Andrea McDowell's Reviews > The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries

The Dead Ladies Project by Jessa Crispin
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I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did.

But that's unfair: I did like it, most of the way through. For most of the book it was one of those "I'll have to get my own copy after I return it to the library" books. And then it wasn't.

Crispin writes very well and has read widely and with great consideration (though as another reviewer notes, her choices tend to the dead white canon). She obviously thinks deeply about what she reads, the lives of the authors, and her surroundings. Those thoughts are often incredibly insightful and written in language that is lively and new. I read the first 2/3-3/4 of the book with little but pleasure.

But the little bits of displeasure got bigger and eventually took over the good.

This book could be viewed as the literary exemplar of the saying "wherever you go, there you are."

Jessa was sick of herself and her life in Chicago. So she sold almost everything she owned and began a tour of Europe, living from what she could carry in two suitcases, taking them from city to city and writing essays about her own experiences there, compared with the experiences there of some of her literary idols. It's an interesting idea and provides a solid framework for the book. The problem is that she just ends up being sick of herself and her life in every country in Europe, too.

Eventually, this reader wanted to see some kind of narrative arc, or at least a narrative progression: she hated herself at the beginning of the book, she hated herself all through the middle, and at the end, she still hated herself. She helplessly pursued relationships with unavailable jerks who built their courtship on lies, and could never find the self-confidence to see them for what they were; she simultaneously pursued sex-only relationships that left her feeling empty and awful; in both cases, despite the misery she was in, she declared it all preferable to the awfulness of monogamous domesticity (apparently the only alternative she could conceive of for herself) and portrayed the affair(s) as being "sexually adventurous," not deceitful.

All of it defended on the terribly adolescent idea that Art is built on Suffering, so she'd better pursue Suffering as hard as she can; as if Suffering doesn't find us all wherever we live, no matter how settled our lives are. It found the Bronte sisters, it found Emily Dickinson, Jessa Crispin, it will find you. You don't need to run after it. If you need to suffer, if you're determined to suffer, why not suffer in more comfortable surroundings? Why does that Suffering lose its integrity and validity if you suffer in a decent two-bedroom apartment with a closet that holds more than one pair of shoes?

You get the idea.

For most of the book, I read with pleasure and the occasional twinge of sympathy and compassion. Poor girl; how terrible to be locked into such an unforgiving and unhappy perspective. By the end the pity, compassion and impatience outweighed the pleasure. Then I got to the London chapter, in which she complains--without reflection, without insight, without irony--about how awful beautiful women are because they can pretend to be weak and manipulate men into getting them everything they want. This is just straight-up misogyny. If it had come from the pen of a male author, there would have been protests and boycotts.

Even at the end there were passages and reflections I found genuinely beautiful, original, insightful and profound. Just not enough to overcome the impression I had that Jessa believes a happy person is a shallow, stupid, terrible creature she's determined not to be. Which is her choice, and no one suffers from it more than she does.
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Reading Progress

December 17, 2015 – Shelved
December 17, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
January 31, 2016 – Started Reading
February 3, 2016 –
page 130
54.17%
February 4, 2016 –
page 165
68.75% "I don't know if I can finish this one. She seems so determined to carry her misery with her anywhere, and refuses anything that might relieve it, as if it would compromise her artistic integrity."
February 4, 2016 –
page 202
84.17% "It was kind of her to put all of the misogyny in one chapter."
February 4, 2016 – Shelved as: memoir-and-biography
February 4, 2016 – Finished Reading
May 28, 2016 – Shelved as: scanned
May 28, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
May 28, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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Natalya Zianora Thank you for putting my thoughts into words :) I may have been too harsh with my review (I was) but it was written in the moment of frustration about everything this book was failing to be. I'll have to go back and write a new review when I organize my thoughts.


Andrea McDowell Natalya wrote: "Thank you for putting my thoughts into words :) I may have been too harsh with my review (I was) but it was written in the moment of frustration about everything this book was failing to be. I'll h..."

You're welcome! I'm glad you liked it. :)

I've no idea how it got such positive reviews.


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