Tuesday, October 20, 2015

"I Don’t Know How She Does It" and “A Window Opens”: How Much Has Changed in 13 Years?

(warning: contains spoilers for both books, including their endings.)

In 2002, Allison Pearson made a huge splash in the literary world with her novel about Kate Reddy, a British investment banker struggling to juggle work and home. (Here’s a review I wrote comparing and contrasting the book and film versions of “I Don’t Know.”) Despite the attention, sales and movie deals, nothing since then has been published to such acclaim that puts this dilemma front and center. (Not in fiction, anyway. The protagonists in women’s fiction all have jobs, of course, but these take a back seat to the muddy romantic and family relationships that dominate the novels.) Now, 13 years later, Elisabeth Egan has written something similar and made a splash. (Here’s the New York Times review; positive but not laudatory.)

Many of my bookish friends have raved about “Window,” and I have mixed feelings about raining on this parade. What bothers me so much about “Window” is the same thing that bothered me about the book version of “I Don’t Know” – at the end, both heroines quit their jobs and go part time (in “Window,” Alice returns to her previous part time schedule), making their husbands the primary bread winner. While Kate in “I Don’t Know” quits despite the fact that she’s excellent at her job (remedied quite nicely in the movie), Alice’s reasons for leaving are twofold: she doesn’t fit into the corporate environment, and the parameters of her job have changed drastically. She leaves to take cash register shifts at her friend’s independent book store and dreams about turning book selling into another MLM scheme that so many women get sucked into.

Alice’s journey mirrors that of her creator, Egan, who left a book editor position at Self magazine to edit books for Amazon. Unable to fit into Amazon’s 24/7 work ethos, Egan quit. Now she’s book editor at Glamour magazine. Because of this, it feels low to criticize Alice’s choices, as they clearly mirror the writer’s own. Still, shouldn’t fiction offer readers the chance to experience a world as it might be, rather than the world as it is?

In many ways, Alice has it easier than Kate. Her nanny is amazing, (Kate’s was constantly late) and her children cute and pleasant (Kate’s daughter was manipulative and judgmental). Yes, her father is dying, but her parents are well-off enough that they offer her great sums of money when her husband decides to open his own law practice after failing to make partner and being forced out of his firm. And her mother is healthy enough that Alice really only misses a few hours of work one day to accompany them to an appointment. Mom does the heavy lifting of the care taking. Alice’s husband is spending more time with the bottle than paying clients, but he and the nanny are home for the kids, except one time when Alice’s daughter gets sick. Other than that, she’s in the office and available … to do what, though? Alice works at Scroll, which will someday be a book store where readers will hook up their Kindle-like devices and read on the premises while enjoying massagers and bon-bons in the company of gorgeous first editions. Her job is to get literary agents and editors on board. She sets up and attends some meetings, but it’s really hard to see what about her job is so all-consuming. There are tons of emails and staff meetings, but I couldn’t figure out what Alice did all day and why she was so stressed out – other than the stress of dealing with some difficult personalities at work, which is pretty much par for the course for anyone who pulls in a paycheck.

The beginning of the end comes for Alice when Greg, one of the company owners, want to incorporate video games for the kids in the Scroll space. The company has just acquired a game manufacturer, and Greg envisions the kids playing games while their mothers read. Of course, this will require a re-envisioning of what Scroll will physically look like, and changes to Alice’s job as well. Alice balks because she doesn’t believe kids should play video games, and some of the games in the catalog are especially violent. Instead, later, she pitches her “book lady” idea to Greg – home parties where women would introduce a few new titles to their friends. (I liked this idea a lot, and of course if “book lady” were real, it would be the one MLM I’d actually sign up to join. But it obviously wasn’t appropriate for this corporation.) I was sorely disappointed in this plot twist. Adding video games to the store makes sense – it would enable parents to stay that much longer and buy more “merch.” The biggest wrinkle would be angry mothers who caught their kids playing inappropriate games. Had Alice brought up that point – and then proposed publishing a guide to the games so parents could monitor their kids’ choices – she would have scored big points with the boss. Instead, nothing.

I wanted to see Alice overcome these stumbling blocks and lead the New York office of Scroll. Barring that, couldn’t she have used her contacts in the publishing world to obtain an editing or publicist position? If not, why not end the book with Alice turning “Book Lady” into this year’s “Pampered Chef”?

Again, this is not to point fingers at Egan, who has obviously made the best of a bad fit with Amazon. But I am so tired of reading fiction that still – in 2015! – has a woman’s happy ending consist of slinking quietly away from the big bad job and the meanies at work in order to spend more time with the kids and let her husband and his job take center stage. It was so gratifying, in the movie version of “I Don’t Know”, to watch Kate march into her boss’ office and finally set limits, and then have her husband willingly take mental responsibility for their household.

Of course, women’s fiction is fiction. And there’s no category called women’s fantasy. If there were, it would probably have more to do with hot firemen, anyway. But is it too much to ask that the female protagonists of this genre be able to accomplish what in real life we cannot?

I hope Egan’s success opens the door to many more women’s fiction novels featuring married heroines with full lives, including career conflicts, dealing with children, etc. And I’m so glad she’s getting this attention. Even if we cannot get the career happy ending we’re hoping for, at least there will be more books to choose from.

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