Even when she's at her best, Margaret Atwood takes a while to get her novels started. She spends a lot of time describing the setting and her narrator...moreEven when she's at her best, Margaret Atwood takes a while to get her novels started. She spends a lot of time describing the setting and her narrators' enigmatic thoughts and reminiscences, which often don't do a whole lot to bridge the gap between the reader and the narrator, since we are usually given a character's past one snapshot at a time.
This novel, like Cat's Eye and Oryx and Crake, starts out even more slowly than most. It's a lot shorter than those other ones, though, so in terms of number of pages, the lag isn't as pronounced. It might be two or three chapters that you sit there going "And? Come on, Mags, let's get this show on the road!" rather than, oh, 150-200 pages. (Looking at you, Oryx and Crake!) But once it does get started, it's really interesting, and not very much like any of her other novels that I've read.
The back cover calls this book a cross between a detective novel and a psychological thriller. While there are elements of both --- the nameless protagonist is trying to locate her missing father when she goes up to her family's old house in the Canadian wilderness with a few friends, and strange things start happening when the four people end up staying there longer than they had originally intended --- neither label feels applicable to most of this story. (less)
I thought I was going to like this book a lot more than I did. The premise --- that four women, who are really all the same woman as she exists in fou...moreI thought I was going to like this book a lot more than I did. The premise --- that four women, who are really all the same woman as she exists in four different timestreams, meet up through some weird space-time wackiness that jostles their worlds into contact --- really grabbed me, as did the prospect of an all-female utopian society, like the one from which one of our four protagonists, Janet, comes. And indeed we do see a lot of this society, told in flashback by Janet, and it's really interesting, although the nonlinear way in which the story is told, and the frequent digressions into flashback, and the lack of anything resembling a plot until maybe the last thirty pages or so, really takes away from this. Each character gets to narrate part of the story, and we're never told who is speaking, which is really tricky given each character's tendency to ramble about whatever is on her mind. Both Jeannine and Joanna (Jeannine comes from an alternate America where the Great Depression never ended, and there was no women's movement; Joanna is from our timeline and a second-wave feminist) spend a lot of time ruminating about their experiences of sexism, and their very ambivalent feelings toward the various men in their lives. I liked all of this, and found it interesting, but it was so chaotically written and so difficult to piece together a) what was happening, b) who was speaking, and c) in what order things were happening, that I really didn't enjoy this as much as I thought I would.(less)
So this is an amazing, wonderful, shocking, revelatory book that is well-researched, beautifully written, thoughtful and that frames a moral imperativ...moreSo this is an amazing, wonderful, shocking, revelatory book that is well-researched, beautifully written, thoughtful and that frames a moral imperative of undeniable power. It is also among my favorite feminist texts, and whenever I open it to look something up, I inevitably find myself rereading entire sections or chapters because I can't put it down.
Nevertheless, I only gave it four stars. I have some criticisms of it, which explain the non-perfect rating, but I love it so much I feel conflicted about that non-perfect rating. I'd give it 4 1/2 or 4 3/4 if fractional ratings were allowed on this site.
The book was first written in 1972, but the edition I have is a revised one from 2005, in which she addresses how much things have changed since she first wrote it, both in terms of science and politics. Politically, the mental-health professions are not the bastions of patriarchy they were when Chesler first wrote about them: lots of women are in these professions, and lots of therapists are feminists, and incorporate feminist principles into their practice. More obviously, our understanding of the biological underpinnings of mental illness has improved, and with it our ability to treat them.
Another reviewer criticized Chesler for ignoring actually seriously ill women in favor of healthy women whose disobedience or nonconformity was called illness as a pretext for locking them up; I don't know if this person read the revised edition or not, but in the book I read she does acknowledge disabling mental illness. She goes out of her way to state that she does not wish to romanticize mental illness, nor to argue against any treatment that relieves a mentally ill person's suffering and enables that person to live a longer, fuller life.
She also discusses some famous case histories of women who suffered actual mental breakdowns, who clearly needed help, but who were not really helped by the treatment they got. These women included Zelda Fitzgerald, Bertha Pappenheim (better known as "Anna O."), Ellen West, Catharine Beecher, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Sylvia Plath.
Far more disturbing to me were her descriptions of real women who were not insane at all, and did not seek treatment for themselves, but who were committed to lunatic asylums by husbands and fathers who wanted them out of the way. Those women include Elizabeth Packard (whose theological opinions differed from her husband's, and whose crime was to speak these ideas in public), Adriana Brinckle (who sold some pieces of furniture she hadn't fully paid for, and was locked up for almost thirty years), and Freud's other famous patient "Dora" (whose father was basically pimping her out to some other guy, and who was quite understandably upset about that).
(She also discusses a FASCINATING study by a psychiatrist named Shirley Angrist that compared women mental patients who had been released from the asylum, women who had been re-hospitalized at least once, and normal housewives, and found that mental health had little to do with whether a woman was pronounced cured or not: rather, the determining factor seemed to be her willingness to keep house and defer to her husband. This study was done in 1961).
There is also a very long section, making up the majority of the book, that contains Phyllis Chesler's own original research, which was a series of detailed interviews with a bunch of women who had been treated for mental illnesses. She divided her subjects up into categories, though she admits there is a lot of overlap between some of them: women who had been in sexual relationships with their therapists, women who had been hospitalized for mental illness, lesbians, feminists, and "Third World women," which seems to be a confusing label for poor women of color. (I say it is confusing because some or all of the women in this group are Americans; "Third World" to me connotes foreign origin as well as dark skin, poverty and disenfranchisement.) All of these women describe experiences that did not help them; only some were ever actually mentally ill; and lots of them, especially the women of color, the women who were institutionalized long-term, and the lesbians, tell horrible tales of abuse. Almost all of the lesbians were committed just because they were lesbian.
There is a recurring Greek-mythology motif that never quite seems to belong; Chesler explores female archetypes from that canon, particularly myths that explore mother-daughter relationships, like those of Demeter and Persephone or Clytemnestra and Electra. These sections were very interesting, and poetic, and gave me new ways to see these stories I've known since I was a child, but they don't really mesh with the rest of the book. There are a few areas of thematic commonality --- one of Chesler's ideas is that women check themselves into asylum so much because we are so starved for mother-love --- but for the most part they seem more in keeping with her later books, which focus on relationships between women, than with this book.
I also really wanted to see her discuss women with developmental disabilities, as the same concerns about institutional abuse and power dynamics apply to them.
Ultimately, I want people to read this, even if it is incomplete and most of the stories it tells are old. I think the ethical questions it raises about how we treat mental illness, and the extent to which we do not treat people with mental illnesses like People Who Matter, and the extent to which the institutions we have set up for those members of our society who can't take care of themselves tend to breed abuse, neglect and authoritarianism, are very, Very, VERY important. So I recommend this to everyone --- not my usual practice when reviewing a book about such a specialized topic, especially a history book, but this one is just that necessary. It shines a critical light where most people are content not to look.(less)
Overall, I really, really liked this book --- I withheld one star for some minor complaints that made it fall short of perfect for me, which I will ge...moreOverall, I really, really liked this book --- I withheld one star for some minor complaints that made it fall short of perfect for me, which I will get to later.
It's very well plotted --- things are introduced early on in the story, in the vignettes capturing the protagonist's childhood on Titan, that all get woven into the plot much later, when he comes to Earth to give a speech at the United States's quincentennial celebration.
It also has great character development; the protagonist, Duncan Makenzie, is a clone, and Clarke does a wonderful job of drawing subtle distinctions between Duncan and his two elder clones (whom Duncan thinks of as both his father and grandfather, and also as much-older brothers ... which they are!) to show that even though they are genetically identical, their lives have given them different outlooks, personalities and skills, even though they remain close enough to guess each other's thoughts and complete each other's sentences.
The character I found most intriguing wasn't any of them, however. It was Karl Helmer, Duncan's best friend in childhood (and lover in adolescence --- apparently this future society is "bi-normative" as opposed to heteronormative, because most of the characters assume Duncan is bisexual and Duncan himself says he finds people who are exclusively gay or straight to be somewhat odd) who fell out with Duncan and hasn't spoken to him in years. Karl is very intense, and also very emotional. He's also a genius at math and physics, and it is in his capacity as brilliant physicist that he re-enters the story much later. You don't often see characters in science fiction who are both highly emotional and also masters of some rigorous discipline like astrophysics --- more often science-fiction writers seem to go with the Coldly Impersonal Scientist trope, or The Scientist Who Loves His/Her Work More Than Anything Else.
The last thing I thought was really clever and wonderful about this book is the two worlds it depicts --- Titan, where the atmosphere is made out of methane and ammonia; and Earth, where civilization has advanced to such an astonishing degree that there's no more violence (even Duncan, the rugged colonist, has never handled a weapon, eaten meat, or killed anything), everything is very safe, and Earth's high-technology civilization coexists peacefully with its resurgent wilderness.
The main thing I didn't like was an odd failure of characterization: the one major female character, Calindy, never seemed quite real to me. Part of this is because most of our first impressions of her come from Duncan's rosy, soft-focus recollections of her from early adolescence, when he and Karl both became infatuated with her, but some of it does come from Clarke's failure to give her a discernible inner life.
Finally, there was one scene near the end of the book that made me very, very uneasy. Duncan was going to get himself cloned, to perpetuate the Makenzie line, and while he's doing that we find that the surrogate mothers have volunteered for that duty because they want to have children. That sounds laudable, but consider that when most women say they want children, they mean they want to keep the children, and raise them. Precious few women just want to go through pregnancy and labor, and then hand the child off to some stranger. (Read Ann Fessler's history The Girls Who Went Away for some corroboration of that statement). To make the ethics of this arrangement even murkier, Clarke gives the impression that many, if not all, of these women are developmentally disabled, which calls into question how well they understood what they were signing up for.
Anyway, it's a terrific novel, well realized, well plotted and well characterized, with only one jarring exception, and one troubling detail in its utopian future society.(less)