Catherine's Reviews > In and Out of Step

In and Out of Step by Christine M. Knight
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Oct 30, 2011

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bookshelves: first-reads, fiction
Read from October 31 to November 27, 2011

In and Out of Step follows the life of a first year female school teacher, Cassie. As the cover states, the book revolves around the question "Will Cassie's past continue to choreograph her present?" Cassie deals a rocky past that causes her to carry baggage around. This book dealt with a lot of serious topics, such as abortion, death of a baby, rape, abusive relationships, and natural disasters so much so that it didn't go into too much depth on the issues that were presented.

A major part of the book deals with heterosexual relationships and I thought it was really interesting how Knight chose to use dance as a metaphor for life partnerships. Traditionally, ballroom dance features a dominant male leading the female. Over and over in the book, Cassie states that she doesn't want to just be the passive female or the wallflower. This made me think that the book would quite interesting and I was excited to see how Cassie would fight against a chauvinistic society.

In the end, I was left disappointed with how gender politics were dealt with. Nearly all the men in the story are slimeballs - Cassie's ex, Jake; Jake and Cassie's fathers; the men that work in the school; the male students in her trouble class; and Mavis's abusive boyfriend. I thought the novel built too much of a stereotype between the genders - at one point in the novel, it is even literally stated that the gender stereotypes hold true - one male is grieving a major loss and none of the other males can help him. Only the women can fill that role. Although Cassie wanted to fight against the set role of the passive woman, it felt that most of the novel reinstated the status quo in terms of how genders are dealt with. In another instance, Cassie tries to talk a woman out of an abusive relationship, telling her that violence is never acceptable, and then later in the book, kicks a man in the shins for not understanding how she is feeling. I felt that this was a sort of double standard since the man wasn't really threatening her and just wanted to talk and understand her feelings. I understand that being kicked in the shins is not equivalent to getting one's face smashed in, but why couldn't words be used instead?

Overall, it was an interesting read and a nice way to experience Australian culture in literature. The dance scenes were beautiful and I especially enjoyed the one near the end of the novel. Many deep issues were dealt with, but I wish that maybe there were less of them so that the book could deal with the issues more deeply.
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message 1: by Martin (last edited Nov 30, 2011 02:31AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Martin It's a bit hard to write about the gamut of violence against women as a backdrop to any story without having unpleasant male characters. I know lots of men who behave like that and get laughs. Since I've read this particular novel I'm much more tuned into what my mates and others do around me. Knight hit it right on the head (no actress to bishop pun intended)!

One of the strengths of Knight's portrayal of those issues, I thought, was the way she showed the impact on what happened to the woman concerned and how it affected those around her. Funny that I see that and you don't.

The novel is realistic not a fantasy about a superwoman who can achieve, in the world of fiction, what women can't in the real world. Drawing a line is not easy even when you're a bloke.

My girlfriend wanted to share 'In and Out of Step' with me so I read it. I thought Knight did a good job with providing a balanced view of the significant issues: the loss of a child (Cassie, Mavis, Mary S, George and Minna), love versus lust (including NCS and rape).

KNight really differentiated between love versus sex used as power and a weapon. After reading the novel I doubt anyone could think that rape is linked to desire. (I'm ashamed to say that some of my 'mates' still think this).

As for bushfire and drought - it's a constant concern when you live Down Under. We have bushfire and related devastation almost annually. And when it's not that, we swing into floods on a mamonth scale. Isn't that covered in news overseas?

Any novel set from 1980s onwards has to have that as part of the environmental backdrop because it was part of that time just as recession was and the ongoing concern with declining water levels in dam.


Catherine Wow, I appreciate the reply to my review but there's no reason to be snarky with me.

It's a bit hard to write about the gamut of violence against women as a backdrop to any story without having unpleasant male characters. I know lots of men who behave like that and get laughs. Since I've read this particular novel I'm much more tuned into what my mates and others do around me. Knight hit it right on the head (no actress to bishop pun intended)!

Sure, I can see the need for a few nasty male characters in the novel, but 80-90% of the men in the novel?. I am a big proponent of fighting violence against women. I do actually call people out on misogynistic remarks and jokes at times, but I don't feel that most males are an enemy. I know quite a few male feminists, and the majority of males I meet are fairly open to the idea of equality even if they shy away from the term feminist (which is also seen in many women). Only a few of the people I know are actually quite chauvinistic. The ratio of violent and abusive males to decent males acting as human beings in the novel is just too high to be realistic for me and made the characters feel more like a caricature to me. If it was a more familiar experience for you, then great.

Personally, the gender stereotypes of the book just did not appeal to me. Intrinsic facts about each gender were stated over and over again: "that as long as men and women have been on the earth that women had always been water and men stone"(52); "why weren't men better listeners? [...]. Men looked for solutions and missed them because they didn't hear a woman out" (242); "the gender stereotype that women were more comfortable with emotional displays than men held true" (257). A modern view of gender studies is really not as rigid as this. By comparing people of different genders, there is a huge overlap between the two groups and they are not that distinct. Not every boy naturally likes cars and the color blue. In addition, for a novel that dealt with gender politics, I did not feel that it did much to solve issues of imbalance. Wouldn't it leave open the option of saying that men are naturally more aggressive and therefore aren't at fault for being violent towards the more passive woman? The acceptance of gender stereotypes bothered me.

One of the strengths of Knight's portrayal of those issues, I thought, was the way she showed the impact on what happened to the woman concerned and how it affected those around her. Funny that I see that and you don't.

Once again, no reason to be snarky just because we have differing opinions. I'm not denying that it showed an impact. I don't really think I mentioned not seeing an impact on the women as one of the reasons why I rated the book as I did.

The novel is realistic not a fantasy about a superwoman who can achieve, in the world of fiction, what women can't in the real world. Drawing a line is not easy even when you're a bloke.

I read this over a few times and couldn't quite make out what you were saying, but I think you're suggesting that the book was better for featuring women in their passive status quo roles rather than featuring a strong woman. Actually, there are strong women in real life. Growing up, I was told over and over things that I could not do because I was a female, this is not really something I want to read a book to understand. Sure we live in a patriarchal society, but I'd rather look for ways toward equality than to accept a world that is outlined in the novel. The fact that I tend to like strong female characters is subjective, but the fact that I couldn't really connect to Cassie or ever come to really like her and care about her lowered my enjoyment of the novel.

As for bushfire and drought - it's a constant concern when you live Down Under. We have bushfire and related devastation almost annually. And when it's not that, we swing into floods on a mamonth scale. Isn't that covered in news overseas?

Any novel set from 1980s onwards has to have that as part of the environmental backdrop because it was part of that time just as recession was and the ongoing concern with declining water levels in dam.


I really only mentioned "natural disasters" once and that was in a long list of things, so it wasn't really that important to me. But thanks for sharing this.


message 3: by Martin (last edited Dec 01, 2011 06:38PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Martin Thanks for the thoughtful reply and willingness to discuss issues. Discussion such as this doesn't seem to happen much nowadays outside of educational institutions and Goodreads. Thumbs up for Goodreads!

Much of what you say applies a 2011 liberated view of life and gender relationships to a narrative set against a backdrop of another era. The narrative shows gender issues were in a state of flux and that there were entrenched pockets of a resistance to change in the late 1980s. The novel is as much a document of social mores as a narrative. The notion of gender studies is relatively new. In Australia, it emerged in the 1990s and that is after the period that the novel is set in.

You are right when you say that 'A modern view of gender relationships is really not as rigid' as the view that Cassie's mother articulates. That scene captures a difference in generational views and reflects the mother's understanding and responses to life through a series of platitudes and aphorism. The mother's comments to Cassie underline a strong theme about the pre-feminist construction of social relationships that were used to dress-up and pass off some ghastly aspects of the politics of gender. The mother's acceptance that male and female are like Water and Stone for example were the essence of how generations of women had previously faced the realities of managing male-female relations. That scene shows how such ideas were handed down from mother to child and onward through language. Yet Cassie (like other women of her generation) rejects that view but is faced with the question where are her roles models? She clearly did not have the benefit of a gender studies course when she was at uni. Nor did she have the confidence that 21st century young adult women have that comes from having grown up in a very different time. She was caught between two times. I think the front cover question, "Will the past continue to choreograph Cassie's steps?" gains wider meaning in the context of this discussion.

Of course, the novel didn't solve the gender imbalances of that time. Knight showed the way it was and was not developing an argument for chavuinism or for feminism.

I liked that Knight's novel wasn't a feminist reconstruction of the time disguised as a novel. I wouldn't have been able to finish it if it had been. I liked that it captured and reflected the imbalances, the incongruities, the clashes of the time it is set in. I liked how it showed what women were up against when chauvinistic views and values remained entrenched.

Do you really think Knight's purpose in writing the novel was to argue for acceptance of the world she portrayed in 'In and Out of Step'? I don't. I may even ask her.

Also most of the men weren't 'nasty'.
Male feminists - an interesting use of language.


message 4: by Kate (last edited Dec 01, 2011 10:42PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kate Murdoch Hello, you two. You're having an interesting and rather deep discussion. I hope you don't mind my joining it.

Yes, Catherine, I thought the dance scenes were beautiful too and very interesting. I thought the wallflower image referred to not stepping out of 'the dance' because it was difficult or because Cassie was unpartnered. I thought it meant Cassie did not see herself as a quitter at that stage of the story.

The irony of course is that Cassie became an observer of life's action prior to the start of the novel. I liked the way this was signalled to the reader as Cassie drives through the township. Cassie didn't realise this though until about 2/3s through the novel. I found it interesting that her experiences and those of others around her actually led to her becoming involved in life again. Her sister also makes a comment about this as well.

I thought Cassie showed great strength in her perseverance and her determination to get control of her classes. I'd have walked off the job never to return. Friends of mine who are teachers say the school scenes are accurate even though it is twenty years or so later.

If you've ever been on probation in a job and had to draw a line (as Martin says) it is not easy. It's actually near impossible. Many people would've have quit. I thought Cassie showed strength by not quitting and not running away.

I agree that the novel is a picture of the time and its values and much more than a simple narrative. Definitely, the 'Men are from Mars and Women from Venus' perspective is shown but much more than that is shown. The novel is rich in contrasting and parallel views.

I disagree with Catherine and her claim that the reference on page 267 reinforces a stereotype.

'... The people who cared - the women, Van der Huffen, and Fuller - listened in silence with patience.'

Clearly, both genders were involved in that scene although others had reached their limit in being able to cope with the extent of Selton's grief. I took the reference to the women to mean Cassie and Rajes as Samantha clearly did not care (p258).

For the most part, the men in the workplace and in the novel were not 'slimeballs' as Catherine so eloquently says. Although I can connect to the intensity of feeling that she expresses but that is only relevant for two of the men. Even Talbut was a complex product of his time and shouldn't be so easily labelled and dismissed. Ditto Terry.

The English faculty men were resentful of the female intrusion into their work world and, for the first section of the novel, mostly ignored the women as much as possible (Talbut the exception). They went on as they had apparently always had done - this is illustrated by their conversations and humour. They were indifferent to what the women appear to have gone through and seemed to see it as a rite of passage. It's a view I've experienced from men in the past ten years as well. They were chauvinists but not 'slimeballs'.

George, Michael, Gary, Van der Huffen, Selton, and some of the lesser male characters from the school scene are actually decent men. Jake is much more complex than a caricature as are the other key men.

Jake's problems appear to stem from his hormone-laced, narcissistic youth that was fed by adoring female teenagers in his circle - Cassie not being one of them. His father's values also influenced Jake. (I found the impact that the fathers in this novel have very interesting.) It has made me think!

I thought Cassie showed great strength to move past the damage of her first sexual encounter (was it rape or non-censual sex - is there a difference?).

If you've ever talked to women who've had such experiences, you'd appreciate how difficult moving on really is. The other rape incident shows the broader ramifications of rape that, when coupled with Cassie's journey, are very telling. The novel actually shows how difficult that journey was for Cassie. People can appear 'recovered' on the surface but not be. Recovery and moving on takes huge strength.

I agree that the author isn't pushing a chauvinistic or feminist agenda but rather 'drawing a picture' of a time and world when people were in and out of step with each other.

I seriously doubt that the author wants you or other readers to accept the world captured in the novel. The protagonist certainly didn't. Rajes and Minna didn't and most definitely Kate (the overt feminist voice in the novel) didn't.

A strength of this novel is that the author not only shows you what life then was like, you get to feel it. For this reason, the novel isn't always an easy or comfortable read. It's a good novel though.


Catherine Martin - yes, I realized that the world of the novel was set in the 1980s and it was at a different stage of women's rights and gender studies at that time.

After reading your response, I'm pretty sure we agree on most points of the novel. I also saw that scene of water/stone as passing down established status quo views of gender and such. The only differences we have over the novel is personal preferences over what we prefer to read. I'm not sure I wanted a feminist reconstruction of the novel - as if all the men were respectful to women and whatnot, but I wanted something a little more than what was offered. When I read the book, it felt a little bit dated to me, and yes, I did realize it was written while set in the 1980s so I took that into consideration and didn't give the book 2 stars. On the other hand, I felt that this book was not written in in the 1980s, but it was a modern and contemporary piece of work. By offering a novel that only described the experiences of living as a woman in the 1980s, I felt like there was less for me to relate to. A lot of it just felt depressing and hopeless (to me) and I didn't really felt too much of a connection to any of the characters in the novel. I really yearned for a strong female character, though I did like Michael.

This is a much less analytical response because I think that we mostly do see the book in the same manner, but I just liked it less due to personal preferences.


Catherine Hi Kate - of course you can join in!

That's interesting that your friends found the school scenes still relevant. In Canada, most of the teachers are female, so I can't see the staff rooms being like that though most of the admin are still male so maybe issues such as reporting Talbut would still happen. It is definitely a stressful job when classroom management isn't working well though.

Actually the reasons that by pg. 257, Van der Huffen shows care is because back on. pg. 255, Cassie convinces him to go. Originally he says "grief is a private thing" and was not going to go support his friend in time of need. So really, the women still needed to be there for it to happen.

Yes it is strong of Cassie to move on from her rape, but it seems like she already got over a lot of it by the time the novel started. So I didn't really feel like I saw her process in moving on.

And agreed. The book is really only drawing a picture of what times were like in the 1980s, but as I wrote to Martin. This is just a personal preference of not really liking it as much for that. I mean women are still discriminated against all over the world and the book made me feel depressed and didn't really offer me anything new. I know that there are women that are being treated bad just because they are seen as secondary citizens.


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