rachel's Reviews > The Pumpkin Eater

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer
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Jul 14, 12

bookshelves: own, 2012, brit-lit
Read from July 07 to 14, 2012

I finished reading The Pumpkin Eater this afternoon in my parents' living room. My parents were bickering, as per usual, about my mother's lateness in getting ready to leave the house, and my father's lack of concern for his appearance, ready to step out of the house wearing swim trunks as shorts.

Finally, I felt compelled to say something. "I'm only here one day a week and yet this conversation is making me tired. How do you guys have the energy to talk to each other like this all the time?"

Mom: "Simple: most of the time, we just don't talk."

Twenty-five years and it's all about tolerance.


The Pumpkin Eater is, appropriately, a book about certain realities of certain marriages and settling for them. It's about what it is to have the obligations of a wife and mother amid men who condescend to you, cheat on you, and/or generally think you're hysterical instead of taking you seriously. The nameless protagonist (probably more of an "everywoman" of the 1960's than I can understand) is married to a fourth husband -- a screenwriter with a Big Important Career -- who cheats on her and lies to her and is more childish than their (well, her) polymorphic, anonymous brood of children. She sees a therapist for help reconciling her depression/anxiety with her domestic life, and much of the first half of the book is made up of her conversations on his couch. She longs for more and more children, yet never gives the number or names of those she has except for one, Dinah, the daughter of her ex-husband from whom she is not divorced but who is deceased.

I read praises for this book that call it "darkly funny." Yeah, there's plenty of levity, but it just kinda gets lost in the sea of sadness that living this woman's life must actually entail when you're looking at it plainly, not hearing it told by her. The protagonist's father sleeps with her teenaged friend; the protagonist has her own (albeit, sexless) tryst with a much older married man; the woman with whom the Screenwriter cheats has a husband who berates her constantly and wants her to suffer for having slept with the Screenwriter. There is more than a hint of the Victorian notion of Hysteria, the Woman's Disease, updated for the 20th century -- you almost expect the condescending psychologist or the Screenwriter, a regular minimizer of her concerns, to toss a vibrator at the protag as if it will solve all of her problems.

As far as Mortimer's style, you could do little better with proto-feminist books. The Pumpkin Eater is well written, and a perfect example for would-be writers of how to allude to grander, more universal themes and A Character's True Feelings without hitting the reader over the head with technique. However, I don't want to experience it again. Not in book form and certainly not in life. No, thank you.
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07/07/2012 page 49
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