a sharp, witty tone to make these immensely readable and provocative novels. Both novels, although short, are packed with insight and intelligence.
“I wasn’t interested in being seen, or even seen in a good light. I wanted to be recognized. For someone to say: there she is!” – who you think i am
In who you think I am, Claire Millecam, a 48-year-old divorced teacher, poses as a 20something online in order to befriend a younger man who happens to be her boyfriend’s friend. They end up having a relationship and later on her catfishing, I guess you could call it, gets exposed. Claire flipped the switch on what someone expected of her and created the woman that she felt she needed to be at that time.
The beginning of the novel opens with Claire speaking to a therapist in a mental health facility. Claire’s quite angry and frustrated that women over 40 aren’t seen or heard or valued by society. At one point Claire tells her therapist: “women are condemned—by force or by contempt, to die. That’s a fact, everywhere, all the time: men teach women to die. From north to south, fundamentalist or pornographic, it’s the sole same tyranny. Existing only in their eyes, and dying when they close their eyes.”
This intriguing, intelligent, unique novel is a meditation on age, beauty standards, relationships and mental illness from a feminist perspective. It’s also an examination of online dating. Writer Camille Laurens allows Claire’s story unfold through the eyes of Claire, her therapist and her younger lover. About her lover, Claire shares: “I was used to more intellectual connection with me, I was one of those people who wonder how anyone can live without reading Proust.” Claire’s psychiatrist falls in love with her and this is what he reveals: “She touches me and captivates me, yes, I’m a captive. I want to see her. . . And I like being there for her. I’d like to bandage her wounds. She may be mad after all, in the way we understand the word. Certainly. But it’s the mad who heal us, isn’t it?”
“But most days I can’t see through the pain to the truth.”—All Grown Up
In All Grown Up, Andrea Bern gave up her dreams to be an artist to take a salaried position in advertising. She lives in an apartment in New York. Her friends are getting married and having children. She rotates through lovers. She does drugs. She feels pain while living somewhat messily and unapologetically. She’s in a safe spot professionally and socially which fits her goals and interests. Her work isn’t challenging but it’s steady and consistent. She isn’t committed to any one man and maintains her independence. She’s coping and she’s living a life that makes sense to her. In the meantime, everyone she knows seems to be changing their lives or moving around and doing new things while she remains in the same place doing what she’s pretty much always done. Her brother and sister-in-law move to rural New Hampshire to care for their terminally ill child. Andrea’s mother moves up there to help them leaving Andrea feeling abandoned. This brilliantly written novel features deft characterizations and dark humor.
“I don’t see myself as having anything conventional. But still I date. I fuck. I see.” She adds: “People architect new lives all the time. I know this because I never see them again or they move to new cities or even just to new neighborhoods or you hate their spouse or their spouse hates you or they start working the night shift or they start training for a marathon or they stop going to bars or they start going to therapy or they realize they don’t like you anymore or they die. It happens constantly. It’s just me. I haven’t built anything new. I’m the one getting left behind.” When Andrea’s friend goes through a divorce: “Then she calls me and she’s crying and we talk for a while about her marriage and while I am sad that my friend is sad, it makes me happier than ever that I’ve never been married and never will be, because marriage sounds like a goddamn job and why would I want another one of those?” And of her sister-in-law in New Hampshire: “Gun racks, Trump lawn signs, and no bookstores. She has to get into a car and drive everywhere.” Andrea also recognizes an alternate reality: “sometimes I cry, too, for who I was as an artist and what my life could have been like if only I had kept going. I weep for my lost identities. I weep for my possibilities.”